On Labouring in the Vineyard
(Is.55:6-9; Phil.1:20-24, 27; Mt.20:1-16)
On a hill in Jerusalem, near Bethlehem, there’s a college called Tantur. Every morning, outside the gate, dozens of Palestinians stand there waiting, not for a bus, but for work. They are day labourers, waiting for someone to give them a job.
Something similar occurred during the Great Depression in Sydney, when men used to walk the ‘Hungry Mile’ from wharf to wharf in the docklands area, looking for work. The lucky ones got a full day’s work, others only a few hours. But many waited all day for nothing.
This hard life is reflected in Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. A landowner needs labourers to harvest his grapes. At 6.00 am he approaches a group of men waiting at the marketplace. He offers some of them work, at the standard rate of one denarius a day, and off they go.
The owner returns at 9.00 am, at noon, at 3.00 pm and even at 5.00 pm. Each time he collects more workers, offering them a fair wage for their labour.
At sunset, he pays them. The last to arrive are paid first, the first are paid last. They all receive one denarius. But some start grumbling. They think that’s unfair: ‘We’ve worked all day in the hot sun and they’ve done very little. Why are they treated equally?’
In explaining this story, it may help to recognise that the late starters aren’t idlers. They want to work; indeed, they’ve waited since dawn for someone to hire them.
It may also help to understand this parable’s scriptural background. The Bible often refers to the people of Israel as God’s vineyard (e.g. Jn.15:5). It tells us that God brought this vine out of Egypt, and that he cared for it by clearing a new land, and planting and watering that vine so that it would produce good fruit (Ps.80:8-9; Is.5:2; Is.27:2-3).
But on returning, God only found poor fruit (Is.5:7). He was disappointed, and let conquerors invade his land (Ps.80:9-19). However, he did promise that he’d return one day to replant that vine (Am.9:15), and make sure it flourished (Hos.14:5-10).
That’s the background to this parable. The landowner is God. The vineyard is his kingdom. The first labourers are the people of Israel, the Jews, to whom God first revealed his kingdom. And the later workers are the Gentiles who discovered Jesus at different times in history (Eph.2:11-13). [i]
Today, we are the labourers in the vineyard. (Or at least, we’re meant to be.) And where is that vineyard? It’s the day-to-day circumstances in which we find ourselves. The vines we’re asked to lovingly tend are the people who surround us.
In our society, we tend to take a transactional view of things: if I do this, then I expect to get that. We have so many rules about this, and quite often we even expect God to comply.
But as Isaiah says in our first reading, God’s ways aren’t our ways. He doesn’t think like we do. He doesn’t pay his labourers by the hour or according to their skills.
God knows that each of us has a unique combination of talents, challenges and opportunities in life. As Pope St John Paul II once wrote, ‘Each of us has a story of our life that is our own; and each of us has a story of our soul that is our own’. [ii] God respects this, and mercifully, he chooses to love us all totally and equally.
We see this in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:29-30), where the wayward son who returns home is loved just as much as the older brother who never left.
And while nailed to the Cross, Jesus says to the good thief Dismas, ‘Today you’ll be with me in paradise’ (Lk.23:39-43). Dismas is a repentant criminal and a late convert, yet he still receives the same reward as Jesus’ disciples.
In her book Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line, Karen Edmisten tells the stories of 13 famous people who joined the Church at the end of their lives. This includes Oscar Wilde, the actors John Wayne and Gary Cooper, Buffalo Bill, the gangster Dutch Schultz, and King Charles II of England.
The journey to God for each of them was very different, but the result is always the same: eternal life. God loves us all completely, even when we don’t deserve it. [iii]
Right now, God is inviting us all to share in the same reward of eternal life. All we must do is to agree to help Jesus in his vineyard, spreading his love as best we can.
Accepting this invitation is a bit like catching a train. Some people buy their tickets early, while others rush to the station at the last minute.
The important thing
is getting on board before it’s too late.
[i] Scott Hahn: Sunday Bible Reflections, First and Last. https://stpaulcenter.com/studies-tools/sunday-bible-reflections/
[ii] S Joseph Krempa, Captured Fire – Year A, St Pauls Publications, New York, 2005:127.
[iii] Karen Edmiston, Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line, Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington IN, 2013. https://www.amazon.com.au/Deathbed-Conversions-Finding-Faith-Finish/dp/161278612X