I suggest that you read the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20: 1 – 16 before continuing with this article.

In chapter 19 of Matthew’s gospel Jesus does some straight talking.  He challenges the Pharisees on the question of divorce.  The disciples get into trouble for chasing children away.  The rich young man and Jesus’ disciples are forced to re-think their attitude to wealth.  Peter asks, “What will there be for us?”  One can sense a despondency. Is it really that hard to enter the kingdom??

Why does the evangelist have Jesus respond to this situation with a parable?  Earlier in the gospel we are told that Jesus uses parables to “explain the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”  (13: 11)  Elsewhere we read, “In parables I will announce what has lain hidden.”  (13: 35)  Let us see what is revealed in this parable.  Most people react negatively when their values and understanding of God are challenged.  When Jesus spoke in parables, “The Chief Priests and Pharisees knew he was talking about them.  They wanted to arrest him.  (21: 45 – 46)

“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near. Turn to the Lord for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”  (Is 55: 6 – 9)

1The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 

All is darkness as the ‘Lord of the household’ sets out to find people to work in his vineyard.  Slowly the light spreads across the sky.  The darkness that is within us will become light as we enter into this parable.

The landowner and the labourers agree on the normal wage for a day’s work.  One denarius was enough to be able to feed and provide for a family.  Just in case we miss the message, the amount is repeated seven times.  Each one of us should be satisfied with enough of the earth’s wealth, sharing our surplus with the less fortunate.

Each of the five visits to the market place follows the same pattern. “He went out and saw others standing around.  ‘You go into the vineyard too.”  Early in the gospel the same pattern used for the call of the first apostles.  The hiring is not a once off event.  The farmer goes back four more times.  Every single person is invited to come into the vineyard.  Nobody is excluded.

8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came forward, each of them received the usual daily wage.

The people listening must have been amazed at the turn of events.  Such generosity was the last thing they expected.  One denarius for an hour’s work – incredible.  Impossible!  Surely the reward for working in the kingdom is fair pay for time worked.  “Not so,” says the owner.   We are faced with changing our understanding of justice.  Scripture tells us that in God’s kingdom, justice means we receive what we need.  Justice does not mean getting what we deserve, either in terms of punishment for wrongdoing or payment for good works.  The kingdom of God cannot be earned, all is the gift of an incredibly generous God.  Surely, we are called to follow this example.

How fitting that the story should end on such a high note.  Sadly our pettiness spoils the ending.

10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

Envy, is their only response to a just and generous employer.  Envious people calculate, look at what others have and what they do not; what they could have received and did not.  Generous people open their hearts to situations, they welcome the opportunity to make things better, rejoice in the good others do.  Whose example do we follow, the disgruntled, envious workers, or the generous farmer?

Nothing in this story goes according to our thinking.  God will not be outdone in generosity.

Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life.  (19: 29)