The grace of our generous God
By: By Father Douglas Grandon
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 21
Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-3,8-9,17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24,27a; Matthew 20:1-16a
If you have ever been tempted to grumble about your employer or your salary, consider the plight of the common laborer living in first-century Israel: The normal working day was 10 hours long, not counting breaks. Work started at sunrise, normally about 6 a.m. Payment for a full day’s work was a single denarius coin, which was just enough to cover a family’s needs for one day.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers,” Jesus declared. After agreeing with them for the customary wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Later that morning, the landowner hired a second crew, and at midday he hired a third. Finally, as the workday drew to a close, he hired a few more workers to help him complete the harvest. At the very end of the day, the foreman distributed to the laborers their wages, beginning with those who were hired last and ending with those who were first.
Up to this point, Jesus’ audience would have found nothing surprising in his story. The next line would have puzzled them, however: “When those who had started about 5 o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage.”
Would any first-century landowner have been so incredibly generous to his workers as to pay them a full day’s wage for only an hour’s work? Almost certainly not! The landowner’s immense generosity would have been entirely unexpected. By telling the story as he did, Jesus had cleverly led his listeners on by degrees. Jesus wanted them to understand that if God’s generosity was to be represented by a man, such a man would be different from any person they had ever encountered.
Jesus continued: “So when the first (laborers) came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat!'”
The complaint certainly would have resonated with Jesus’ audience. However, they would have had little sympathy, having already been impressed by the landowner’s immense generosity. The landowner’s defense would have reflected their own conclusion on the matter: “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”
Had Jesus concluded his story here, his point would have been that God, like the generous landowner, will never give anyone less than he deserves — and will most often give quite a lot more.
However, Jesus added a punch line to his story, a first-century proverb: “So, the last will be first, and the first last.” On four separate occasions in the Gospels, Jesus referred to this proverb. Each time, Jesus warned God’s people never to presume that God was in their debt.
According to Jesus, this was a special temptation for those who are wealthy (Matthew 19:30, Mark 10:31), for those who had served God for a long time, having “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Matthew 20:16 RSV), for clergy who sinfully pine for prominent positions (Mark 9:35), and for those unsettled by newcomers from other religious, ethnic, or cultural traditions (Luke 13:30).
Matthew’s Gospel is all about the kingdom of heaven. In this Gospel, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a wheat field, in which an enemy has also sown weeds; like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a surprisingly large plant; like yeast that leavens an entire lump of dough; and like an exacting, but merciful king, who will one day settle accounts with his servants.
In today’s reading from Matthew chapter 20, we learn that the kingdom is governed by a generous King who characteristically rewards his subjects with far more than they truly deserve — and that no one should ever be so presumptuous as to transform his generous King into his debtor. Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard drives home the point that our salvation results not from debt, but from grace, “the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call.” (Catechism 1996).
Father Douglas Grandon is parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish in Moline and assistant director of catechetics for the Diocese of Peoria.