Laborers in the Vineyard
by Richard Grebenc
"You too go into the vineyard."—Mt. 20:7
This invitation was issued by Jesus 2,000 years ago in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. His listeners then knew that He wasn’t just talking about grapes that needed to be harvested or a landowner who had a soft spot in his heart for the unemployed. In fact, this parable, like many of Jesus’ parables, challenged the status quo and urged His hearers to wrestle with the new understanding of the kingdom of God that Our Lord was trying to convey.
Not surprisingly, this parable still poses challenges for us in 2008. Let us take a closer look at this story and the meanings Jesus’ contemporary audience might have ascribed to it, and then apply its lessons to us today.
The Kingdom as Vineyard
The first thing we note in this parable (which only appears in Matthew’s Gospel) is that Jesus is speaking of the "kingdom of heaven." The glossary of the second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that this kingdom, "the reign or rule of God," is "present in the person of Jesus," who "through the Holy Spirit forms his people into a priestly kingdom, the Church, in which the kingdom of God is mysteriously present, for she is the seed and beginning of the Kingdom on earth" (p. 885).
The "kingdom" theme is very prominent in the Gospel of Matthew. John the Baptist’s first words in Matthew’s Gospel are "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (3:2). Jesus’ first words when He begins to preach, again recorded by Matthew, are exactly the same as John’s (4:17). In total, "kingdom" appears 56 times in Matthew. It is in the form "kingdom of heaven" 32 times, with 10 of those instances in the context of Jesus telling a parable describing this kingdom (starting at 13:24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47; 18:23; 20:1; 22:2; and 25:1). Jesus very much wanted His hearers to know about this kingdom He came to establish.
In this comparison of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is using an uncommon theme for Him—that of the vineyard. But His hearers would have understood well how vineyards were worked, as vineyards were one "of the standard signs of agricultural wealth in biblical times [with] the proper handling of such property . . . extensively defined in various law codes." In addition, "Isaiah’s ‘Song of the Vineyard’ is a masterful review of standard viticulture [grape cultivation] applied to the life of a people (Is. 5:1–7)." So we see the vineyard was also a common symbol for Israel (also see Ps. 80:8 for Israel as the "vine out of Egypt").
Layers of Meaning
In the passage right before this parable, Jesus is specifically addressing His Apostles. The scene does not change for this parable. In fact, this parable comes immediately after Peter’s declaration to Jesus: "We have left everything and followed you" (Mt. 19:27), which Peter follows with the question "What then shall we have?" (19:27). Jesus then tells the Twelve that they shall sit on 12 thrones to judge the 12 tribes of Israel and concludes by saying "many that are first will be last, and the last first" (19:30).
This conversation leads right into the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, in which Peter and the other disciples learn that their reward will be greater than any earthly prize—namely, eternal life. The parable concludes by echoing Matthew 19:30, further showing that this parable is a response and further development of Jesus’ answer to Peter.
The householder (20:1) is God the Father and the steward (20:8) is Jesus. The laborers mentioned throughout are human beings. But to whom exactly is Jesus referring? As with most of Jesus’ parables, this one is rich in layers of meaning. One way to look at it is that the workers are the great persons of salvation history who have been called by God to do His work. This work started with the patriarchs, then the teachers of the law, followed by the prophets, and culminating with Jesus’ calling of His disciples.
Gregory the Great (as cited by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Golden Chain, or "Catena Aurea") sees in the hours of the day the periods of salvation history. He interprets the morning (daybreak) as the time from Adam to Noah, the third hour spanning Noah to Abraham, the sixth hour from Abraham to Moses, and the ninth hour leading up to the coming of Jesus. The eleventh hour (that is, the hour before sundown, the end of the workday), then, is forward-looking: from the time of Jesus to the end of the world. Here the invitation is extended to all peoples, not just the chosen people.
Another possible interpretation is that Jesus is looking from the present into the future: The Apostles are the first called in the New Covenant, while others in His own time as well as in the future are called later.
Looking at it in yet another way, Augustine and others have also related the hours of the parable to the lifespan of a person:
For they are as it were called at the first hour, who begin to be Christians fresh from their mother’s womb; boys called as it were at the third, young men at the sixth, they who are verging toward old age, at the ninth hour, and they who are called as if at the eleventh hour, are they who are altogether decrepit; yet all these are to receive the one and the same denarius of eternal life.
So from Augustine, as well as most other commentators, we learn that the "daily wage" (or denarius, a silver coin of the Roman Empire) referred to in Matthew 20:2 is a symbol of eternal life. This coin, with a mere image of Caesar, signifies the King of Glory whom faithful workers will see face-to-face at the end of their labors.
Coming as it does right before Jesus’ third and last prediction of His Passion, we pick up on a sense of urgency. This last prediction of Jesus’ Passion happens as He heads toward Jerusalem, where He knows death awaits. Jesus is certainly trying to get an important message across.
Lessons for Jesus’ Hearers
The Jewish people can see themselves in those called in the earlier hours. But rather than being envious of God’s generosity to Gentiles of all stripes (even "tax collectors and sinners"), they must learn that God’s gift of salvation is desired for all and is available to all, no matter when a person is called in life or in history. It may seem to them that they have a legitimate grievance (as it seemed to the early laborers in verses 11–12) with the call of the Gentiles who for so long went astray. But they must recall their own unfaithfulness as a people time and time again while God remained faithful. (The "grumbling" in verse 11 recalls the grumbling of the Israelites against Moses in the desert in Exodus 16:3). Then they will realize that salvation is a free gift of God—as is working in His vineyard.
Jesus’ Apostles can see themselves as those "last" who are now "first" (Mt. 20:16). This completes Jesus’ answer to Peter in the passage immediately preceding the parable. What a reward! Yet this is no reason for unhealthy pride or presumption on the part of the Apostles. God’s goodness and generosity, of which they partake, is extended to all generations.
There is no reason for the Gentiles, those called the very last, to consider themselves unworthy of this distinction as "first." Salvation is open to all and given to all who labor, whenever the call is answered. Or, as in the case of the prodigal son, no matter how long they have been away.
Most importantly, all laborers receive the daily wage—that is, eternal life in heaven. Note that none of the laborers are depicted as lazy. All are looking for work and gladly accept it at any time of day. In fact, only the very first agree to a specific wage, while the rest consent to work without asking what their compensation would be. Yet all receive their reward, all are equal, even those who complain. In fact, some have suggested that those called later worked even harder to earn their pay.
In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus provides a message of hope and love for all generations. There is always hope for a person to be saved, no matter what he has done, what his age, or how long he has been "standing idle in the marketplace" (Mt. 20:3). In His overflowing generosity and love, God calls us from our earliest years and continues to invite, even plead, throughout the "day" of our lives for us to enter or return to His vineyard, the Church.
This requires all of us to answer the call personally. For those who have declined chances to work in God’s vineyard or neglected to take advantage of such opportunities for any reason, it is never too late. By answering the call we become laborers for God in line with the patriarchs, prophets, Apostles, and all God’s faithful ones throughout the ages. We continue God’s work today.
However, we must not delay to answer the call. We must never fall into the trap of thinking there is always time to turn or return to God. Jesus Himself warns against this attitude: "Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour" the Lord will come for you (Mt. 25:13). As Augustine says: "Lo, already is it the eleventh hour, and dost thou yet stand still, and art thou slow to come? . . . No one has promised thee to-morrow."
There are many ways to cooperate with God’s plan. We must constantly invite those who do not know Christ’s love to join us in His Church. We do this by being welcoming and encouraging to others, regardless of where they are on their journey to God. Consider what Gregory the Great said about those in the parable who were asked why they remained idle (20:7): "And what is it to say, ‘No man hath hired us,’ but to say, ‘None has preached to us the way of life’?" We must not give anyone cause to claim ignorance as the reason for not coming home to the Lord. All must receive the invitation!
In addition, we must be open to discussing our faith, and therefore we must be knowledgeable about our faith. We are exhorted to "always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls [us] to account for the hope that is in [us]" (1 Pet. 3:15).
The Bible, the Catechism, and some fine Catholic materials—including the many resources available from CUF and Emmaus Road Publishing—should be regular companions on our faith journey. Then when we are asked about our beliefs, or find an opening to discuss them, we are well equipped to do so.
This must be accompanied by our example of Christian living. Actions speak louder than words. We are reminded of St. Francis of Assisi, who said, "Preach always; when necessary use words." Will they know we are Christians by our love?
As important as any of these things is prayer. Will our loving God, who knows what we need before we do, refuse us any good thing? We realize that it is God who does the work; we just plant the seeds and water them with our prayerful intercessions on behalf of others.
Finally, we should never lose hope for those who seem lost in sin, whether family member, friend, or enemy. God’s mercy and goodness is available to all. We are called to help through our witness, encouragement, and prayer. How often do we see those who, as Chrysostom says, "have been reclaimed from wickedness and surpassed many"!
So by answering God’s call, "You too go into the vineyard."
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