ColumnsSunday’s Word

I long to depart and be with Christ

September 20, 2020


Is 55:6-9

My thoughts are not your thoughts

Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18

I will praise your name forever

Phil 1:20-24, 27

I long to depart and be with Christ

Mt 20:1-16

Parable of the Vineyard Workers


Once again Jesus disturbs us with a parable. Vineyard workers work different lengths of the day, but are paid the same.

The liturgy chooses the passage from Isaiah 55, apparently, to comment on the parable with its counterintuitive message. Your ways are not my ways. It is reminiscent of the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians. But currently we are working our way through Philippians. In any case, it is felt appropriate for the difficult parable in the gospel reading.

The parable of the vineyard owner and the workers hired through the day is purposely focused at the end. There the paymaster is told to pay them in reverse order of their hiring. It is sets up the problem of those who worked all day noticing that those who didn’t are being paid the same. It is not simply that the workers looking for injustice; it is shoved in their face. It is as if they are expected to object, so that the owner can make a point.

What kind of problems do we have with this? One is that the owner seems like a bully. He is in a position to annoy the workers, and he uses it. He is in charge and they have to follow along. The best they can do is “grumble.”

The more obvious problem is that the workers are not getting paid for the amount of labor they put it. It seems disproportionate. More specifically, it seems that those who worked the longest are being punished for that. There is an implicit principle at work that says that the workers should be paid proportionate to the work they have done.

The owner responds with his own notion of justice. The translation we use for the liturgy renders “denarius” as “the usual daily wage.” It implies that it is a living wage, and those who worked less still need it.

That, however, doesn’t answer why the first hired do not get more. It is annoying that they are shown that they will not get more. The owner reminds them that they made a contract for a certain wage, and that he is honoring that contract. He is saying it is a case of justice. They do not see it that way, and in their view proportionate pay is a true justice.

Catholic social teaching distinguishes three kinds of justice — Commutative justice, Distributive justice, and Social justice. The first concerns relation among individuals and contract obligations. The second, distributive justice, concerns the just allocation of resources. The third concerns the relations between the individual and society, concerning wealth, social position and so forth. The parable plays with these different notions of justice. Contract obligations conflict with fair allocation of resources. And both views are right. And while everyone gets what they need, and the distribution is even, it doesn’t seem fair. We are left to struggle with how to balance them.

But all of this is set forth in the larger frame of God’s freedom. It would not do for the owner to pay the last hired only a pittance. He is free to give the full amount, out of generosity or mercy. Everyone gets a living wage.

And underlying all of this is the way the parable taps into our tendency to resent good things happening to other people. We believe in a merciful God. And we depend on it for our own good. But it can trouble us when we see others the recipient. We think they receiving benefits they do not deserve. Which is, of course, the definition of mercy.

For reflection: We cannot put God in debt to us. That confuses the relationship.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.