This past week, the Chicago area was witness to a nurses’ strike for more just wages and fairer conditions, which may seem odd when the country is still held fast in the grips of a pandemic. In this most prosperous nation on earth, as we are informed, where millionaire politicians enact the laws, it would be even odder if there weren’t such strikes. The struggle for just wages, not least for those who are essential workers in a desperate situation, is hardly something new. That it persists in the so-called richest country on earth should be deeply troubling.
Today, the gospel reading, which continues the section of Matthew’s gospel devoted to expounding the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in parables,
focuses on justice and generosity not only in labor relations, but in all our relations. The kingdom of heaven, God’s reign, is revealed to us in the form of a vineyard, one of the favorite prophetic symbols from Hebrew scripture and one Jesus used several times. There are echoes here of the Book of Isaiah, of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and even perhaps of Tobit, where the issue of generous wages comes to bear. What is distinctive in this parable, however, is that, typically, Jesus stands ordinary logic and even conventional notions of strict justice on their head to tell us what God’s reign is really like. [See Is 55:6‑9, Phil 1:20c‑24,27a, and Mt 20:1‑16a.]
For here, at first glance Jesus seems to know as little about labor relations as he did about herding sheep, fishing, farming, and economics. What the men were doing in the vineyard is not clear. We don’t even know what time of year it was supposed to be because that isn’t important. It was probably harvest tine. But the fact that Jesus mentions a vineyard essentially tips us off that this is a story about God’s realm and how things are done there, which is to say, very differently from how they are done in the ordinary human realm.
Traditionally, a vineyard was a symbol of Israel. Here, however, Jesus is not interested in the vineyard, or even in the grapes, but in the workers. Specifically, in their attitude toward each other’s wages. Fair wages and prompt payment for a fair day’s work were an important part of ancient Hebrew ethics:
“You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning” [Lev 19:13].
“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns; you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you” [Deut 24:14-15: 14].
A strong echo thunders in the Epistle of James: “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4).
But even basic justice, much less generosity, fall short of what Jesus has in mind in his sweeping revision of human relationships. He is not really interested in money. His warrant is found in the Book of Isaiah, from which we took the first reading. God’s ways are no more like ours than our thoughts are like God’s thoughts. Mercy and forgiveness are here at stake, which reminds us of last week’s readings. God, Isaiah tells us, is generous in forgiving. The question is are we generous in forgiving? As generous as the Lord of the Vineyard is to the laborers? Are we really comfortable with the Law of Christ, the topsy-turvy world of the gospel in which the first shall be last and the last first? Are we willing to receive the mercy of God, or, rather, are we also willing that others receive it in ever greater measure because their need is greater?
Are we really at home with a God for whom mercy means overwhelming generosity, complete remission, total reconciliation? With a realm in which there will be more joy … over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance? (Luke 15:7) Envy, we are told, is being pleased with someone’s misfortune or saddened by their good fortune. But what is the opposite of envy?
In the end, it gets down to this: it is not the sense of justice Jesus preaches that rebels in us when the person next to us in line or at table gets a bigger slice of pie than we do. Or, for that matter, a bigger salary. What is it to you or me what Oprah Winfrey , Bill Gates, or Elon Musk earn? What does matter is fundamental justice and inclusive mercy, the divine generosity without which love and forgiveness remain empty concepts.
Small wonder that Paul could long to be free from the burdens of this life to be with Christ. But because he was at home in the upside-down world of the gospel of Jesus, he was a true bodhisattva, content to remain in the world to preach that gospel to every living creature. He did not require to be admitted first. Last was good enough. He was even willing to give that up if more of his countrymen would be saved. That is God’s way. Let us pray that God will so increase in us the spirit of generous giving and forgiving, beyond strict justice, that the word around us will be shocked at the scope of our foolishness.