An Exegetical Reflection on the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 20:1-16, September 18, 2011
SERIALIZED ON GMA-7, Sana Ikaw Na Nga was a prime-time soap that told the story of the love between Carlos Miguel and Cecilia. In one of its episodes, there was a scene in which the family of Don Juan Salvador was gathered to listen to the lawyer read the last will and testament of the old man. One of his sons, Leroy, was to inherit part of the wealth, but with the stipulation that he had to finish his schooling first. His brother, Gilbert, who was legally married to Cecilia, was given an even greater inheritance, and without condition. But the surprise of the last will and testament was the wealth to be inherited by the young Juan Salvador, the legal son of Gilbert and Cecilia, although televiewers very well know that the baby was not Gilbert’s—he was Carlos Miguel’s—his inheritance simply boggles the mind, it was fabulously enormous. One could always sympathize with Leroy; he was after all a legal son, and yet he could not even have his inheritance, since conditions were attached. On the other hand, the young Salvador, who did not even have the blood of his father, bagged the biggest part of their family wealth!! If one looks at the last will and testament through the eyes of Leroy, he can easily see some injustice in the distribution of wealth. But one can always argue that their father was simply generous to his grandchild—the young Juan Salvador!
Almost exactly the same point is being stressed in today’s parable popularly known as the Parable of the Laborers of the Vineyard. It tells the story of a vineyard owner who hired from a labor pool at various hours of the day. When evening drew on, all the hired men, including those who were hired at five in the afternoon, received the same payment. If one looks at the parable in terms of labor relations, he can always sympathize with those who labored all day, beginning at nine in the morning, but nonetheless received a wage that was exactly the same as those who came at five in the afternoon. It is not difficult to see the injustice done to them, if by justice is meant the giving of what is due to everyone. Obviously, it is a gross injustice for the estate owner to give the same wage to those who came to work early in the day and those who came late in the afternoon. That would be a case of unfair labor practice. But the parable is not about labor relations. For the focus of the story is not on the laborers who came to the vineyard, but on the owner who was extremely gracious to those who came last—he was extremely generous!
In trying to understand the lesson of the parable, it may be helpful to point out that at Jesus’ time, the market place was some kind of a labor exchange. Men went there in the morning and waited for an employer to come along. And in the normal course of things, any employer would always hire the skilled or the competent workers. Consequently, if there were any workers standing idle in the marketplace from morning to afternoon, they were certainly the leftovers whom no one hired. The lesson of the parable lies here, for it is in connection with these leftovers that the extreme generosity of the owner is shown. For one thing, in spite of the fact that they were unskilled, the owner was generous enough to take them in. For another, he gave each of them a wage that was more than commensurate with their work. One wonders, of course, whether this could be practiced in a business corporation. It is easy to imagine a company eventually folding up because of the extreme generosity of the owner—being exceptionally gracious would send the company into bankruptcy! But that is how human thinking goes. Nonetheless, the first reading reminds us: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:5-6).
Linked with the parable, this Isaianic saying merely indicates that God does not deal with men in the same way that men deal with their fellow men. To curb greed and inequality, men like to appeal to justice—give each one his due, they say! But one wonders whether justice is enough. Law brings justice, but one can easily recognize that something is lacking—it lacks compassion, magnanimity and similar values! Dura lex sed lex, the law may be harsh, but it is the law! Obviously, the world cannot be ruled by law alone, and it would be unfortunately to leave the world only to lawyers or justices! Love is to be added, for it is love that enables us to share with those who are marginal and abandoned members of the community. “The Lord is good to all, and compassionate towards his work” (Ps 145:9), says the Responsorial Psalm, but that is because God is first of all love. Equality may express justice, but it does not convey the compassion and love of God. It may be difficult to fathom, but one can understand why God’s thought is unlike human thought.
But if God does not deal with us in the way men do, it is because if he does, no one would probably survive: “If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand? But with you is forgiveness, that you may be revered” (Ps 130:3-4). Since no one can stand if God deals with us like we do, he deals with us in his mercy and forgiveness. God remains good to humans, even if the latter are not good to him. He deals with us in his generosity. God is good to us not because we are good, but because he is good. This is the way the parable answers the murmuring of the Pharisees. When Jesus accepted the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners to table fellowship, the Pharisees complained that he was thereby making sinners on par with them who were perfect observers of the law. For the Pharisees, they stand above transgressors of the law, and they deserve a reward that was much higher than sinners’. But Jesus answered that that God is extremely generous that he could even give equal pay for unequal work. What counts, in other words, is the mercy of God, not our own merits! What does this imply for the community? This means that since all are recipients of his mercy, members should rejoice whenever they receive gifts from God. Gifts are not earned; they are simply given! There is therefore no reason to be envious, when someone receives more than the others. The Christian community has no room for people who cannot bear to see others surpass them in gifts or talents. On the contrary, all have to rejoice in that, despite their unworthiness, God remains generous to them with his gifts!