First, last, and fair: Sunday reflection

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This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 20:1–16:

Jesus told his disciples this parable:

“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, the landowner 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. And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, the landowner 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? Or 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.”

Note: I’m a bit under the weather, so I hope you will enjoy this reflection written in 2014 for today.

I got my first job at the age of fifteen, working at a pizzeria for below minimum wage. The owner got away with that because (a) he wasn’t going to pay me anything more until I proved my worth, (b) at the time the law allowed for a probationary wage, and (c) I had fibbed about my age, and I’m pretty sure he knew it. After a couple of weeks my pay went up, and I worked harder than I ever had at home, harvesting for someone else rather than myself. Getting the paycheck turned out to be a pretty good way to focus my will and my intellect, even on mundane tasks like washing dishes, mopping floors, and eventually making pizzas and sandwiches.

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I cut up my hands occasionally on the slicer, and I went home stinking of pizza sauce, but the wages made it all worth the pain and effort. I saved up my cash to do two things: pay for my behind-the-wheel driver training, and take my dad to an NFL game, the 1978 game between the Steelers and the Rams at the Coliseum. That was the first time in my life that I felt as though I had arrived as an adult. Those wages got me more than just buying power — they brought me dignity and a sense of justice.

While at the pizzeria, though, I got paid in proportion to my effort. Had someone told me that I’d get paid the same amount of cash for 28 hours a week as someone else doing my job got for 14, I would have been offended — and would have started looking for some other place to work. I would have considered that unjust, although I would have probably expressed that in the typical teenage lament — That’s just not fai-aaaiiirr! 

Jesus uses this parable to challenge our sense of justice and the worldly context in which we put it. In fact, that is explicitly what the owner of the vineyard promises to the laborers who harvest his fruit — justice, in the form of just compensation for the labor involved. And yet he delivers what seems at first blush to be a most unjust result, paying everyone the same amount of money for different amounts of labor, and doing so based on what appears to be a somewhat misleading offer. That apparent injustice is so much a part of the story that it’s clear that this is not a lesson on economic justice, but something else altogether.

In this parable, as in so many others, Jesus prepares His disciples and all other listeners for salvation by putting it into understandable, human terms. His larger audience in this case were the Israelites (the group from which His disciples came), who saw the Messiah as the mechanism for temporal salvation, and their identity as the mechanism for eternal salvation. Seen from the perspective of a timeline of salvation, this parable warns the Israelites that they will not be alone in eternal salvation, nor will they have a greater share of it than others. In fact, the last will be first — not in rank or grace, since all will be equal, but at least in precedence. As in His other parables, Jesus warns against the arrogance of presumption, even for those who are saved.

That lesson holds true for those who come from the New Covenant, too, and not just from a historical perspective. C.S. Lewis had a marvelous passage in The Screwtape Letters in which the narrator urges his nephew temptor to attack the mother’s sense of injustice that her son may have recommitted himself to Christianity through some other path than her own teachings. We know people who have converted late in life, and while we know intellectually that it has no bearing on salvation in eternity, there may still be some tugging at our sense of temporal justice about those folks getting the same deal we got, even though we got there first. Because it just doesn’t seem fai-aaaiiirr.

In this case, though, the structure of the compensation is irrelevant. We are all equal in salvation, and we all will get there once we answer the call — and note how that comes in this parable. The landowner goes out at dawn to look for those who will join in the work of salvation, and again at nine o’clock, noon, three o’clock, and finally at five o’clock, not long before twilight.  He goes out again and again, no matter how late the hour has become, to find those who are idle or lost in order to invite them into His vineyards.

We can look at that as a historical perspective on the economy of salvation, from Adam and Eve to present day. We can also look at that in the historical sweep of the Church, or in our own families and communities. We can — and should — look at it in the sweep of our own lives, as His call comes at various points to bring us back into the love of the Lord and the vineyard of salvation. No matter how late the hour, we can all rejoin the harvest, not as a sense of fairness but of awe at the love and generosity of the Creator. And our gentle toil in that vineyard helps us not to gain dignity as laborers but to recognize the dignity we have as His children. When we see that, we also see the dignity and grace of our fellow vineyard workers in the One Harvest, equal to us as children of God, and blessed to have the same compensation in the end.

And suddenly, it seems very, very fai-aaaiiirr indeed.

The front page image is a detail from “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet, mid-17th century.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  


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