“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, he 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, he 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.” (Matthew 20: 1-16)
In this parable we see that God gives us work to do in this life and the work that he gives us provides meaning and purpose to our lives. As Christians we don’t go through life in idleness, living aimlessly, “standing around” as the parable puts it. We are invited to join in the redemptive work of the landowner who is Jesus Christ. Jesus invites us to leave the marketplace, which is the world with its empty pay, to work for a different kind of wage.
Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” (John 6:27-29)
We are called out of the marketplace and into the vineyard to help bear spiritual fruit in the world.
The daily wage is never described in this parable as a monetary value, it is the reward of heaven for all those who are willing to answer the call to join in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
Notice the times of the day that the landowner goes out to gather his workers. The landowner goes out at dawn, 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 p.m., 5:00 p.m., and finally in the evening he gathers the laborers to provide them with their daily wage. These times roughly correspond to traditional times of prayer for the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is a great spiritual work to pray throughout the day. Benedictine monks follow the Latin motto of “Ora et Labora,” which translates to “Work and Prayer.” They perform physical labor throughout the day. But at set times throughout the day, they break from their physical labor to gather to perform the spiritual labor of prayer.
Notice too when the landowner first went out to gather his laborers. He went out at dawn, at daybreak. As the light of the world entered the world, as Jesus became incarnate, he gathered to himself his first laborers, the Twelve Apostles, and sent them out into the world to work: to teach, to baptize, to heal, to drive out demons, to forgive sins. The Catholic Church continues to perform this great work of Jesus to the present day. We could say that the earliest laborers in the Church truly “bore the day’s burden and the heat.” The earliest Christians spread the faith, suffering persecution and martyrdom along the way.
For example, St. Lawrence quite literally bore the heat as he was grilled alive. Many of us who have answered the invitation to join in the redemptive work of Jesus have started working much later on in the day so to speak, later on in history. We haven’t necessarily borne “the day’s burden and the heat” in the same way as those who came before us. We have benefited from and built upon the foundational work of the early Church.
My favorite line of this entire parable is when the landowner speaks to the workers who are frustrated that they did more work but received equal pay to those who did less work. The landowner says to them, “Are you envious because I am generous?” God is so generous that it makes us envious, that it confuses and frustrates us. How great is God’s mercy! Consider the “Good Criminal” crucified next to Jesus. In his dying moments he asked to be remembered by Christ the King, and Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Whether we join Jesus early on in life, or in our dying moments, all those who side with him and willingly work with him are promised the same reward, eternal life.