First reading: Isaiah 55:6-9.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 144(145):2-3, 8-9, 17-18.
Second reading: Philippians 1:20-24, 27.
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16.
Link to readings.
The theme that unites at least the First Reading and the Gospel today is that of the unlimited generosity of God. The First Reading, from Isa 55:6-9 prepares for the striking statement of this in the Gospel with its insistence upon the difference between God's ways and human ways, God's thoughts and human thoughts. The context for making this point is the invitation to the sinful and wicked to abandon their evil ways and turn to God. Holding up their conversion may be a false sense that they are so sinful or have been so long sunk in their evil way of life that it is inconceivable that God could still have anything to do with them.
Even people living quite good lives are prone to the same suggestion: "God has probably given up on me; I'm no longer worth bothering about". All this comes from the bad spirit and stunts relationship with God. It imprisons God in a false image derived from wrongly projecting upon God patterns of relationship that prevail in human affairs.
The parable that makes up the Gospel, from Matt 20:1-16, provides a classic illustration of the way Jesus used parables to break down people's conventional ideas. Still today, despite the distance from its original cultural context, the shock and sense of injustice it can still produce in a listening congregation is quite palpable.
It is introduced, as a parable about "the Kingdom of Heaven": that is, as a story that will illustrate the way in which God is reclaiming the world for true relationship with its Creator and for values that will allow all people to live lives that are human in the fullest sense of the word.
Day labourers had little security of employment in the Palestine of Jesus' day. Exactly as depicted in the parable, employment was a day to day business. Whether they got work-and the wage they needed-depended entirely on whether they were hired for that day in the marketplace. The story presupposes a twelve-hour working day, beginning at 6 am. So the sequence of hirings would take place at 6 am ("the third hour"), 9 am, 12 noon, 3 pm and, finally 5 pm. A denarius was the standard wage for a day's labour. This would have been the "just wage" agreed upon at the start. But, when at the end of the day all line up to receive their pay and when those who have laboured since early morning see even the late comers paid this wage, they-very understandably-think to themselves that in their case "a just wage" will mean considerably more. They are reasoning from how the landowner treats their fellows to the way in which he should treat them. Hence their outrage when early comers and late comers are paid exactly the same wage.
Of course, the vineyard owner provokes their reaction with the instructions he gives concerning the order of payment: start with the latecomers and finish with those who toiled all day. No "sensible" employer would proceed in this way. But, as so often in Jesus' parables, it is odd behaviour that gives the story its bite. We hearers of the parable are caught between what seems the "reasonableness" of the early labourers' protest and the land-owner's insistence that he has not acted contrary to the agreement and that his decision to be generous to the latecomers is entirely his right. The late-comers too had families to support. If the land-owner, out of wider social concern, chooses to pay what social justice today would call "a living wage", those who worked all day have no grounds for resentment. They are reasoning out of an understanding of rewards tied to deserts on a strictly individualist basis. His procedure sees the workers as a community, all of whom should be objects of social concern.
The parable suggests that God will not be imprisoned within a strict "law of deserts". God is just, but, beyond justice, reserves the right to be overwhelmingly generous as well-not on a comparative basis but on the basis of the divine relationship with each individual, something often wrapped in mystery. So much trouble comes from the human propensity constantly to "look sideways", to be envious at what others seem to have and what we do not, despite the labours and all the "deserts" we might seem to have accumulated in God's sight. The parable suggests that this is a temptation and a hindrance. No one has really any "deserts" before God; no one can claim to be more deserving than others who seem to have received more. We are all equally and totally recipients of God's boundless generosity. Aligning ourselves with this view of God has much to do with allowing the Kingdom to transform our lives and our world.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media