Jesus said to his disciples, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Today’s Gospel reading is another parable told by Jesus. We noted in the last Sunday reading that parable is to engage us to be connected with God through our experiences that arose from our understanding of the parable. It applies to today’s reading as well. We first enter into the movement of the parable. Then we identify with the peoples in the parable at different level of the parable as it is unfolding. Finally, we reach a point where we find an experience that is familiar to us. At this particular point, we realized the mercy of God to us and give him our thanks.
What are the movements of today’s reading? First, the hiring of the labourers in verse 1; which is followed by the hiring agreement and the later hiring in verses 2 to 5, the last hiring in verses 6 and 7, the complaints of those hired in the first batch in verses 8 to 12, the landowner’s reply to the complaints in verses 13 to 15, and the final saying in verse 16.
Again, the initiative of hiring is from the landowner. He does not only take the initiative to hire labourers, he also starts the hiring early. In other words, our service to God does not originate from us, it is the grace of God that we can serve him. He is the one who looks for people to serve him. Therefore there is nothing that we can boast about our service to God. It is only his grace.
Having found the potential labourers, the landowner does not wish to force them to accept his hiring terms and conditions but reaches an agreement with them before sending them to work. In other words, the terms and conditions are accepted voluntarily and freely by the labourers without any coercion from the landowner.
However, the trouble begins at the end of the day when all labourers, those hired earlier of the day and those hired late in the day, receive they wages. Labourers who was hired earlier of the day complains about not being treated fairly. Does this sound familiar to us? We may first recall the elder brother of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel according to St. Luke 15:11–32, but how about our own experience in workplace, home, and community? How do we compare with others? How do we always see the pasture of our neighbor is greener?
Facing their complaints, what does the landowner do? He called the complainants “friends”. This means he is not anger of their complaints because he knows how they feel. This gesture facilitates dialogue. He then explains his position logically and rationally that they have been justly treated by asking, “Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” Translating this question into our faith, it would be God asking us: “Have I not given you all my love?”
Next the landowner argues, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” How does this question mean to us? God is generous while we are obsessed with possessiveness. The nature of God is sharing, while that of us is selfishness.
The last verse of today’s reading: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” refers back to the staggered hiring in verses 2 to 5. However, the symbolic meaning of this verse is that the same vocation turns out differently for different people, seniority and qualifications do not count in vocation.
It is God’s generosity and overflowing compassion that here I am. But my human mind always suspects injustice. Help me, Lord, to let go of my possessiveness so that I may see as you do and act freely from a generous heart. Amen.