George F. Riley, O.S.A.
Saint Thomas Monastery
Isa 55: 6-9
Ps 145: 2-3, 8-9, 17-18
Phil 1: 20-24, 27
Mt 20: 1-16
This parable may sound as if it described an imaginary situation, but that is far from the case. Apart from the terms of payment, the parable describes the kind of thing that frequently happened in Palestine, when the grape harvest ripened towards the end of September, and close on its heels the rains came. Any worker was welcome, even if he could give only an hour to the work, in order to complete the harvest before the storms. The pay was perfectly normal: a denarius or a drachma was the normal day’s wage for a working man. Its purchasing power left no room for luxury or waste.
The men who were standing in the marketplace were not street corner idlers, lazing away their time. The marketplace was the equivalent of the labor exchange. A man came there first thing in the morning, carrying his tools, and waited until someone hired him. The men who stood in the market place were waiting for work, and the fact that some of them remained until five o’clock in the evening is the proof of how desperately they wanted it.
These men were hired laborers, the lowest class of workers, and life for them was always desperately precarious. Slaves and servants were regarded as attached to the family, to at least some extent. They would never be in imminent danger of starvation in normal times. But it was very different with the hired day-laborers. They were almost entirely at the mercy of chance employment, and so always living on the semi-starvation line. If they were unemployed for even one day, their children would go hungry.
Being hired was quite literally a matter of life and death. Thus, in giving the last-hired a full day’s wage rather than an hour’s worth, the landowner is showing remarkable compassion for the men who stand before him, and for their families.
This is a warning to the disciples. It is as if Jesus said to them, “You have received the great privilege of coming into my fellowship very early, right at the beginning. In later days others will come in. You must not claim a special honor and a special place because you were disciples before they were. All people, no matter when they come, are equally precious to God.”
There is an equally definite warning to the Jews. Their special status as God’s chosen people includes no clause permitting them to despise the Gentiles. In God’s economy, as someone has said, there is no such thing as most favored nation status. Both the children of the promise and the children of the pagans need food and shelter, and both alike long for divine justice and mercy.
And so we come to the supreme lesson of the parable: the whole point of work is the spirit in which it is done. The laborers are divided into two classes. The first came to an agreement with the master; they had a contract; they said, “We work, and you give us the daily wage.” But in the case of those who were hired later, there is no word of contract. They wanted the chance to work, and they willingly left the reward to the master.
Does this mean a Christian should have no concern for pay? Of course not! The laborer is worth his hire, and the strength to work and the right to receive a decent wage are among God’s choicest gifts. As is so often the case, the crucial factor is priority. Many a man in this world, who has earned great rewards, will have a very low place in the Kingdom because rewards were his primary thought. Many a poor man with a dull job will be great in the Kingdom because he worked above all to please the Lord, in a spirit of penance and gratitude, honestly and patiently and conscientiously, however humdrum his tasks.
All of us will receive much more than we deserve. No one will stand before Christ with a contractual claim to eternal life. Rather, seeing our poverty, the Lord will pour forth upon us what we have not earned. For one hour’s work, those whom God has chosen will receive the wage of endless life with Jesus Christ. Let us then work in a spirit of useful service. Let us be generous with what we receive. And let us always be grateful to the Lord, who will take the small coin of our feeble labor and make of it a heavenly treasure.