Year A: Twenty-Fifth Sunday Ordinary Time

Workers in the Vineyard

Mathew 20:1-16

“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. (And) 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 land owner, 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.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is your initial reaction to this story? Has your reaction to this passage changed as you have grown spiritually? Explain
  2. What does this story say about how you (we) tend to judge things and the way justice and judgment actually work in the Kingdom of Heaven? (The Kingdom of Heaven being a reality you can experience in this life… not the same thing as Heaven)
  3. If you could somehow extract yourself from identifying with who’s right or wrong, first or last, what’s fair or unfair, or that you deserve anything at all, how might that change the way you work in the “vineyard of life”, what might you be doing differently?
  4. When you think of your relationship with God do you thinking in terms of your earning God’s favor, or do you think in terms of God taking the initiative and loving you first? What about your early upbringing resulted in your thinking as you do?

Biblical Context

Mathew 20:1-16
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Did it ever occur to you that the vineyard owner in this parable could have saved a lot of hard feelings had he simply paid the longest-working laborers first? After 12 hours of toil, they probably wouldn’t have hung around to see what the others were going to get paid. But then Jesus wouldn’t have had a maddening story. So, we should probably ask what he wanted to teach us.

This parable followed on Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man who wanted to gain eternal life but couldn’t bring himself to give away his wealth in order to do so. One wonders if that sad man ever figured out that the only way to the kingdom of heaven was to care at least as much about others as he did about himself (Matthew 19:16-30).

Right after the incident with that man, Jesus told this story about how things are in the kingdom of heaven and how God can be compared to a wealthy landowner. The setup leads us to two questions: “What kind of a landowner is God, and who would be happy to work in his vineyard?”

The landowner Jesus depicts is persistent. He himself goes out at dawn to find people who need the work he has to offer. He returns to the labor market four more times. It seems, as if, the primary focus of his day is on finding workers: he goes looking before and after breakfast, before and after lunch, and finally just before supper time. Finding his workers seemed to be more important than eating! By early afternoon, any observer would have been catching on to the fact that this master had a great deal more interest in employing the people than in the amount of work they could accomplish.

The owner who kept going out must have understood that, with each successive trip, he was apt to find less and less desirable workers. His dawn-hires were probably the men who appeared to be the strongest, the ones who got up extra early and could well have been hired by others, if not by him. As the day wore on, the workers still waiting were the consistently unchosen. Perhaps, they had been from market to market hoping to be found, but to no avail. Everything points to the fact that for this master, the workers mattered more than the work.

That leads to the second question. Who wants to be in this master’s employ? The early birds had no complaints at the moment of their hire. The situation was uninspiringly normal. They went to the labor market that day and got a job right away “for the usual daily wage.” Unlike the late-hires, they didn’t have to endure hours of worry speculating where they should go next, wondering whether or not they would get a job — if not today, perhaps tomorrow? Each time the owner returned to the market, the people he encountered were a little more anxious, and therefore, a little more grateful when he hired them. Those who had waited the longest were surely the most thrilled at finally being chosen. Conversely, as people stood in the pay line, with each group that received the same wage there was growing disillusionment and discontent at the back of the line.

The parable doesn’t canonize any of the workers, although it surely suggests that some ended up far more grateful to the owner and far more willing to work for him again. What’s the parable really about? Just what Isaiah said, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are God’s ways above ours.” We all hope for justice. The question is from whose perspective do we understand it?


Matthew 20: 1-16
John Shea

In some corporations comparing salaries is forbidden. Usually the reasons for this prohibition are not spelled out. But the company, always eager to help, gives workers a comeback in case a fellow worker might indiscreetly ask, “By the way, what do you make?” The loyal employee is to respond, “That’s for me, the boss, and the tax collector to know.”

Comparing salaries is considered volatile activity. Chances are it will lead to charges of unfairness, a sense of being discriminated against, a decline in employee morale, and, as the Gospel indicates, an epidemic of grumbling. Even if the employer comes clean and discloses the reason is good enough when we sense someone got away with something and we did not.

That is why this parable of the workers in the vineyard is arguably the most disliked parable of the Gospels. Its unfairness is so overwhelming it edges out that other egregious Gospel conundrum: a welcome and feast for the son who squandered the inheritance (Luke 15:11-32). Although the argument of the owner of the vineyard is beyond refutation “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”), it makes no headway against our outrage. We instinctively feel a mistake has been made. There is a deep sense of unfairness when the last are paid the same as the first. And we, who are always quick to feel offended, identify with the weary, heat-beaten first laborers.

This feeling of unfairness springs from a well-constructed mental tape. Its basic message is: “If someone gets what I am getting but hasn’t put in as much work as I have, I am being cheated. Is there any other way to see this? Most of us have this tape running continually. This makes us, in the language of the parable, grumble-ready.

The truth of this tape seems obvious because it confirms our fundamental stance. We are the center of the universe, and we evaluate everything that happens from the point of view of our own comparative well-being. If it protects or promotes us, we praise it. If it makes us vulnerable or demotes us, we, not to put too fine of an edge on it, piss and moan. “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Outrageous! But if the story knows our egocentricity, it also allows another possibility. It suggests seeing things from God’s point of view. But this is a real stretch. In fact, it is difficult to even entertain this possibility because our egocentric point of view is so entrenched. When we move outside of it, we are in such a strange world that we immediately reject it. But let’s venture out of our identification with the first-hired laborers and try to see it as the landowner (God, the Lord of the Vineyard) sees it.

From the Lord of the Vineyard’s point of view, what really matters is not what you get but that you work in the vineyard. The real problem is idleness in the marketplace. You do not know or comprehend that a larger reality permeates your physical, mental, and social life and calls you to join with it in harvesting a new human reality. Therefore, you stand around waiting. But this Lord of the Vineyard will have none of it. The owner visits the marketplace often and sends everyone off to the vineyard. The owner is shameless in the diversity of the ways the calls are sent to people. What is paramount is the work.

Once in the vineyard you are in the owner’s domain, and the rules change because of who the owner is and what the owner is about. The work itself is the reward. The joy is in the contribution, in the ecstasy of joining with the Lord of the Vineyard in the creation of the world. Remember, you are now in a consciousness called the kingdom of heaven and not in a consciousness that could be called “Comparative Status” or “Fear of Not Getting What You Deserve.” You do not need to worry and look out for yourself for the One for whom you work knows what you need and is only too willing to supply it (Matt 6:8, 32-33).

You begin to value the full heat of the day because, as Gerard Manly Hopkins intimated, you “burnish in use”. You no longer live in the envious world of comparison but in the abundant world of God’s goodness. In this world God’s goodness gives you a good eye. This eye connects your soul to the expansive world of Divine Spirit. The soul, in turn, works and flows like liquid light, each effort a response to grace, each effort releasing grace.

The Lord of the Vineyard has no choice. God has to give you all that God has. Which, of course, is one day’s wages.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.