Text: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16.
Jesus’ parable challenges us as it challenged his audience two thousand years ago. We can easily put ourselves in the shoes of the workers who started first, toiling all day in the hot sun; we see the others who only did a little work in the cool of the evening getting paid a full day’s wage, and expect to be paid proportionally more, only to find that we get only and exactly what those other slackers got. In the economy of our world, this seems unfair, but God is supposed to be perfectly just and generous. What is Jesus saying?
In the first chapter of every economics textbook is a definition of economics, and there is a word that appears in all of those definitions; that word is “scarcity.” Anything that isn’t scarce—that is abundant—isn’t worth talking about in economic terms, because nobody will trade something scarce for something they can get freely. Some go so far as to say that whatever isn’t scarce has no value. When we think in these economic terms, we are entirely in the world, and are ruled by the economic drives of greed and fear. Indeed, it’s our fear that makes us jealous and greedy: we fear that there will not be enough for all, and seek to protect our share, thinking that what another has is taken from us. It’s also this fear that leads us to cry “it’s not fair!” even when we have enough, and to store up more than we need to protect ourselves from an uncertain future.
With this parable, Jesus is illustrating how, as Isaiah says, God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts. Isaiah too talks about the breakdown of that economic way of thinking: just before today’s reading, Isaiah calls the people: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”1 Jesus too is talking about abundance, love, generosity, and trust, things that have no place in competitive economics.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”2 He is explaining the Lord’s Prayer, where we will pray that God “give us this day our daily bread.”3 We don’t ask that God set up a trust fund that assures us a guaranteed income—indexed to inflation, of course—until our death. The landowner gives each worker what they need to live on for that day; tomorrow, he will pay them again for their continuing work, and so does God give us what we need.
The wages the landowner pays are not only to be understood as money; God’s wages are to money as the living water of Jesus is to ordinary water. The landowner’s payment isn’t just a day’s wage; it is a promise of patronage, of enduring care for the workers. More than money, he gives them respect, and elevates them to the status of partners. Time, money, and energy may all be limited, but love is unlimited. Not only that, but it is the most important resource of all. It can’t be bought, not because it is valueless, but because it is priceless; no amount of anything else is worth love. Love is an infinite gift, and so the landowner pays each worker the same coin: all of them are equally loved, because infinity knows no greater or lesser.
As we receive this gift of divine love, we are called to work in the vineyard too, forsaking wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts. Again, in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”4 When we pray this, we say that we will do God’s will, and thus glorify God and bring about the kingdom. Paul thus writes that “Christ will be exalted … in [his] body, whether by life or by death,”5 since whichever comes to him will be God’s will, with which he cooperates gladly, seeing the good in both. He calls us to live likewise “in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”6
To live this way is to trust and serve God, not economics. It’s not always easy: Paul is willing—glad, even—to accept bodily death, and we too may be afflicted by poverty, illness, grief, or persecution. Nevertheless, God gives us what we truly need. “Happy are those who are called to His supper,”7 where we eat of the Body of Jesus, which is the Bread of Life, which is the Word that comes from the mouth of God, which is God’s abundant love.
1: Isaiah 55:1
2: Matthew 6:25
3: Matthew 6:11
4: Matthew 6:9-10
5: Philippians 1:20
6: Philippians 1:27
7: Ordinary of the Mass; cf. also Matthew 22:1-14.