Good news for latecomers

Al Cariño
Reproduced with Permission

During the time of Jesus, people who desired work went to the public square early in the morning. Those in need of laborers went there to hire those they needed. This was what the landowner in the gospel parable did (Mt. 20:1-16). Picking the most skilled to work in his vineyard, their wage was agreed upon -- one denarius, the daily wage. But as there was much work to be in the vineyard, the landowner went back at midmorning, noon, mid-afternoon and before dark and hired the "leftovers." He promised to pay them "what is just."

When evening came, the landowner had the laborers paid. The ones hired last were paid first -- with one denarius. Because of this, those who were hired first expected to be paid more. But they were paid the same amount. They grumbled at this "injustice." But the landowner told them, "Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?... What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? ... Are you envious because I am generous?" The parable ends with Jesus saying, "Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last."

This Kingdom parable is aimed at the Christian Jews in the early Christian community who, because they had been called first by God -- they were His chosen people--believed that they deserved more attention (reward?) than the late-comers, the Gentiles. They could not understand why those who had not borne "the day's burden and the heat," were treated as their equals.

To understand the parable, we have to ask the right question. We will not see its point if the question we ask is, "Why did the last ones not get more than the first?" But if we reverse the question and ask, "Why did the last ones get as much as the first ones?," then we will see its point. The parable is not primarily about justice though it is included -- the landowner had complied with the agreed upon daily wage for those hired first -- but about something beyond justice, namely, the love, goodness and generosity of God even and specially for latecomers in the Kingdom.

The gospels are filled with God calling and offering His love generously to late-comers -- the prodigal sons, the outcasts like the tax collectors and prostitutes, the overlooked, the ones whom people think they can safely ignore or shun, even the thief crucified with Jesus. In short, the physically, economically and spiritually crippled. They are found in the pages of the Gospel because the world is filled with such people. Thus Jesus' prejudice is in their favor. We do not understand how God works because the basis of His actions is different from ours: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways" (Is. 55:8). Thus it is we who should adopt to God's ways, not God to ours.

The parable presents a consoling picture of divine goodness, generosity and love. Equality, as we understand it, may convey justice. But it is goodness, generosity and love as personified by Jesus Himself that enable us to go beyond justice and share with those who are marginal, unfortunate and abandoned members of society. And lest we forget, even these virtues are gifts from God. In fact, there is nothing that we are and have that has not come from God.

In our own life we may question how God distributes His gifts among us. We may feel envious of people who are more gifted than we are -- better looking, more intelligent, more wealthy, etc. But how He disposes of His gifts is entirely up to Him. Indeed, we can not be "envious" because God is generous. Moreover, before God, it is not a question of "how many" gifts we have received but rather "how" we use them in His and our neighbor's service that count. For example, one may be very intelligent but if he uses this gift to swindle others, then he is misusing God's gift and he will be made accountable for it before God.

Then there is the question of reward -- the very point the laborers hired first raised. We may have toiled day and night for the Lord's cause. We may have risked life and limb to promote His Kingdom. Yet, we can not -- we never can -- demand that God reward us. The Pharisees believed otherwise -- that they could "merit" or "earn" God's reward by their "good works." Not so, as Jesus taught in the parable. To reward always remains a purely free act of God, an act proceeding purely from His goodness, generosity and love.

As we labor in God's vineyard, we should never be blinded by the gift in favor of the Giver of the gift. Moreover, over and above the "wage" we may receive in return for our "work", the "delight" of the "Landowner" should be our primary concern. And His delight is for us to carry out His will -- no matter what the circumstances are. Then even if we are unskilled workers and late-comers before God, we can still be first in His Kingdom.