Danger: Parable Ahead
One thing that listening to this story in church won’t give you is a sense of its position in Matthew’s gospel. Maybe your homilist will tell you about it – but just remember, you read it here first!
Seriously, it always helps to know what comes before and after a gospel passage. In this case, we see that this story follows immediately after the story of the rich young man. You remember him; he asks to follow Jesus, then goes away “sad” because Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give it to the poor? Looking at his retreating back, Jesus remarks to his dumbstruck disciples that it’s harder for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. While they’re still juggling with that amazing image, he concludes with this disturbing line: “Many that are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mt 19:30).
And then, according to Matthew, Jesus explains what he means with a parable – a kind of midrash on the proverb that he’s just coined. Of course, since parables tend to make their points by unsettling the points of view of the listeners, that might mean that the situation is going to become murkier. Let’s see what happens.
Jesus begins in time-honored fashion, with a comparison: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder” who goes out early to hire laborers for his vineyard. So far, so good. We see that same householder/Kingdom go out several more times during the day to hire more workers, promising “what is fair” but giving no particulars, until he’s done this five times in all. He is a busy householder/Kingdom, solicitous of his vines and eager for workers to tend them. According to his own words, he is also fair.
And then, just when we were getting comfortable with the story, it arrives at its end. The householder/Kingdom assembles all the workers. Unusually, he pays the last workers first, and he also pays them wages equivalent to a full day’s pay. That’s surprising, but not unsettling. We might even feel good about this action on his part.
But then the parable aspect of this story kicks in, and it’s as tough to swallow as that saying about the camel and the needle. When the householder/Kingdom pays the workers who’ve worked the whole day in the heat, their pay packets weigh exactly the same as those of the guys who spent an hour in the vineyard. Whaaat? Can that be right? Certainly the people hired at daybreak don’t think so, and they “murmur” about it. Most likely we do, too. After all, the notion of what’s fair and what’s not fair is pretty well ingrained in us from the time we’re quite small. And somehow, this arrangement just goes against everything we know about justice. Darn right, we’re murmuring alongside those early workers! But it’s pretty well established that no word in Scripture is there without having some weight, and that’s true here. The verb is meant to remind us of the people of Israel in the desert when they complained against God and Moses – they “murmured” (Ex 16: 3-8.) And we know how well that worked out for them. But wait, it gets even more uncomfortable!
The householder/Kingdom’s reply to all protests -- “Am I not free to do what I want with my own money?” – comes in the form of a mild but unanswerable question which is followed by an even more difficult and far more penetrating question: “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Before we even have a chance to answer that one (as if we could!), we hear the last line of this story and realize that it’s the last line from the preceding story, now reversed: “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
In other words, whether you’re a rich young man (or woman) with a nice house, two cars, and a tidy stock portfolio, or you’re a not-so-rich young man (or woman) who sweats for your living under the hot sun, the Kingdom of Heaven (which might be another name for God) is different from you. It’s different from me, too. To start with, it’s far more generous than we are. And far more inclusive, too. Just bigger, better, all-creative! So when the Kingdom of Heaven is definitively here, in the Last Days (the eschaton, if you like theological terms), all of the things we’re so sure about, all the certainties of this world, including what’s “good”(Mt 19:17) and what’s “fair,” are going to be turned upside down and inside out, and ourselves with them. Quite a thought!
Well, that’s the danger of parables. They get you thinking.
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA, Provincial of the U.S. Province