The Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 20:16, tells us in the parable of the laborers, "Those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last."
Growing up in a rural, farming community, as I have, can have its advantages. You learn the importance of cooperation among all the members of the household from the youngest to the oldest. When the crop is ready for harvest, the whole family would be out in the field working together. They would not work at the same pace or at the same time because they would all work according to the capacity of each one.
The father and eldest brother, most likely, would be in the field very early while the younger ones would still be asleep. Mom and the younger ones would join Dad and the older brother in the farm later. At the end of the day all would go home together. While supper is being prepared and served, no one would suggest that you eat only as much as you have worked. Not at all! No one would complain, no one would be jealous, and everyone would be content because they have all contributed their share according to each ones capacity.
In today’s parable of the laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew Chapter 20:1-16) we hear of a harvest in which some workers put in more time than others. When pay time comes, they are all treated equally like the members of a farming family. And so, the early birds, unlike the members of the farming family, begin to complain and grumble.
Why do the workers in this parable complain and grumble whereas the workers in the family farm do not? They complain because they are judging by the standards of distributive justice which pays each one by their hours of service. The kingdom of God is different. God’s grace is a free gift. It is not merited by our own efforts.
The norms of behavior in the kingdom of God can be compared to the norms of behavior in a farming family which are different from those in the wider society. The question that this parable poses to us is: Do we see ourselves as equal members of God’s kingdom with a common purpose or do we see ourselves as a bunch of disconnected individuals with our own agendas?
We may call ourselves brothers and sisters, but we often treat one another as rivals and competitors.
The early-bird workers were reprimanded by the landowner because, for them, it was just a business affair. The landowner made it clear to them that they would receive a full day’s pay for a full day’s work. The latecomers were less legalistic in their approach. They took the job trusting in the landowner’s word of honor. He said to them, "Whatever is right I will give you." So they went to work in the vineyard (Matthew Chapter 20:4).
In fact, those employed in the sixth, ninth and eleventh hours were told nothing whatsoever about payment. He asked them, "Why do you stand here idle all day?” They responded, "Because no one had hired us." He said to them, "You go into the vineyard too" (Matthew Chapter 6:7). Everything was based on trust. The Johnny-come-lately workers possessed a family spirit; and they were grateful for the master’s generosity. The early-birds were ungrateful even though they were paid what had been agreed to.
This parable was addressed by Matthew to his fellow, Jewish Christians. God called them a long time ago to build the kingdom of God. Now, at an apparently late hour, God was calling the Gentiles also to work with them in building up the same kingdom.
The early-bird Jewish Christians saw themselves as superior to the Johnny-come-lately Gentiles because they had "borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Matthew Chapter12).
The problem with Mathew’s Jewish audience was their difficulty in appreciating that God’s kingdom is for all peoples; Jews and Gentiles alike, and that God’s grace is not something we merit by our own efforts.
What kind of Church would we have if the latecomers were not treated equally? Would we have ST. Paul, C.S. Lewis, St. Francis of Assisi, and so many others who came to the faith later in life?
The kingdom of God is a family affair more than a society affair. A society is characterized by rivalry and the survival of the fittest. A family, on the other hand, is characterized by a spirit of cooperation rather than competition.
In this parable, we are called to reject a legalistic notion of the kingdom of God and see it more as a family of equals where everyone is respected from the lowest to the greatest. The important thing whether we enter into the kingdom early or late, is how we respond to the Lord’s generosity.
This is why Jesus says, "Those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last."
Fr. Hugh Duffy holds a Ph.D. from the University of Hull, England. Born in Donegal, Ireland, he was ordained in 1966 in Dublin, Ireland. He is pastor emeritus of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Okeechobee, Florida, where he served for 30 years and built a new Church, debt-free, in 2013. He founded Christian Community Action (CCA) in Ireland that built housing for seniors, a sheltered workshop and bakery for people with disabilities, a community center, and an addiction treatment center. Since 2013 he has traveled across America as an Outreach Priest for Cross Catholic Outreach, Inc. Duffy’s recent book, "What is This Thing Called Faith?" is a collection of meditations with reflections for readers on the sayings of Jesus. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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