A Meditation on Matthew 20:1-16
“Are you envious because I am generous?”
We get the impression that the landowner in the parable is choosing workers not because he needs their help but because he desires to bestow his generosity upon them. He goes out at regular intervals to the marketplace where men stand idle, in order to enlist them in work in his vineyard. On the surface level, we see that he bestows upon them work and a purpose, as well as the wage they need to support themselves. And yet we see under the surface another, deeper reason for this generosity.
For the symbolism of the parable is clear. The landowner is God the Father, speaking to us through his beloved Son, who calls us into the Church and enlists us in his service. And yet he calls us, not so much because he needs us to render service to him, but because he is concerned for us and for our well-being. His generosity moves him to seek us out. Even when we stand around idle and careless, he never ceases to seek us out for his kingdom. And the wage that he gives us is much more than simply the direct corollary of our efforts and achievements.
Our incorporation into the kingdom is first and foremost, and always, a pure initiative of his grace and generosity. Only because of this prior and enduring gift can we enter into the vineyard and do the work that he sets for us, meriting the gift of the “daily wage.” And indeed, it is abundantly clear in the parable that the landowner seeks out the obedience of the workers, he seeks their efforts, almost as a pretext for pouring out upon them his generosity. This is the insight that lies at the heart of the parable, and which Christ is trying to help us to realize.
If we take a glimpse back from this parable to the events in the Garden of Eden, we realize that this is not a new theme. Jesus is hearkening back to the beginning, and seeking to restore us, standing around idle as we are, to the fullness for which we were created. Adam and Eve, in the beginning, were entrusted with the “vineyard” of God’s entire creation. The whole world was entrusted to their stewardship.
And yet this stewardship was not so much a task or a burdensome responsibility. No, it is simply portrayed as an expression of the Father’s generosity. In the Garden, responsibility was entirely enfolded within the realm of pure gift, and never departed from there. Thus all of life was irradiated with the beauty of God’s generosity, with the freedom of gift. All of our first parents’ activities were simply the acquiescence to the generosity of the Father who had given them everything. Their obedience was simply acceptance of the gratuitous gifts of the Father, and thereby, in freedom, was their cooperation with him in making these gifts bear fruit, bearing them back, within themselves, to the Father once again. Given everything, they simply gave everything back again to the One who had loved them.
And yet, with the temptation of the serpent and their original sin, we see that their “responsibility” is divorced from the realm of gift, and they begin to see obedience not as receptivity to God’s gift and the expression of their freedom, but as an external burden hindering their liberty. This is the heart of the tempter’s lie: they begin to doubt the goodness and generosity of the Father, and therefore seek to be free from him. Only thus, indeed, does their perspective shift from seeing God as Father to seeing him as “Master.” And this is the burden that all generations after them find themselves carrying.
In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus’ words enter into this same reality. He does here what he seeks to do in all of his words. He takes the forms of thought and the images of a certain time and place, limited and imperfect as they are, and fills them with a greater meaning, bursting them beyond their own limits to point to a deeper reality. In the landowner of the parable, we see, not the image of a “master” as we may tend to image it, but the image of a most generous Benefactor. Yes, we glimpse the countenance of the eternal Father.
It is in this light that we come to understand the meaning of the “daily wage,” and the unjust complaints of the workers. The wage, in this respect, cannot be increased or decreased, for it is in itself the fullness of divine life, sharing in God’s own life of love and intimacy. In being invited to the “vineyard” the workers already receive the gift above all others. For are we not, we “workers in the vineyard,” welcomed into the Church of Christ, not primarily in order to be “put to work,” but rather to be welcomed into a family, to find in the community of the Church our deepest freedom and joy?
Yes, the essence of God’s Church is not work or mission, as indispensable as these are to her life in the world. The essence of the Church is communion, just as communion is the essence of God’s very own life. This communion is what will remain for all eternity, after this world has at last passed away, or, rather, when this world is taken up fully into the bridal mystery of the Church.
Through God’s generous grace and the gift of adoption, we are given the daily wage, regardless of whether we receive it at the beginning of the day or at the “eleventh hour.” And when the short day of this life is past, we will inherit the eternal life for which the entrustment of this gift prepares us. Indeed, we already bear this life in our hands, in our hearts.
The gift, as it did for our first parents in the beginning, enfolds us on every side. And in the strength and joy of this gift, we can devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the service of the kingdom of our Father. All of our activity, all of the work which we undertake in the vineyard of the Lord, is simply an expression of the gift that we have already received. And the more deeply, gratefully, and joyfully we receive this gift, the more we too can share in the generosity of the Father. Then we will not look grudgingly on others who have been given just as much as we have, with much less effort. Rather, we will receive the eyes to see beyond, to see beyond all the superficial trappings, to the mystery of childhood within. Yes, here in this place, where we all stand poor and dependent before our heavenly Father, we are united in his gift. We are all simply recipients of his love.