In St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus moves from Galilee to teach in Judea where he is sought out by great crowds.
The parable of the five o’clock people tells of how fragile we are as humans and how boundless God’s love truly is. Many of us have heard a sermon every year on this parable. On the surface, the parable of the workers in the vineyard appears to be an offense to common sense. Sometimes it focuses on the anger and resentment of the people who showed up earlier in the day, sometimes it looks at why the people showed up at five, and other times we hear about how grace is given freely to all simply because they showed up. All of these ring true.
There is something quite fragile about humans; our fragility shows up when we baptize babies and ask their families to protect them from evil and for the community gathered to look after them. Each of us is born with the love and hope of God implanted in our hearts; unfortunately, we are born into a fragile and broken world. At baptism, each of us had people promise to look after us as we grew into the person God imagined us to be in the midst of our communities.
This is the world of the parable: good and fragile people doing their best, wondering why some got more for doing less. What we and the workers forget is that God is not like us. God’s ways, however, are far from our ways, as we hear in today’s First Reading. And today’s readings should caution us against the temptation to resent God’s lavish mercy. God is better and more loving than we can imagine being. God looks at the workers and says, “I love you regardless of what time you showed up for work, I’m just glad you showed up.” God’s love is not conditional on our behaviour, God just wants us to show up and work. It is a reminder that we need to be grateful for help in the work God has given us to do, regardless of what time that help arrives. The work is often about being a sign of love to the world, and finding ways to love others even if they don’t agree with us, look like us, or behave the way we want them to… or show up first thing in the morning for work.
One of the best ways we can be signs of love in the world is to say thank you. Gratitude is an expression of love. When someone does something kind for us, regardless of whether they had to or not, it is a reminder of the goodness in them meeting the goodness in us—and the natural response to kindness is gratitude. Gratitude is extraordinarily important because it is a way for us to remember the goodness in others and ourselves—but still, it is easy to forget to be grateful. Here we find Jesus telling a parable that is about how much we are loved.
The parable reminds us that although God owes us nothing, he offers abundantly and equally. We are occasionally tempted to think that our own actions deserve more reward, more of God’s abundant mercy, than the actions of others. But God’s generosity cannot be quantified or partitioned into different amounts for different people. When we think that way, we are trying to relate to God on our terms rather than to accept God’s radically different ways. The landowner says to the early laborers, “My friend,” (which would likely NOT be a term used by an employer to a labourer); “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go.” In other words, you have my love…. it’s yours for the taking!
In Jesus’ story, we don’t know how those who worked only one hour reacted to being paid a full day’s wage, but I imagine they too were mystified by the goodness of the landowner. Hear God’s reassurance: I love you. I have plenty for everyone and I will give you the provision you need. All of us, no matter who we are or what our lot is in life, are welcome at this table. As you come forward with your arms stretched out to receive the Eucharistic meal, be assured that whether you’re in the front of the line or at the end, there is an abundance and we will all be fed Our task is to continue working in His vineyard. As Paul says in today’s Epistle, let us conduct ourselves worthily, struggling to bring all men and women to the praise of His name.