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Sunday, 24th September 2017


Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, “You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage.” So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round, and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” “Because no one has hired us” they answered. He said to them, “You go into my vineyard too.” In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first.” So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner. “The men who came last” they said “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.” He answered one of them and said, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?” Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.’


The gospel parable told by Jesus recounts the events of a single day, from sunrise to
evening. It is a story of Jesus’ time and place and culture. The props of the story
were familiar to his readers; a vineyard, a landowner, workers employed and
unemployed, and the issue of a just wage. Like all the parables, the story is
somewhat provocative. It tries to provoke us into expanding our understanding of
the nature of the God we believe in. It is also a parable of the last judgment. It is a
reminder that the last can be first and that we should never presume that, because
we have worked hard and long for the gospel that we are at the front of the queue.
One of the words for heaven in the Irish language, ‘flaitheas’ suggests generosity.
God is seen as the great host who provides generously for his guests. Heaven is seen
as the generosity of God in action. This is a God who is rich in forgiving, who is rich
in all things and who is correspondingly generous.
This generosity of God is at the heart of the Gospel story. Those who arrive at the
last moment are treated generously by the landowner. God’s kindness satisfies
justice and then goes further so that the less deserving (in the eyes of the world)
may receive as much as the more deserving. God rewards human beings according
to an unexpected kindness, goodness and generosity.
The ways and the thoughts of God are not ours, we are told. That can be obvious
sometimes. Other times we try vainly to understand the ways and thoughts of God
by thinking that God operates in ways which are human. We do an injustice to God
by thinking that God is confined by the same limitations as ourselves.
‘The heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways; my thoughts
above your thoughts’, as the prophet Isaiah tells us in the first reading. God created
us, we are told, in his own image and likeness. We are constantly tempted to return
the favour and mould God in our image and likeness.
The Gospel story makes two points very clearly. God is generous even to those who
come at the last minute. God’s ways are not our envious ways. Jesus tells the parable
to teach us about the kingdom of God and about the generous God we believe in
and he has the landowner figure in the parable leave us with a teasing question,
‘Why be envious because I am generous? God is rich in forgiving, rich in reward, rich
in judgement. God is generous, flaithúil as we say in Irish – and that generosity
awaits all who seek God, who turn to God, and who remain faithful.