Matthew 20:1-16a

The Reward and the One Who Rewards
by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

Home Page
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index

Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  Going out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.  So they went off.  He went out again around noon, and around three o'clock, and did likewise.  Going out about five o'clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?'  They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.  He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.' 

When it was evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.'  When those who had started about five o'clock came, each received the usual daily wage.  So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.  And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat.  He said to one of them in reply, 'My friend, I am not cheating you.  Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what is yours and go.  What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?  Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?  Are you envious because I am generous?'  Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last."

Our spiritual life might be in trouble if you sympathize with the villains in Jesus’ parables. But that is precisely what many of us do. In the parable of the prodigal son, for example, many (most?) of us feel a certain, unspoken, sympathy for the older brother. It does not seem quite fair that the rotten little brother receives all the attention and affection when the older stayed and worked. Likewise, in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, we instinctively sympathize with the laborers who worked all day and were paid the same as those who worked only an hour. It just does not seem fair.

Of course, Our Lord does not intend it to be “fair” — at least not in a strict human accounting of things. He intends to show the generosity of the Father, and in marked contrast to the stingy justice of man. By shocking us with this account of a landowner giving equal pay for unequal work, He calls attention to God’s generosity. Unlike what we expect in human commerce, God will reward even those who come to Him at the last minute.

What, then, is the point of arriving early and working all day? Why bear the day’s burden and the heat if we can show up at the 11th hour? Why spend our lives struggling to be faithful, living out the demands of the Gospel, bearing the contradictions of the world, if we can just as easily arrive late and sneak into heaven?

The most obvious and practical answer comes from another parable, that of the 10 virgins: “You know neither the day nor the hour” (cf. Mt 25:1-13). We might like to live our own lives and turn to Him at the last minute, but who knows when that will be? What if time runs out? Besides, this thinking continues a quid pro quo, mercantile view of salvation. There must be something more.

Indeed, our scandal at the payment of the day laborers should occasion the purification and deepening of our motives. The parable serves primarily as a consolation to the latecomers and then as a rebuke to the envious. But it should also shock us out of the attitude that asks how much we get and how much we have to do. It should bring us toward an authentic desire to serve Him personally, for His own sake.

Or are we in it only for the money? That is, do we simply want to get into heaven and nothing more? Obviously, the desire for heaven is a necessary start, but it is not the stuff of Christian maturity. The saints not only focused on avoiding hell and getting into heaven, but on knowing and loving Our Lord Himself. They found great benefit and joy in their service here and now. It was their love of laboring in His vineyard that merited greater glory in heaven. They wanted not just something from God but God Himself.

Our work in the vineyard — the labor of discipleship — does indeed have a reward: to be conformed to the person of Jesus Christ. The more we labor in His vineyard — the more we are side by side, shoulder to shoulder with Him in work — the more we become like Him. Such is the goal of our striving. All who come to labor will receive eternal life. But those who arrive early and persevere through the day will have that much more time to be conformed to the likeness of the landowner.

Or, at least, time spent laboring with Him should have that effect. The problem is that so many spend time in His vineyard but do not spend themselves in His service. Like the prodigal’s older brother with his father, they may spend much time in the landowner’s presence, but they do not come to resemble him. They are more interested in the reward than in the one who rewards.

Let us not be like the envious laborers, gauging our work in terms of what we get or worse, how our pay stacks up against that of others. Instead, let us find joy in our labor with the Lord, knowing that the more time we have with Him, the more we know Him, the more we come to be like Him. His generous welcome to last minute arrivals should not distract us from the fact that He would like to see us a lot earlier. And those who arrive early should find fulfillment, not in their timing but in their work with Him; not in their reward but in the one who bestows it.

Home Page
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index