Wednesday in the 20th Week of Ordinary Time: Ezekiel 34:1-11, Matthew 20-1-16.
Today’s gospel reading presents us with the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. It seems to me that the heart of this reading and the Old Testament reading from Ezekiel is the question of the work we do in this world. It is clear that God expects us to do His good work in the world, and apart from the question of whether we do it or not is the question of how we approach the work and the reward.
We approach the gospel with Ezekiel’s prophecy in our ears. The Lord instructs Ezekiel to tell the nation, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?” Who are the shepherds? The first thought that comes to mind is that the shepherds are the leaders, the kings, the prophets, the priests, the teachers, and the keepers of the law. They are all charged with special tasks in maintaining the spiritual health and fidelity of the Jewish people. But as we consider the Ten Commandments, we realize that every member of the nation is, in part, charged with upholding God’s law for the sake of others. In some sense, everyone is implicated with this prophecy.
Ezekiel elaborates that the sheep are the most vulnerable of the Jews: “You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.” Let there be no doubt that God wants us to act in love, be generous and give to those who need help. His commandments are not meant to be a laundry list of prescriptions that restrict our movements and actions. On the contrary, they are meant to expand our movements and actions in the direction of love.
Ezekiel then prophesies the coming of Christ: “I will claim my sheep from them and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep … For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep.” God does not throw up His hands in resignation over our poor job of accomplishing the work he asks us to do. No, He promises to take an even more active role in shepherding us by coming to us Himself.
Which brings us to God incarnate, Jesus Christ, shepherding his apostles through His many teachings and parables. He has just taught them the truth of God’s riches being on a different level than worldly riches (see The Sadness of Possessions). In fact, God’s riches — pure love — are aligned with giving away, emptying oneself of selfish thoughts and desires, and so worldly riches are an obstacle to the kingdom because they promote the opposite action: hoarding, possessing, and selfishness. Jesus teaches that the spiritual order of things is in many ways the inverse of the worldly order, and the last in this world shall be first in heaven while the first here on Earth shall be last.
He follows this teaching with today’s gospel, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. It is another re-ordering of priorities for the apostles, a discussion of how the psychology of the world is poor preparation for the reality of the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard,” Jesus begins. The analogy is clear: God is the landowner and we are “hired” to be laborers for his vineyard. We’ll return to this, but notice that even here it is overly generous for the Creator of all to be offering any sort of payment to those who owe Him their very existence.
The landowner hires people throughout the day, including just an hour before quitting time. The payment, rather than being based on hours worked, is the same for each laborer. Those who worked the longest “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.'” We can recognize their feeling of how the landowner was unfair, since our idea of work is tied up in a very worldly concern for personal gain.
But, in the words of the landowner, Jesus gives us a new framework: “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?” The guiding principle of the Kingdom is love and generosity; these are equally bestowed on all who come to work in the vineyard, regardless of when they begin this work in their lives. One deep lesson here is that God is generous; when He gives, He gives all He has. Griping over who gets more is both meaningless and petty.
But it’s hard to let go of our sense of fairness. Something almost seems unjust about not giving more compensation to those who work longer and harder. Here we must be careful: justice is God’s realm, not ours. Jesus is telling us something about justice, too. Let’s consider again how he phrases the parable: “like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.” What is the work that the landowner is asking them to do? To tend to the vines, to nurture them and reap the fruit of the harvest. The vineyard is a fitting example of the pinnacle of human work on earth, a marriage of our will for good things and careful tending to produce fruit that is good. The Jews offered God the first and best fruits of their labor as a sign that our work must first benefit Him, and we must recognize that everything comes from Him and returns to Him. The vineyard has a particularly eschatological significance for Jesus — here he is talking about the ultimate reward, the kingdom of heaven, and later he uses the image of the vineyard in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, when he tells the Chief Priests, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Mt 21:43).
His Jewish disciples thus had a good sense that this was no ordinary work. In fact, this was the most important work in their lives that the landowner was hiring them to do. It concerned their very salvation. Yet even though it’s important, we are left asking how should we feel doing this work and, again, is the recompense commensurate with the effort?
As Christians, we have an incomparable lens through which we can answer these questions: Jesus’s great Paschal Sacrifice gives us the ultimate example of what this work in the vineyard is and how we are to accomplish it. Our most memorable vineyard-related teaching from Jesus comprises the core of his continual presence in our liturgy: “Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom'” (Mt 26:27-29). Here we have the confluence of the vineyard:Kingdom allegory and the very real sacrificial act of Christ offering to the Father His Body and Blood to free us from the bonds of death. His real Blood is the fruit offered to the Father at the end of his work harvesting in the vineyard. His Redeeming Blood accomplishes what none of us could accomplish over millennia of sacrifices. We are “hired” to work in the vineyard, but the great harvest and offering to the landowner has already been made on our behalf.
The world-changing gift, the real Blood celebrated in the fruit of the vine, enables us to leap with joy in our work! Christ is our Master and our model, and we are free to do the work that He showed us knowing that our salvation has already been won for us.
In short, our Christological lens shows us that the work we are “hired” to do is joyous and glorious because we have the Truth, the Way, and the Life laid out before us. More: we can be united with the glorious Way and Life by doing this work and that is payment in itself. The more we give ourselves freely to this work, as Jesus gave Himself freely to be sacrificed, the more we unite ourselves with the holy Way. The more we are united to Christ, the more God’s love and grace is poured upon us, lightening our load. Over time, we can start to give generously of ourselves in a way that only God knows. The work almost becomes effortless because God is the One doing it.
Only someone who begrudges the labor would complain about the payment. If the labor is in itself an experience of love and generosity, any payment is simply icing on the cake (although, what a payment, this everlasting life with God!).
With this parable, Jesus challenges us to make a big move in our minds and hearts. He asks us to value God’s generosity over our own desires for a reward. We know that the Way He asks us to walk is the Way of the Cross — one of poverty of spirit, humility, generosity, and love. Let’s study the lives and writings of our saints to find courage and peace with this Way rather than dread and fear of pain. St. Dominic, whom everyone loved to be around because he was gentle, kind, and good company, walked the Way of Christ (often barefoot over mountains), praying constantly, wearing hair shirts, practicing mortification of the flesh, and always giving of himself when in the presence of others. St. Catherine of Siena, who underwent a lifetime of fasting, mortification of the flesh, and continual prayer, was granted mystical ecstasies and was in constant demand as a spiritual advisor to popes and plainfolk alike. St. Francis of Assisi, who devoted himself to destitution and poverty, shunning possessions like they were the devil incarnate, inspired thousands upon thousands of followers with Christ’s holy Way. The point is that the Way may seem uncomfortable and filled with suffering, but in fact the graces and glories of the Kingdom begin to be realized even here on this earth, as we discover in our holy saints and models in the faith. They were filled with indescribable joy and peace, understanding every step and hunger pain as a glimmer of unification with God Himself who suffered for us all.