Matthew 20:1-16
Returning Late in the Day
 by Rev. Jack Peterson, YA.
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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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."

I don’t know if you feel the same way, but for the past few weeks, the Lord, in the Gospels, has been really challenging my way of thinking. It is almost like he is grabbing me by the britches, turning me upside down and shaking loose certain preconceived, false views on life. Today’s Gospel passage is no different.

The Lord shares with us a parable. A landowner pays all his laborers the same wage whether they started working at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. or 5 p.m. Then he justifies his actions with the principle, “Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?” At a first reading, the Gospel stirs up some distaste or anger; it certainly pricks our notion of justice.

So, what is the point of Jesus’ parable?

First, the point of the parable is not an economic one. Jesus is using a common, everyday experience in Palestine to make an important point. The meaning of the parable has nothing to do with running a business or offering a just wage. Jesus starts the parable with the line, “The Kingdom of heaven is like … ” The meaning of the parable has to do with God’s merciful love and offer of salvation, not economic justice.

Second, the central focus of the parable is not the workers but the landowner. The landowner clearly represents God. This landowner personally goes out five times searching for laborers. Every one of us holds a special place in our Father’s heart. Every human being is precious in his eyes. He fashioned each and every one of us intentionally and personally so that we could be in relation with him now and for all eternity.

Third, no one earns the kingdom of heaven. No one. Not St. Teresa of Kolkata, St. Pio of Pietrelcina nor St. John Paul II. God’s loving mercy and offer of salvation are gifts, freely given to all. We just do not earn God’s love by attending a certain number of Masses or saying a certain number of rosaries. Nor do we earn it by spending a certain number of hours at a homeless shelter or nursing home. God bestows his gifts undeservedly because his love is so deep.

Fourth, the notion of time is an important point of this parable. God can offer the gift of himself and his mercy at any moment. The landowner offered the same wage to everyone no matter what time they “came to work.” It makes no difference to God when: we turn from the ways of the world to the ways of charity and humility; we recognize that we are sinners in complete need of God’s healing mercy; we recognize that he is the source of everything good in this world and surrender our lives to him in faith and gratitude. God is not being arbitrary or even just, but compassionate and generous. “Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?”

What might this parable mean to us today?

We have to crush the common tendency to convince ourselves that we have to earn our salvation. I admit that this is very hard to do. It takes time and plenty of grace from God. In our relationship with God, we are not saving up money in a bank and when we have enough — ding — we go to heaven.

We are human beings with free will; so, God desires an appropriate response to him and his offer. Our Christian life is our response to God’s greatness in our lives. We repent of our sins because we discover a love that is beyond full comprehension. We change our lives because we desire to be in a growing relationship with the Beloved. We forgive and serve our neighbor because we have been forgiven and served first by God. We bring God and his good news into the world because we can’t help but share the gift.

Again, it is a very good thing to learn to rejoice heartily in God’s generosity. The Lord surprises us constantly in his liberality. Think of Matthew the tax collector, the woman at the well with five husbands, Peter who denies Jesus three times and the good thief on the cross next to Jesus. Let the Lord overwhelm you with his mercy. Today, if it has been a while, find your way to confession.

Let me finish with a true story from a parish when I was a young priest. I responded to a phone call of someone who was dying at home and wanted a priest. When I arrived, I discovered he was dying of cancer and had been away from the church for 40 years. That day I heard his confession and anointed him. The next day I returned and convalidated his marriage and gave him holy Communion in a hospital bed in his living room. Two days later he died. He came back to the Lord very late in the day.

“Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”