This past Sunday’s Gospel reading was about a landowner hiring day laborers to work his vineyard. I’ve blogged about this particular passage before, but two passages struck me this weekend as I heard it at Mass. Here’s the relevant passage (from the New American Bible):
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.”
My earlier post about this passage centered on soteriology (our church’s teaching on salvation). Yesterday, however, the first phrase that struck me was this: (Landowner) Why do you stand here idle all day? (Laborers) Because no one has hired us.
On a human level, it interests me that this particular employer makes several trips into town, and on each pass he hires people to go and work. It seems a bit wasteful for him to hire a few people, then come back several times to hire again and again. It makes him seem like he either doesn’t really know what he’s doing (why not just hire everyone you need at one go?) or he’s just a bit scatter-brained – either way, not exactly what I would picture for the kingdom of heaven 🙂
On a more theological level, if we take the landowner as a symbol for God, then we have God asking us: “Why do you stand here idle all day?” It reminds me of the second Genesis creation story where Adam and Eve are hiding under a bush in the garden and God asks, “Where are you?” In both cases, God already knows the answer . . . it’s telling for me that God asks the question not for God’s own benefit, but for our benefit – the listeners of the tale.
Once read this way, the story immediately brings us into it’s telling: what is God asking of us? Why are we standing around while we could be serving others? Is the work / ministry we’re doing incarnating the kingdom of heaven? Have we fallen into a rut, doing things not for the greater glory of God but simply out of habit?
And where does God get off asking us this question? Didn’t he put us here, in this particular setting, with these particular people, doing these particular things? It’s almost like he’s taunting us, making us grasp at formulating an answer that may or may not pass the test! 🙂
Upon re-reading the parable, the second phrase that struck me was: The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. The kingdom of heaven isn’t just the landowner, it’s everything in the parable – in some way, the kingdom of heaven is like the landowner, but it’s also like the vineyard, and it’s also like the hired hands.
If we look at the kingdom of heaven as the vineyard, then the coming reign of God is expansive, luscious, verdant, alive . . . a delight for the all of our bodily senses and needs. It is a place where we can slake our thirst and feed our hungers, a place where we can work and play, sleep and dream, live and die. It conjures up images of families gathered around the fruits of their labors at the close of day, ready to rest, but also ready to greet the dawning of the new day.
Seen as the workers, the kingdom of heaven is something that must be actively sought – it won’t come to you. You have to go to where the kingdom is to be found . . . maybe even go to places or people that are . . . different; not respectable; out of your comfort zone. It may mean seeing the kingdom of heaven in the unwed mother, in the unjust government, in the pedophile, in the suicide bomber, in the vicious lawyer, in the stubborn pastor, or in the person of another culture, creed or caste. It’s a reminder that the kingdom of God is more places and in more people than our fractured human heart can ever imagine.
Finally, seen as the landowner, the kingdom of God can be seen as growing in fits and spurts – there will be times of great growth, where new members are coming into our communities, and times of stagnation, where it seems no one new graces the doors of our churches for weeks, or months of years. There will be times of great personal growth, when we can literally see ourselves changing into the image of Christ Jesus, and dark nights of the soul where we’re sure God would never want to be close to one such as us.
In the end, I still come back to a feeling that the kingdom of God will be all of this and more – an experience of the greatness of a God that, more than anything, wants to be generous, even with those that others may see as “the last.”
Blessings & Peace,