Crappy Parable

This is the gospel reading that I have always struggled with because it is ridiculously unfair and it makes me angry every time I read it or hear it proclaimed or even think about it! By anyone’s standards, this gospel reading isn’t fair and most of you are probably like me in having an issue with it.
Let’s face it, following Jesus isn’t necessarily fun. It’s certainly not easy very often either. There’s a lot expected of us, and just when we go that extra mile for the sake of God’s Reign, thinking that now we’ve earned a vacation in Tahiti, we find out that is not the case. We don’t even get to rest! We just have to keep going, and the more numerous our particular gifts are, the more God seems to want from us in each of those areas of giftedness. Sure, there are some rewards along the way, but by and large, it’s hard work. And we know that the absolute best we can hope for is to hear God say at the end of it all, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
If I’m honest, I have to confess that I’d frankly like more than that. A standing ovation from the hosts of Heaven would be nice. Heartfelt congratulations from all the Catholic priests who criticized and condemned me for trying to hold the Church accountable as a Servant of the People of God would be delightful. And would it kill God to just put his arm around me and fawn over me for a minute, thanking me for all I did to establish His Kingdom?? Maybe we don’t need all that, but I think many would appreciate a little extra acknowledgement, especially over and above those who weren’t as good Christians as us, like those who came to it later in life, or those who didn’t seem to take it as seriously as we did. My little daydream is God looking a lot like my grandfather, Jack who passed 35 years ago, with his thinning hair and that boyish twinkle in his blue eyes, and his gruff voice saying, “You did good, kid. You cultivated the garden just like I taught you.” And I would be able to take that accolade and know that it was meant for me alone, for what I did on my own without anyone else.
But apparently, that’s not how it’s going to be, at least, that’s not the picture today’s gospel gives us. Instead we’re told a story that basically boils down to “You did your job, nothing more, nothing less, and here’s the agreed-upon wage for it, and oh-by-the-way I’m giving the same wage to a bunch of people who didn’t work nearly as hard as you. See you tomorrow, bright and early, so we can do this again.”
No wonder this parable annoys me! It is so unfair….and that leaves me in a pickle because I wonder, how do I stand up today and preach on the grace of God in such a context?? Part of the answer is that grace is never fair, if it were, I wouldn’t have received more than my fair share of it. 
Today’s gospel reading is one of those lessons that is not to be taken as a literal way to do business: it’s a metaphor for the Kingdom of God. So what is the kingdom of heaven like?
The kingdom of heaven is like the landowner who personally gets up very early in the morning and goes into the marketplace to hire day laborers. He doesn’t consider this task beneath him; he doesn’t delegate it to a foreman. He personally picks those whom he believes can handle a hard day’s work in the scorching heat. These are the strong, the gifted, the skilled, and he gives them work according to their abilities, in exchange for a living wage. And he takes them back to his vineyard, and he puts them to work. But even with all their strength and vigor, the job is too big for them. So the landowner sees this and again goes personally into the marketplace three hours later. By now most of the strongest workers have already been hired, by him or by someone else, and those who are left aren’t quite as sturdy. Maybe a little older, or too young and untested, but still decent enough workers. So he hires them for the mysterious “whatever is right” wage. I imagine these folks figure it was the best offer they were bound to get, and even if it was less then optimal, it would probably be close to a living wage. Maybe if they prove themselves to this landowner today, he’ll hire them as first picks tomorrow and they can make up the difference. So they go.
They join the first workers in the vineyard. Those who have already been there for three hours are probably grateful for the help, and welcome the newcomers. But even still, the harvest is too much for them. So the landowner goes out again.
Now it’s noontime. No one is coming to the marketplace to hire workers; the day’s half gone. What’s left are those too old or infirm to be much good to anyone as laborers. Or maybe there’s something else about them that the other landowners didn’t like: the color of their skin or their accents. Maybe some of them had household duties that had to be seen to, and simply couldn’t get to the marketplace earlier, but were nonetheless considered lazy and no good, unhireable. But they’re clinging to the hope that someone, anyone, will hire them, and the landowner does just that. And these workers, so desperate for any lifeline to feed their families, probably figure half a day’s wage is better than nothing. It won’t keep them from starving, but it might delay the inevitable by a few days. So they go.
But even with these workers, the harvest is too big. Or maybe the landowner just knows too well the desperate straits of the people standing in the marketplace. So he does the unprecedented: he goes back at three o’clock (again, personally) and hires what’s there. These folks probably weren’t there at noon. I think now we’re past the honest, hard workers trapped by age, health, or circumstance and we’re beginning to see a more unsavory character. I imagine most of these guys had no good reason for not being there earlier; they just hadn’t bothered to show up. They were the completely down and out, believed by everyone—including themselves—to be worthless deadbeats, and they’re just going through the motions of trying to find work. But the landowner sees them and says, I believe you’re capable of honest labor. Come with me and I will pay you what is fair. He offers these people something no one else has ever offered them before: a chance. And they take it.
And two hours later, just an hour before the workday’s end, the landowner again personally seeks out workers for his vineyard. Surely he’s not expecting these folks to make much difference in the harvest; the fact that there’s only an hour left, and the fact that no one who is serious about working is still standing around idle at that time of day guarantee that these guys aren’t going to get much done. I wonder who these folks are. It’s hard to imagine a more unsavory lot than the three o’clock crowd. For all they claim that they’re still there because no one’s hired them, we know that had they been there earlier, they would have been hired by this landowner. I think these are the people who have given up. They don’t even bother to show up until they know they’re not going to get hired. They’re not even trying to survive. They’re so far gone that a single hour in the vineyard will probably exhaust them, and they wonder, why bother? After all, they’re just waiting to die. But the landowner believes in them, and gives them a task, and promises them a reward for it. The landowner sees a value in them that they don’t even recognize themselves, and he tells them to go. And probably not even understanding why, they do.
You already know the surprise ending: that the walking corpses of the five o’clock crowd are given equal compensation for their labor as the strong vigorous six a.m.’ers, as well as everyone in between. Because this is not a business model where a day’s wage is worth a day’s labor; this is the kingdom of heaven where God seeks out those who need him, which is everyone, calls them according to their ability, and rewards them according to their need. And when it comes right down to it, we all have the same need. We all need God’s mercy and grace, because no wage is a truly living wage without it.
Were you hired at six this morning? That’s great! Well done, good and faithful servant. But what about yesterday? What about tomorrow? Have you been and will you always be capable of a full day’s work? Are you really confident about this? If you can’t relate to the five o’clockers, then think about the nine o’clockers, or the three o’clockers, or the nooners. Remember that God’s not fair. He doesn’t give us what we deserve, but rather what we need for our highest good. And thank God for that.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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