The parable of the labourers in the vineyard powerfully reveals the contradictions that limit sinful hearts. The tale is deeply rooted in the agricultural practice of the time. Unemployed labourers assembled at dawn in the market square of their village. Some of them would be taken on for a day’s labour. Others were not needed, and therefore faced a further day without the means to survive. Our hearts rejoice with those who were taken on for the day, because, although we live in a very different world, we readily identify our own neediness with that of the labourers seeking employment for the day.
As the parable progresses we tend to forget our neediness and concentrate on a somewhat dubious sense of fair play. The parable departed from accustomed practice as the owner returned to the square throughout the day. On each occasion, right up to the 11th hour, he gathered together those remaining without employment and sent them to his vineyard.
By the end of the parable the joy of those first invited to the vineyard had degenerated into ugly self-seeking. The owner, as was the custom, paid off his labourers at the end of the day. He began with those who had come last, those who had worked in the vineyard for the shortest period of time. They were paid one denarius, exactly the same as those who had worked in the vineyard since dawn. Inevitably, those who had worked longer complained. “The men who came last have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.”
The parable was clearly not intended as a model for employment contracts. It deals with something far more important: the graciousness of God and the graciousness to which we are called. The concluding remarks in the parable bring out the contradiction between our longing to be received and our pettiness in denying that grace to others. “My friend, I am not being unjust. Did we not agree on one denarius? Why be envious because I am generous?”
Historically, Israel had been first invited into the grace of God. It is for us, like the owner of the vineyard, to share that good fortune with others. This ancient parable is not without contemporary application. The balance between wealth and poverty is uneven both within our societies and among the community of nations. Complex though this situation be, it can never be solved if we, like the first labourers in the vineyard, jealously safeguard our imagined rights at the expense of those who have little or nothing.
The invitation of the prophet Isaiah highlighted the invitation presented by the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. “Seek the Lord while he is still to be found. Let him turn back to the Lord who is rich in forgiving, for my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.”
The parable of the vineyard reveals that, while we long to be treated graciously, our graciousness to others is strictly rationed. In this, thank God, we must confess that his ways are not our ways, his thoughts not our thoughts.
With humility let us give thanks for the graces that we have received. Reluctant though we be, let us express our gratitude in generosity of spirit.