Jesus tells a parable that poses an interesting question: Would we ever grumble about God’s generosity?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Mt 20:1-16a)
In the verses preceding today’s Gospel, Jesus told the disciples “it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:23). A “rich young man” had just gone away “sorrowful” from Jesus, because he could not detach from his possessions to follow Him. When the disciples hear that even the rich, thought to be especially blessed by God, would have a hard time entering heaven, they ask, “Who, then, can be saved?” (Mt 19:25) Jesus gives them an answer that He further elaborates in today’s reading: “With men, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
In our parable, Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a scene in which a landowner hires helpers to work in his vineyard. The landowner goes out early to the marketplace, where workers congregated, to look for laborers. He was not obligated to do this, of course. The vineyard belonged to him; he could have kept it a family affair, using only family members to do the work. Instead, he reaches outside his family to those who would otherwise be “idle”—waiting for something meaningful to happen. He enters an “agreement” (or “covenant”) with some laborers for the pay they will receive for their work, and off they go. The landowner keeps returning to the marketplace, however, during all the “hours” of the day (Jews divided the time between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm into several “hours”), finding those who were “idle” and promising to give them “whatever is right” for their labor. We have to wonder why he did this. Was it for himself, or for the laborers? Was he concerned that he needed more workers to get the work done, or was he concerned that men would be “idle” all day if he didn’t keep hiring them?
Finally, at the eleventh hour, he goes out again. Realistically, these laborers would only be able to put in an hour’s work, at most, because Jewish law required that a laborer be paid at sundown (see Deut. 24:14-15). By the time we get to this point in the parable, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the landowner simply wants to empty the marketplace of anyone still standing around, still waiting for something to happen.
When it comes time to pay the workers, payment begins with the last ones hired. This is so contrary to what any of us would expect that it helps us identify the thrust of the parable right away. Had the landowner paid the longest, hardest-working men first, they would not have witnessed what they considered to be an injustice. Jesus uses this inverted order to call our attention to the point He is making. The first laborers grumble when they discover that they are paid exactly the same as the latecomers, who hardly worked at all. Can we blame them? Would our reaction have been different? The landowner reminds the grumblers that they have not been cheated. They had agreed on the “usual daily wage.” No injustice has been committed. The landowner also reminds them that he is “free to do as I wish with my own money.” The fact is, any wage coming to any of the laborers depended entirely on the grace and generosity of the landowner. Apart from him repeatedly seeking laborers in the marketplace, none of them would have had anything meaningful to do. They would all still have been waiting for something to happen. We might be able to phrase it this way: “With men, no wages are possible, but with a landowner looking for workers, all things are possible.” That being the case, are the grumblers really justified in being envious of the landowner’s generosity? It was this very generosity that gave them work in the first place. Had they understood this at the start of the day, they would not have been surprised at how the day ended.
Jesus concludes the story with a familiar saying: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” The Church has traditionally understood this as a parable foreshadowing the generosity of God to include the Gentiles in His covenant, at the “eleventh hour” in salvation history, blessing them with the same blessing first promised long ago to His Chosen People, the Jews. In this, Jesus is warning His disciples (then and now) not to think of God’s blessings as a matter of record-keeping. God’s generosity cannot be measured. All of us, the “worthy” and the “unworthy,” are utterly dependent on it. When we see others with greater spiritual gifts than we have ourselves, do we rejoice in God’s generosity, or are we envious? And, at the end of time, if we see God’s mercy extended to those whom we are sure don’t deserve it (we might even be picking those folks out now), will we look as small and stunted as the grumbling laborers in the parable? These are questions worth asking.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, help me to rejoice over Your generosity wherever it appears.
First Reading (Read Isa 55:6-9)
These verses from Isaiah are a perfect preparation for our Gospel reading, because they speak about God’s generosity (“generous in forgiving”) and about how different God’s way is from ours. Recall the shock we felt in reading the parable and hearing that “the last will be first and the first will be last.” Here, God tells us, through Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are My ways above your ways, and My thoughts above your thoughts.” This difference between God’s way and ours is what keeps life interesting. If we take it seriously, we might often be surprised by how He works, but we surely won’t become grumblers.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, forgive me for the times I have not wanted to be surprised by the difference between Your way and mine.
Psalm (Read Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18)
The psalmist tells us that God’s “greatness is unsearchable.” That is exactly what both Isaiah and Jesus seek to tell us in our other readings. Our imaginations are not vivid enough to be able to predict how God’s goodness and mercy will break out in His creation: “The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all His works.” Perhaps the most treasured characteristic of His immeasurable and unimaginable kindness is the one we will repeat in the responsorial: “The LORD is near to all who call upon Him.”
In the end, isn’t this what matters most to us on our journey home to heaven?
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Phil 1:20c-24, 27a)
In this reading, St. Paul is an example of one who is completely at peace with whatever God does with him. We would have liked the first group of laborers in the Gospel parable to be able to say that about the landowner. How does a person get to that place of peace with God and confidence in whatever He does, no matter how different His ways are from ours? “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.” St. Paul understood that in becoming a servant of Christ, he had gained everything. Even death, which we naturally fear and dread, posed no worry for him. Death (which St. Paul faced on a nearly daily basis) would simply be the door through which he would walk into the loving arms of Jesus. When we have this kind of relationship with the Lord, when He is everything to us, then we are truly free. Knowing the power of His love and kindness, nothing can disturb us, nothing can turn us into grumblers. All that should matter to us is to conduct ourselves “in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” Then, truly, “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Possible response: Lord Jesus, please teach me to trust You and to be at peace in all the events of my life.