The Gospel. St. Matthew 20. 1.
At that time: Jesus spake this parable unto his disciples: The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them: Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them: Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him: Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them: Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward: Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying: These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said: Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
I would imagine that of all the parables told by Our Lord, each of us might have a particular favorite. This selection from St. Matthew’s Gospel is one of mine; and the primary reason for this is that while the story of the householder and the laborers holds many different meanings, the overriding message is one that should give us all great comfort and hope; even as it reminds us of our responsibilities as Faithful Christians.
The details of this parable are quite easily recalled; it’s harvest time, and the owner of the vineyard, the householder, must hire enough workers to gather in his crop. So at the beginning of the day, he contracts with a group of men to start the work. Perhaps realizing that the job is larger than can be handled by the workforce he has currently employed, the householder hires even more men at various times throughout the day. And at the end of the day, when all these workers line up to receive their pay, they all get the same amount, regardless of how long they have labored.
Naturally, this does not set well with the men who were hired at the beginning of the day; after all, they had done the greater portion of the work, and in more difficult conditions than those who were hired later. On the surface, we might think that these men were right in believing that they should have received more pay than those who hadn’t worked as long or as hard.
But, as we know, the owner of the vineyard justifies his decision to pay all the workers equally. And he does so in a couple of different ways; First, we have this reminder; “But he answered one of them, and said: Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny”?
I have to admit that my secular experience with contract law causes me to grin somewhat ruefully at this verse; this is what we in the business world used to refer to as a “gotcha”. Remember the terms under which that first group was hired: “And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard”. This first group was entitled to no more than this amount, because they had agreed to it from the beginning!
There is no mention in the parable of a similar specific agreement with the other laborers; rather, their agreement is that they would be paid “whatsoever is right”. The wording of this arrangement allows the householder the flexibility to compensate the other workers however he wishes. It is by his grace that those workers receive their reward; and as he tells the disgruntled first group of workers, it is his decision that “I will give unto this last, even as unto thee”.
Next, the generosity of the householder is emphasized; “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own”? The vineyard belongs to that householder. Likewise the fruits and proceeds of the vineyard also belong to that householder. So by law and by logic, it is up to that householder to determine how the profits of the vineyard should be shared. That he has determined to do so charitably should be beyond reproach; beyond question.
Then, we are given this admonition; “Is thine eye evil, because I am good”? The workers from the “1st shift” were resentful of the pay given to those “late-comers”. They thought that they deserved some greater compensation because they had been there longer, had done more work, had endured more hardship, than those who showed up later. They had succumbed to those old sins of envy, prejudice and pride. They believed that since they had been in the vineyard from the start of the day, that their efforts should therefore be more valuable to the householder and worthy of greater reward.
But the householder, in a few simple words, informs them of the sinful nature of their resentment “Is thine eye evil, because I am good”. He has chosen to be generous to these “late-comers”; and such generosity should only be lauded and admired; and it should never be resented.
It should not be hard for us to recognize just who Our Lord was speaking to in this parable. The most obvious target audience would naturally be the Jews themselves; they knew that they were God’s Chosen people, and they thought that this fact gave them some special sort of “status” over others, particularly the Gentiles. They had developed a hatred for Gentiles, and they certainly would have resented any implication that “those people” might share equally in God’s Favor. Our Lord was telling the Jews that it was only through the Grace of God that they themselves were Chosen; and that it was God who would decide upon whom He would further bestow His Grace.
At the same time, Jesus was issuing a warning to his disciples. He was reminding them that they had been granted a great privilege by being called to the Church in its earliest stages. They were therefore subject to the temptation to claim some special place of honor over those who would come to Christ in later times. Our Lord’s message to them is that all men are equally precious to God, regardless of when they come to know and accept Him.
These same admonitions are pertinent to us today. Those of us who were baptized as infants, and who have remained stalwart Christians ever since, might be subject to the temptation to feel somewhat “superior” to those who have recently “converted”. While we may rejoice outwardly that someone has come to know Christ, we must guard against the notion that we “lifetime members” are somehow more advanced, more sophisticated in our Faith.
The Grace that we have received, the Salvation that has been given to us, is exactly the same, no matter the date of our incorporation into the Body of Christ. And if we are tempted to think that we are like those first group of laborers who have toiled longest and through the most difficult times, then we must likewise acknowledge that we knew what our reward would be; WE AGREED WITH HIM FOR A PENNY! There is no advantage of “seniority” here.
Likewise, this thought is one that must be remembered by those of us who have been members of this Church since its inception. I have had the good fortune to have visited a fair number of parishes not only in this Diocese, but in other places in this country. And all too often, in the course of conversation, there is mention of when a particular parish left the Episcopal Church, or joined the Anglican Catholic Church; as if their “bona fides”, were established by a chronological date. Having heard these assertions so many times it occurs to me to ask, “so what”?
We are not better Anglican Catholics simply because we “joined up” in 1978, or 79, rather than 1982 or 1997, or whenever. Our claim to upholding the Catholic Faith in the Anglican Tradition is no more legitimate than those who have more recently joined our Church. We cannot make the mistake of thinking that our “seniority” in the Church gives us some greater status over those who made their decision much later on. Those of us who have been here since the beginning have been granted a great privilege; and it is incumbent upon us to joyfully acknowledge those who came later, and those who still may come, as being equally precious to God.
This then is that great message of comfort and hope that we may find in this parable, and which we are called to proclaim to the world. Everyone who is called to be our fellow laborers in God’s Church is equal to us, no matter the time of their “employment”. Everyone who feels compelled to join us in the Catholic Faith is deserving of the same benefits, the same Grace. God has granted to all people “whatsoever is right”.
We are not in any way “superior” to those who come later simply because we have been here longer, have labored more, have endured more. God has chosen to show His Generosity to all who come to him; He has determined to do what I will with mine own; and that Generosity is granted to all of us only by His Grace; So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.