“Is thine eye evil, because I am good [generous]?”+
There are a number of Jesus' sayings which are sometimes called “hard sayings” (cp. John 6:60). Their hardness can lie in the fact that they are hard to understand, hard to accept or apparently hard on people. Or they can be all three.
Some examples of hard sayings are as follows: To the Canaanite woman wanting a healing for her daughter, “It is not right to take the children's food and give it to the dogs.” To another man wanting a healing for his son, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” To another group, “He that is not with me is against me.”
This whole parable of today's Gospel might be said to fit into this category. Most readers immediately and instinctively sympathise with the men who complain against their employer at the end. Why don't the employer or Jesus?
The first thing we need to realise is that the first workers were indeed paid a day's wages for a day's work. The owner of the vineyard in which they would work and they had both freely “agreed”, as verse 2 tells us, to a decent, normal daily wage for that time. Nothing was taken from them to which they were entitled, they were not cheated in any way. A fair contract was entered into and fulfilled to the letter.
The second thing we need to remember is that those workers who only worked for the last of the twelve hours, did so because they had no opportunity to work before then. As they said to the employer when he asked them why they were idle, “no man has hired us.” Their late arrival was not necessarily even their choice.
Interestingly, the later arrivals, all the time up to the last hour of the working day, were not told how much they would receive. Instead, they were told, less specifically, “whatever is right I will give you”. As it turned out they were to receive this -- and more.
What does this all mean? It is important at this point to remind ourselves that parables are seldom allegories or perfect metaphors, with every element standing in for something or someone else. Often the story only has one or two main points to get across, and pushing every detail as representing another doctrine is missing the point.
So, in this parable, should we interpret the fact that some workers got a fair wage and some got more than a fair wage at the end, as meaning that God's reward for his people will be one some have earned and some have not? No. Jesus, along with the rest of the NT, makes clear elsewhere that all are sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness and that salvation is a gift received by faith and not works (Matthew 6:15, 7:1, 9:10-13; John 3:16-17, 9:39-41, Romans 3:23-26). Does the parable mean that all those God rewards will get identical rewards regardless of the what they have done? Apparently not. In another parable, that of the Talents, differences of reward are taught (Matthew 25:14-30). Such differences are also implied in our Lord's teaching on storing up heavenly treasure by good works and St Paul's talk of reaping as we sow (Matthew 6:20, 2 Corinthians 9:6, Galatians 6:7-10). However, there is a sense in which all those whom God rewards get essentially the same reward: all get eternal life with Him. All get God Himself, unbroken communion with Him, even if there are different depths and degrees (or perhaps different rates of increasing glory if we think of Heaven as continual growth).
Then what is the point of the parable? Its main focus is on the difference between the attitude of the “early-bird” workers and the man who owns the vineyard. They know very well they got a fair wage, what upsets them is that others were treated with more mercy than justice. Not that these others ended up with more than them. They begrudge the generosity of the owner towards others (cp. v.12). On the other hand, the owner feels pity for the workers who were unable to get work in the morning or even later, and decides to be generous. And he makes the point that, once he has shown his willingness to give all at least what they justly deserve, he is under no further obligation to go beyond this. “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” Nor must he, if he does go beyond justice, do so the same way with all. He owed nobody anything past the point of fairness. Mercy is mercy, not justice, it can not be justly distributed by definition. Like God, the owner can and does choose to show the most pity towards those most in need of it.
There are Christians who are brought up in the Faith virtually from the cradle and more or less steadily run the race that is set before them. There are others who are converted late in life, sometimes after having done many gravely wicked and foolish deeds, and seem to blossom miraculously nonetheless. Those in the Church must always be open in their hearts to those who would enter, at any stage of life, and simply thank God for the extraordinary graces He grants to some but not to all. After all, we must never forget one profound reality that this parable does not make clear, but is made very explicit elsewhere: we have all in fact received far better than justice from God, we have all received grace upon grace (Matthew 5:45; John 1:16, Ephesians 2:8-9). Not only that, but unlike the envious workers of the parable, we should rejoice at the mercy shown to others, and thus, paradoxically, ourselves share in the blessing of the grace given to them. For that is to share the heart of Christ, the heart of God. +