Elijah-Cross-Moses Seventh Sunday

The Workers in the Vineyard. Matthew 20:1-16

INTRODUCTION

In response to Peter’s question, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” (Matthew 19: 27), Jesus promised, “when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, you yourselves will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28). He also offered a hundred times more of what they had given up and inheritance of eternal life. (Matthew 19: 29). He then concluded saying, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30). As a continuation of this, Jesus gave the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Through it, Jesus taught that God’s generosity surpasses that of human thinking. So the late converts and ministers in the church also might get an equitable reward. The early disciples should be ready to appreciate the magnanimity of God in favoring the latecomers in his kingdom.

BIBLE TEXT

(1) “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. (2) After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. (3)  Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, (4) and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ (5) So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. (6) Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ (7) They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ (8) 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.’ (9) When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. (10) So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. (11) And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, (12) 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.’ (13) 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? (14) Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? (15) [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ (16) Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

INTERPRETATION

Only Matthew presents this parable. The context of the parable, from what is given prior to this story, is that Jesus was talking about the reward his disciples might attain for giving up everything and following him. The disciples of Jesus were not from the conservative Jewish leaders. The disciples were ordinary people like fishermen or even a tax collector Matthew. They were not strict observants of Jewish traditions. However, Jesus promised them great reward. (Matthew 19:28-29). So, these late comers in God’s new kingdom will be rewarded generously compared to the Jewish leaders who kept the traditions strictly throughout their lives. To the rich young man who kept all the commandments of the Lord, Jesus said: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” He declined to give his material goods for the kingdom of God. Unlike that rich man, the apostles had given up everything for Jesus and followed him. To them Jesus said, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30). In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus illustrated how God welcomes even the less prominent like the apostles into his kingdom and reward them for their labor out of his graciousness.

(1) “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.

The kingdom of heaven
Matthew used “the Kingdom of Heaven” instead of “Kingdom of God” that was used by other evangelists. This was to avoid using the term God because Matthew was writing for the Jews who do not use the name of God directly. Both Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God mean the same. This kingdom is of divine origin, governed by God, eternal, and peaceful or free from any struggle, and is open only for the faithful children of God. Jesus reestablished the unfaithful Israel and formed his church as a foretaste of God’s kingdom that will happen later in its fullness. The perfect kingdom will be established at the second coming of Christ. The criteria for entry into the kingdom are illustrated by various examples. In this parable of the workers in the vineyard, the entrance into the Kingdom of God is the reward for the labor in the church, instead of the one dinar given as wage at the end of the one day work in the vineyard. “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10).

To hire laborers
According to the Old Testament, God is the land owner and Israel is the vineyard. “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, the people of Judah, his cherished plant.” (Isaiah 5:7). The leaders of Israel are the laborers that God had assigned to take care of his vineyard. In the New Testament, church is the vineyard that Jesus gained as his inheritance from his Father and that he had regained from the unfaithful servants of Israel by giving his life as a ransom.

Went out at dawn
The working hours of the Israelites were 12 and was counted from 6:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. So the landowner went out before 6:00 A.M. to get the laborers.

To hire laborers
These laborers were daily wage workers who were hired only when there was an additional need of workers besides the regular servants and slaves of the landowner. Since it was harvest time, the landowner was in urgent need of more people to harvest before the rain or adverse weather would arrive. So, he was in need of daily laborers.

The daily wage laborers were poor because they had no steady job and income. They depended on the landowners to get work so that they could gain some money to buy food for their starving families. So, they were in desperate need of getting some job every day for their livelihood.

(2) After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

The landowner had made an agreement on how much he would pay for the 12 hour labor. It was a just payment for the living expense of an unskilled laborer according to the standard of the time. There was no agreement on payment of wage with the late comers in the vineyard other than an offer of just payment.

(3) Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,

Nine o’clock
Since the usual work started at 6:00 A.M., this call of the second batch was at 9:00 A.M., or three hours later. Why they were called late? May be they came late to the market place. They might be there before; but were less skilled than the others who were hired first, or the vineyard owner might found by 9:00 A.M. that he needed more laborers than he originally thought. When we apply the parable in the context of Israel or the church, there were people who were faithful to God from their early life and those who came late in keeping God’s commandments like the sinners who were converted at different stages of their lives.

Others standing idle in the marketplace
Unlike the servants and salves who were part of the family of the vineyard owner, the daily laborers had to wait in the market place seeking the mercy of the land owner to hire them for each day’s work. They had nothing to do other than wait until hired for work.

The marketplace represented the world of sin apart from the vineyard of the Lord. Those who were in the vineyard had to work hard bearing “the day’s burden and the heat.” (Matthew 20:12). However, they were assured of a reward at the end. Those who were idle in the marketplace would have gone unrewarded to poverty in their family. Standing idle is representing a state of sin living apart from God and His covenant relationship. It could also mean a state of hopelessness and helplessness.

(4) and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’

The call of John the Baptist and Jesus for repentance was this invitation to those who were idle in the world in a stage of sin and detached from God and his vineyard. Unlike John to whom people went, Jesus went into the market places and synagogues where people were present. He invited them to his kingdom. Jesus wanted many laborers because the harvest was plenty. So had told his disciples, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” (Matthew 9:36-37).

The vineyard owner promised a fair wage for those whom he hired late. He did not specify what he would give. However, the laborers trusted him and went. No service in the vineyard of the Lord will go unrewarded. St. Paul reminded the Ephesians: “Serve with good will, as to the Lord and not to men, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.” (6:7-8). Jesus assured those who support his disciples: “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is My disciple, truly I tell you, he will never lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42). A Christian is not supposed to demand his reward but should trust that the Lord will give a fair reward at the end out of God’s generosity.

(5) So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise.

The vineyard owner went again and again at an interval of three hours each. Each time he found laborers sitting idle in the marketplace. The reason for them awaiting for hire showed their dire need for work so they could support their family with food and other basic necessities. The reason for the vineyard owner showing up in the market place searching for laborers shows his urgent need for more laborers so that he could complete the harvest on time. His promise to the hired people was the same as he did for those who were hired at 9:00 A.M. The laborers did not negotiate with him for the wages and there was no agreement other than a fair wage at the discretion of the vineyard owner.

(6) Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’

Going out about five o’clock
At the eleventh hour, when there was only one more hour left to close the day’s labor, the owner of the vineyard went to market place searching for any more available workers. That was an unusual time to hire laborers. It shows how he was desperately in need of some more laborers to complete the work before night. The laborers who were hired on a contract basis were slowing down waiting for the end of the day. They and others who were working for hours were losing their enthusiasm and energy. The newly hired might be energetic because they were relaxing for long and were happy that they could finally get a job at least for the rest of the day at a fair wage promised by the employer. So, they would be more productive at the last hour than all the others.

This reminds us the parable of the great banquet in which when the invited guests excused themselves from attending the feast, “The master then ordered the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled.” (Luke 14:23). Jesus also came before the end of the world to invite the less fortunate and sinners to his kingdom and to prepare them for his eternal banquet.

He found others standing around
The vineyard owner had hired all possible laborers to his field for harvest at each three hour intervals of the day. He had selected almost all the capable laborers by that time. Still, when he came at the last hour, there were some left over people still waiting for any chance for a part time work. They could not return home without food for which they needed money. These were the hopeless and downhearted people. Jesus, the vineyard owner of the New Testament period, came looking to redeem such people.

‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
The enquiry here is on the reason for the people for not working to which they gave a reasonable answer. They were not standing idle but were still seeking job opportunity. Nobody had hired them because they might be crippled or of ill health. Still they were persisting because of their dire need.

The people who were hired late to the kingdom of God were the Gentiles. Until the arrival of Jesus, the chosen children of Abraham and the descendants of Jacob were invited to the kingdom of God. Many of them were not faithful laborers. So, Jesus the owner of the vineyard came at the 11th hour to invite to his field the church, the Gentiles who were not invited before. Though they came last, they also received the reward equivalent to the Jewish Christians.

(7) They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’

Because no one has hired us.
Those hired at the 11th hour expressed their genuine reason for not working. No one had hired them. If they had been hired to work, they would have joined the team of workers. In fact, they went to work when they got the chance for at least one hour. The Gentiles were never hired by the Israelites into their covenant group. When invited, they wholeheartedly accepted the invitation and joined the church.

(8) 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.’

The vineyard represents the chosen people of God like Israel in the Old Testament period and church in the New Age. God is the vineyard owner, and Jesus is the foreman who works on behalf of God distributing the payment.

God had given through Moses strict instruction that the daily laborers are to be paid their wages on the same day before sunset. “You shall not exploit a poor and needy hired servant, whether one of your own kindred or one of the resident aliens who live in your land, within your gates. On each day you shall pay the servant’s wages before the sun goes down, since the servant is poor and is counting on them. Otherwise the servant will cry to the Lord against you, and you will be held guilty.” (Deut. 24:14-15). The vineyard owner follows this command of the Lord.

According to Jewish calendar, 6:00 P.M. is the end of a day and the beginning of another day. It is a stage of transition. In the spiritual sense, the period of Israel was coming to a close and Messianic Era was going to start. The late comers like sinners, gentiles, and Samaritans were also given chance to work along with the traditional Jews in the kingdom of God reconstituted by Jesus. It can also mean the end of this world and the beginning of the “new heaven and new earth.” (Revelation 21:1). Prior to that, the Son of Man would appear on the clouds and would judge or reward all according to their merits and weaknesses. (Matthew 25:31-46).

The order of the vineyard owner to his foreman for payment was in reverse order of hire corresponds to Jesus’s statement before this parable and at the end of the parable. Before introducing this parable, Jesus told his disciples, “But, many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30). Jesus concluded the parable saying, “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16). After summoning all the laborers, the foreman made the payment first to those who came in the last shift onwards so that those who came first would notice how others were paid. That helped Jesus to bring up the climax and message of the story to his listeners.

(9) When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage.

From a human standard of payment, those who worked only one hour deserved payment for one hour only. However, vineyard owner was generous to give them one day wage. There could be several reasons for that action. (1) It was not their fault that they were not called first. (2) When they were not hired, they did not return home disappointed. Instead, they continued in the market place seeking job and readily took up the work even when hired at the last hour. (3) They might have worked diligently hard during the last hour of the day to compensate the lost 11 hours. (4) Their family needed one day wage for their sustenance.

From the spiritual application, some were born gentiles or Samaritans, and some became sinners because of their adverse circumstances of birth or growth. Such people got a chance to repent and join the Kingdom of God when Jesus came at the 11th hour. They readily accepted the invitation and compensated their lost years of grace with their sincere and enthusiastic service in the church. So at the final judgment, they are also eligible to receive the same reward of entry in God’s kingdom.

(10) So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.

The owner of the vineyard could pay one day wage to all without lining them up according to their hour of labor. He purposefully paid those who worked only one hour first to bring up the reaction of those who started work at 6:00 A.M. The first comers who worked throughout the day were the Israelites. Their leaders were expecting the more reward from God compared to the late comers like Gentiles, Samaritans and public sinners who were converted later. In fact, they were not happy to welcome those latecomers like the elder brother of the prodigal son. (Luke 15:28-30). The owner did justice to them by giving them what he had agreed upon at the time of hiring them.

(11) And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner,

A disabled or sick child might get more attention from parents than the other children. God showed compassion to these latecomers because they were poor and had been patiently waiting at the market place seeking job without losing hope. They were in desperate need of money to buy food for their starving family members. The vineyard owner had sympathy over them and wanted to help them. However, the other laborers who also very well knew the pathetic situation of their villagers did not show any concern for them. Instead, they could not tolerate the generosity of the landowner who helped the latecomers. Though they knew that the landowner was not doing any injustice to them, they were envious of those who received a payment equivalent to them who did a full day work. Jesus teaches that such feelings and reaction are unchristian. The Jewish Christians should not feel envious of the Gentile converts to Christianity.

(12) 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.’

The work at the last hour had less heat compared to the noon hours. Those who worked only one hour did not suffer adverse weather. So also, the Jews had been strictly following the laws and traditions of Israel throughout their lives. For them, laws and ceremonial observances of the laws were burdensome (Malachi 1:13) and like heat of midday. Others who were materially enjoying the worldly pleasures were made equal to them when Jesus came and baptized them. This was an issue for the Jewish leaders and the early Jewish converts.

(13) 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?

The complaint of those who worked 12 hours was as if they were not denied justice in comparison with the latecomers. The vineyard owner said he did not cheat or did anything contrary to the agreement made at the time of hiring them for work. The only issue was the generosity he showed to the latecomers. It was similar to the forgiveness and promise of paradise Jesus gave to the repentant thief who was crucified with Jesus. (Luke 23:43).

(14) Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?

The vineyard owner was not willing to give anything more than what he had agreed upon. He did not find any need of showing any generosity to them. Rather, he was questioning them for their complaint. He should have felt that they also should show compassion to the latecomers as he did. So, he asked them to take what they deserved and leave the place.

(15) [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’

The answer of the vineyard owner to those who complained was his justification through his questioning them. (1) He did them justice by giving them the payment he had agreed with them. (2) He is free to utilize his money the way he wished. (3) They should not be envious of his generosity to those who could not find work early. It was similar to the attitude of the prodigal son’s elder brother when their father generously welcomed the repentant son with all rights and privileges. (Luke 15:25-32). Proverbs 27:4 says, “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” The jealousy of the Pharisees and Scribes against the disciples of Jesus who were poor, illiterate, nontraditional, and even sinners was similar to full time workers of this parable. So the Pharisees, Scribes and other elite Jews denied the Messiahship of Jesus. The early Jewish Christians also had similar issues in accepting the Gentile converts.

(16) Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

A repentant sinner and an unfortunate person responding to God’s invitation to His Kingdom are equivalent to the righteous believers. They all inherit the Kingdom of God and are equal in front of God. The first became last because they did not assimilate the message of love of enemies and the less fortunate that Jesus taught them. Thus, the humble prayer of the publican was more justifiable before God than the self exalted prayer of the righteous Pharisee. (Luke 18:9-14). There will be reversal of fortune and surprise in the world to come as in the case of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. (Luke 16:19–31). While advising his listeners on the need to enter through the narrow door, Jesus concluded: “And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:28-30). That surprise from the part of both those who are rewarded and those who are punished are also illustrated in the sentence statements of the final judgement. (Matthew 25:31-46).

MESSAGE

1. From an allegorical perspective, God is the land owner, the world is the market place, the field is Israel and later the Church, the early selected laborers are the Israelites or Jews, the late hired workers are the Gentiles or sinners, the evening is the time of final judgement, the foreman who distributed money is Jesus upon his second coming. Even if we are called late in the church, if we answer to the call of Jesus and work for him, God will reward us generously at the final judgement.

 

2. In the New Testament, church is the vineyard of Jesus. He hires laborers at different hours or stages of its growth according to his need and the need of the laborers. Let us thank the Lord for hiring us as his laborers. We have to focus on our work and should be happy with what God gives us than grumbling on the graces others receive even if they are unworthy for that.

3. Jesus the landowner rebuilt church as his vineyard and hired disciples to take care of them at different stages of the growth of the church. The wage he promised to his disciples was entry into the kingdom of God. Jesus offered his paradise even to the late comers like the repented thief who was crucified with him.

4. Jesus told his disciples: “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38). Let us pray for an increase in vocations to priesthood, religious life, and lay ministries.

5. The laborers could reject the invitation to work in the vineyard even though the owner is in desperate need of laborers. Let us pray for the conversion of those who decline the invitation of Jesus to work in his vineyard, the church.

6. There is sure guarantee of reward for the laborers. For some, it can be far beyond what they deserve because of the magnanimity of God. Like the owner of the vineyard who represent God, let us also be generous to the less fortunate in the society.

7. Even at the eleventh hour, that is at the close of one’s life, God might offer chance for redemption as it happened in the case of one criminal crucified with Jesus who sought for salvation. We don’t know when is our 11th hour. So, this is our best time to reconcile with God or improve our spiritual life.

8. Though we can expect the generosity of God, we cannot demand our compensation from God. All we have is by the grace of God.