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We are used to focusing on the pay rate in the famous Parable of the Landowners which Jesus tells on the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A.
That makes sense. But it might be more fruitful to focus on the laborers, the work, and the land-owner.
First the laborers: Who are they, and why are they angry?
The parable goes like this: A landowner hires laborers throughout the day — some work since morning, some since noon, and others only since late afternoon. But the landowner pays them all the same one-day wage.
The all-day workers grumble, “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat!”
“Are you envious because I am generous?” the landowner responds.
At first glance, we may think we would never be like those laborers who complained that someone else was getting money for less work. Many of us can even think of cases where we saw someone get the same reward as us unexpectedly — and we were happy for them, not angry.
But even on the literal level, there might be a bigger challenge than we recognize. Did the landowner recognize how great the need is for all of these laborers and pay them based on need, like a miniature ancient welfare system? Many of us might object at paying those who “stand around idly all day” as much as those who worked hard all day.
On the literal level, Jesus is telling us, “Relax. Be generous, not exacting and demanding, with people in need.”
But it would be wrong to over-emphasize the literal level of this parable.
Clearly “working in the vineyard” is a metaphor for the Christian life, and not just a random example of work. If you think of it that way, the parable comes alive with relevance to our time.
We often make the mistake of thinking that our history with Christ makes us special. You hear people say, “I was an altar boy growing up,” as if that confers a special status on them, or “I went to Catholic schools my whole life,” as if it that makes them a higher-level Catholic.
Or we think about ourselves as, “I’m a serious Catholic, a real Catholic.” We are a special breed, we think — not like ordinary Catholics. We are “a faithful Catholic, a devout Catholic, a traditionalist Catholic, a conservative Catholic.”
But that is not at all how God interacts with us. He doesn’t distinguish “traditional Catholics” from “progressive Catholics.” He sees only “those who are working in my vineyard” and “those who are idle.”
So — which of us are “working in his vineyard” and which of us are idle?
We now know more than the Apostles did about what working in the vineyard entails.
You’re working in the vineyard when you do what Jesus spells out in Matthew 25 — the works of mercy. Also: You’re working in the vineyard if you live the Great Commission: promoting Baptism and teaching Christ’s doctrine. If you’re a traditionalist Catholic, progressive Catholic, conservative Catholic, or whatever-Catholic, that’s great. But what Jesus wants to know is: Are you serving the needy as if they were Christ himself? Who have you brought to the sacraments? Have you consistently brought Christ’s commands to bear in your home, workplace, and community?
Lay people, no matter how they hyphenate “Catholic,” are expected to be on the front line of this effort. The Church see the kingdom as the goal of the lay vocation, and Scripture uses the vineyard as a cherished metaphor for the Kingdom.
It is clear why vineyards are a beautiful metaphor for the Kingdom of God: They are the place where God turns water into wine — by filtering it through grape plants and human work. Vineyards are places where God takes his creation, adds our work, and makes something amazing.
Apply that analogy to the works of mercy and the Great Commission. These are ways we add love to our own plain life and those of others, and transform them: We give people loving attention and turn their dire straits into connection and joy; we give people new life in Baptism; we help people know what the Church teaches and take their lives from darkness and confusion into beauty, truth and goodness.
Which brings us to the landowner in the parable.
Who is the “householder” or “master of the house” — as many translations have it — in the Jesus’ story?
This “master of the house” is like the master in last Sunday’s parable of the Shrewd Steward — he’s God. What does he show us about God?
And how does God see our lives?
And that means that human beings are more than animals. We have a high dignity, giving us the ability to share in the life of God.
The most important thing to notice is that we don’t just work for God, but with God.
Jesus will later say “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” Working in his vineyard is like working with the Trinity.
Truly, his thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are his ways our ways, as the First Reading puts it: We are both the vineyard workers and the branches of Christ the vine; we are both envoys working on Christ’s behalf, and the Body of Christ through whom he himself is working.
St. Paul expresses this mystery in the Second Reading. “If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me,” he said. What fruitful work? Not just sharing Christ with others, but being Christ for others.
“Christ will be magnified in my body,” he says. “For me, life is Christ and death is gain. … I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.”
Every Sunday, we see in front of us the intersection of the work of laborers in vineyards and the laborers in the Kingdom.
At each Mass, we offer the “fruit of the vine and work of human hands” — the product of human beings whose work is transformed into the divine life of Jesus the Vine.
Add the work of the Lord himself, and what the winemaker produced becomes Jesus Christ himself, reconstituting us into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for your own possession, to proclaim everywhere your mighty works, for you have called us out of darkness into your own wonderful light.”
That’s a fair wage, no matter how long you worked.