Labor and the Gospel of Matthew 20:1-16
When God’s generosity transcends human expectations
The Catholic Church consistently and strongly affirms the dignity of work and the rights of workers. Here is just a small taste of that teaching taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. … Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages” (No. 2434).
Not only Catholics, but almost every person who works for a living would agree with this teaching. What happens, however, when Church teaching and the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel seem at odds? Specifically, how should we understand the teaching from the Catechism stated above when compared to St. Matthew’s unique parable of Jesus known as the Laborers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16)? In that parable, Jesus seems to be saying that the kingdom of heaven supports the practice of equal work for unequal pay.
This is a challenge to commentators and invariably makes ordinary working people angry. Where is justice to be found when those who work only one hour get the same pay as those who work a full day? This story certainly deserves closer examination.
The parable can be divided easily into two parts. The first part describes a landowner hiring day laborers to work in his vineyard (vv. 1-7). Some commentators think it a bit odd that the owner, rather than his manager, would do this kind of hiring, but it is not a major issue. The first workers are hired at dawn and agree to “the usual daily wage.” Ordinarily, a denarius was a common wage for one day’s manual labor. This was by no means an overly generous amount, but by careful use and skimping a family could manage.
At 9 a.m., the landowner hires additional workers for his vineyard, agreeing to pay them “what is just,” but leaving the amount unspecified. Nevertheless, it is assumed by most to be the traditional denarius. He does the same thing at noon, at 3 p.m. and at 5 p.m.
There is much speculation as to why some of these workers were not hired earlier, but the text offers no explanation. By and large, this first part of the parable describes a very believable situation in the ordinary life of day laborers. However, things will change dramatically in the second part.
The second part of the parable describes the process used for paying the laborers who worked in the landowner’s vineyard (vv. 8-16). At evening, when the workday is complete, the landowner has his manager assemble all the workers in order to give them their pay. However, the landowner gives specific instructions regarding how the workers are to be paid. Those hired last are to receive their pay first, and those who were hired first are to receive their pay last. This means, of course, that those hired first will get to see the amount of payment the last hired received.
When the pay is distributed, the last hired received a denarius, the usual daily wage. This allows those first hired to expect that they will receive more than one denarius since they worked hard all day long. The presupposition is that those who work longer deserve more pay than those who work less. That is only fair and just. However, that is not what happens.
Those hired first also receive the usual daily wage, a denarius. As expected, these first hires grumble that they received no more than the last hired. Keep in mind, this is the amount of pay they agreed to when first hired. So technically speaking, they have not been cheated. Notice their complaint. The last hired have been treated as equals to the first hired.
The landowner quickly reminds the first hired workers that they have not been cheated. They received exactly the amount of pay they agreed to, one denarius. He makes it clear that what he paid the workers hired last is of no business to the first hired. It is his money and he can do with it as he wishes. The landowner suggests that the real issue is that the first hired workers are envious because he is generous. Matthew then ends the story with a phrase he likes. “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother
As the parable in Matthew 20:1-16 shows, God also likes to reverse those systems we have set up to explain why God should love some of us more and some of us less. Father Hensell observes that we find this similar dynamic at work in the parable of the prodigal son and his elder brother (cf. Lk 15:11-32). The elder brother resents the way his father reconciles with his renegade younger brother. The elder brother feels strongly that he should be treated better than his younger sibling. He is not able to understand the father’s explanation: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” The father believes in radical equality between his sons. The elder son is convinced he has merited being treated better than his younger brother. He refuses to go into the party celebrating the return of the prodigal.
Those who prefer to interpret this parable as an allegory quickly declare the landowner to be God and the vineyard a metaphor for Israel. This is usually supported by a reference to the famous Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7.
The harvest context recalls the idea of the last judgment. The point of this allegorical approach to the parable is that at the last judgment, latecomers will receive the same reward as those who come early. More specifically, the gentiles will be rewarded the same as the Jews. God’s generous mercy surpasses humankind’s understanding of justice based on merit. “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
While this interpretation, or something very similar, seems to be the most popular one, it still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those who work for a living and struggle to receive equal pay for equal work. Maybe God is not fair, but is God really generous? Keep in mind that how one interprets this parable depends on whether one aligns with those hired first or last. If we see ourselves as having been hired last, then this parable offers good news. If we identify with those hired first, then we have serious questions about God.
What if we choose to forego an allegorical interpretation of this parable and read it simply as a description of a landowner and the extraordinary way he chooses to deal with his day laborers? Clearly, the landowner acts in an unexpected manner. All of the laborers are convinced that what they expect to be paid is rooted in what is fair. The householder, however, operates from an understanding of what is right and that, in turn, highlights equality.
Those first hired give us an insight into the real issue by the nature of their complaint. The issue is not really how much money the first hired and the last hired received. Remember, at the beginning, everyone agreed to work for the “usual daily wage.” None of the workers were cheated. The issue is that the landowner treats all the workers as equals. The first hired want to be treated better than the last hired. The problem lies with the laborers and not with the landowner.
Recall the way Jesus began this parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner …” Jesus has been describing how life in the kingdom of heaven works. The laborers, however, are reflecting the values of the kingdom of Caesar (the Roman empire).
In the kingdom of heaven, laborers do not complain about who is better and who deserves more. In the kingdom of heaven, laborers are thankful that the landowner is generous and gives all the workers enough to care for their families. This is how God works, and it is the model for how all who enter the kingdom of heaven should work. The concrete model for such generosity and righteousness is Jesus himself. The parable teaches by example how the followers of Jesus should live.
The parable teaches that landowners should pay their laborers what is right. And what is right is a living wage, “the usual daily wage.” The point is not how the rich can become richer. The real point is how those in need can get enough.
As the Catechism teaches, “Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community” (No. 2428). Jesus does not support or promote any economic ideology. He is not a Marxist, a socialist, or a free-market capitalist. Jesus shows us how God seems to love all of us indiscriminately.
The landowner raises a key question when confronted by some of the first hired laborers over the amount of pay they received. “Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?” If the issue is purely about money, then there is plenty of room here for debate. However, this is really not a question about money. It is a question about generosity and compassion. This parable focuses on God’s freedom to be gracious. A good Labor Day motto for Matthew could be, “God’s generosity transcends human expectations.”
FATHER EUGENE HENSELL, OSB, is a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana, and an associate professor of Scripture at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.