“It is not only as past history that we know all that the Son of God did and taught for the reconciliation of the world; here and now we feel the effects of its power.” – Pope St. Leo the Great
Matthew 20:1-19: ‘Now the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage. So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round, and he said to them, Why have you been standing here idle all day? Because no one has hired us, they answered. He said to them, You go into my vineyard too. In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first. So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner. The men who came last they said have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat. He answered one of them and said, My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous? Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.’
Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, and on the way he took the Twelve to one side and said to them, ‘Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the pagans to be mocked and scourged and crucified; and on the third day he will rise again.’
Christ the Lord Christ is the generous landowner. To pay these hired workers a full day’s wage for only a few hours of work is the epitome of generosity. Palestine’s day laborers had no steady work and no steady income; they were hired on a daily basis. The workers still waiting to be given work late in the day were probably resigned to another hungry evening for themselves and their families. Only a man with a generous heart would take the trouble to put them to work when only an hour remained till sundown, and only an extraordinarily generous man would pay them the full day’s wage.
Jesus Christ is extraordinarily generous; the history of salvation is the story of his boundless giving. First he gives life, then after the Fall he gives hope, then he gives redemption, and finally he gives everlasting heavenly bliss. Ultimately, we deserve none of those gifts, but his generosity is so great that he even creates a chance for us to “earn” them. Just as the landowner gave the laborers real work to do in his vineyard, Christ has arranged the economy of salvation so that it is administered through his Church, through our own efforts to defend and extend his Kingdom throughout the world. We have a Lord whose infinite wealth is wholly at our service.
Christ the Teacher If our Lord and Leader is bountifully generous, how can we claim to be his followers if we don’t follow suit? The landowner was looking out for the needs of his fellow men. He did not carelessly over commit himself in order to meet them, and he did not sacrifice justice (he fulfilled his agreement with the first workers) or prudence (he made sure they all worked to gather the harvest, even if only for an hour), but he went beyond the confines of mere duty. How rarely we do this! We stand by our “rights” when they are not rights at all, grumbling enviously because someone else is more successful or more fortunate than us. What peace we would have if we rejoiced in all of God’s gifts, and not only those he gives to us.
Christ the Friend “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” This is a warning. Christ tells this parable after Peter asks him what the Twelve will get in return for having given up everything to follow him. It most obviously applies to the Jewish people in general, and to the Twelve in particular: the Jews were the Chosen People, but when the eternal Kingdom appears, they may find others honored more than them; the Twelve were chosen to be the visible foundation of the Church, but in the end, others will achieve greatness in Christ’s name as well.
Jesus wants us to have interior peace. Nothing disturbs us more than vying for honors and worrying over coveted esteem – and this can occur even within our own Christian communities. If we recognize the abundant generosity of God’s love, we will trust him enough to discard such selfish motives, and we will look only to Christ for the unshakable security that only he can give.
Jesus not only teaches that lesson in this parable; he also clears the path with his own actions. At the end of this passage, St Matthew places the third prediction of Christ’s passion. This time Jesus gets more specific, indicating the collaboration between Jewish and Gentile leaders, and even listing the different types of mistreatment he will suffer. Instead of honor, he will be scorned; instead of a reward, he will receive punishment; instead of praise, mockery. Accepting unjust humiliation and rejection is an odd recipe for success, but true nonetheless – those who seek first place will end up in last place, but those who humble themselves will be exalted. He treads the path first, so his friends won’t fear to follow.
Christ in My Life Why am I resentful when others succeed more than me? Why do I grumble when others are praised and I am overlooked? Is it because I love you above all things and my neighbor as myself? Envy, jealousy, backbiting, criticism: these are the exact opposite of what you lived and what you call your disciples to live. Give me strength to master my emotions; make my heart more like yours…
You knew exactly what awaited you on your last trip to Jerusalem. And you didn’t avoid it. You have called me to follow in your footsteps, and that means you will give me a share in your cross as I journey through my vocation. At times it makes me tremble. But all fear subsides when I remember that the cross unites me more to you, and that you never ask me to carry it alone…
You never tire of giving. You only want to give. You are pure love, pure generosity. Thank you, Lord, for all the gifts you have given to me. Thank you, Lord, for giving me a mission in life, and giving me the generosity to accept it. Now please give me the grace to persevere and please you…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.
Art for this post on Matthew 20:1-19: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. Detail of The Parable of the Vineyard, Andrey N. Mironov, 2011 own work, CCA-SA 4.0 International, Wikimedia Commons.