In this painting, a landowner is paying his workers at the end of the day.
The weak evening light illuminates the table where his wife sits with the account book open.
The workers to the right talk among themselves, as two workers question the landowner.
The landowner has hired workers throughout the day and paid them all the same wage, whether they worked the whole day or only an hour.
The workers who had worked all day are angry.
The focus of the painting is the two workers questioning their pay.
The smallness of the painting (measuring only 12 x 16 inches) makes you feel as if you are peering into the darkened room.
Rembrandt was a master of ‘chiaroscuro’, using darkness to draw the viewer into the narrative.
1“Jesus said to his Disciples: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’”
In between the ‘Community Discourse’ of last week’s Gospel and today’s reading, Chapter 19 ends with the story of the ‘Young Rich Man’. The text concludes with the same saying as today’s reading: ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last’.
In Chapter 19 this saying is the conclusion to the inquiry by Peter (he takes once again the initiative to question Jesus) about the future of the Disciples who have left everything to follow Him.
It seems that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew wants to further explore the seemingly enigmatic and far-reaching significance of this saying, and places here the parable of the ‘Labourers in the Vineyard’ to further explain its meaning.
The bewilderment about reward
The Gospel reader is already familiar with the fact that ‘God’s ways are not man’s ways’.
This Parable is going to show how this applies to the followers of Jesus and their expectations about the recompense they deserve for their service, dedication, and sacrifice.
The landowner is the main character of this story. He is easily identifiable with God:
He is described as a rich large landowner who contracts many labourers. He is rich enough to pay them generously.
He is also described as a man interested in the social issues surrounding his large property. He is worried about unemployed workers and takes action to meet their needs.
The protagonist of the Parable is an active diligent person, who rises early in the morning to hire the best labourers for his fields. He walks the same way four more times in the day and wants to gain as much as possible from his land.
However, he is not selfish or ambitious. He wants to share his wealth with as many people as possible, even with strangers who could be labelled as less than diligent workers.
The turning point
Until here we have a beautiful description of the landowner.
However, all of a sudden the story says something very strange about this dignified character. He seems to purposely want to upset some of his labourers, those for whom he was supposed to be most grateful.
Why did he not start paying the workers who were hired in the morning in order not to create expectations about a higher pay? Evidently, because without this ‘surprising’ element and without the subsequent indignation that the story arises, the listener would not understand the teaching of the Parable.
While the workers of the first hour focus their expectations and claim for ‘justice’, the landowner justifies his generosity based on a different set of values: his ‘goodness’. He is not doing anyone an injustice, rather his generosity is unexpected and unprecedented.
The first workers understand that the last ones do not deserve the same pay as themselves and so this provides the motive for them to behave as if they were victims of an injustice.
The Community of Matthew
This Parable gives answer to the divisions among the Members of Matthew’s Christian Community.
Among them we find converts from Judaism who considered themselves as the first heirs of the Covenant God had made with the People of Israel in the Old Testament. They carry within them the seal of that Covenant through circumcision, and have devoted their entire lives to learning the Law and the Prophets.
On the other hand, the Community is also made up of Members coming from non-Jewish and pagan backgrounds. They were baptized later in their lives and probably after a life lacking the moral standards of the Jewish converts.
How can these ‘late arrivals’ get the same reward?
Here conflict arises out of jealousy rather than injustice. The Parable clarifies certain basic principles:
1. There is no reason to get annoyed with the generosity of God;
2. God is not described as a landowner who is checking continuously on his
3. The reward anyone receives is more what they deserve;
4. The disciple of Jesus is happy that all people are invited to enjoy a life of faith,
hope and love.
5. The human heart experiences great joy to see that the ‘harvest’ is abundant as
we focus on God’s goodness and not on our own righteousness.
6. The ‘late comers’ feel encouraged by the prospect of being counted as full
members of the Community, full heirs to God’s promises, even if their conversion
takes place at a later moment in life.
We enjoy a feeling of great satisfaction at the end of the day when we realize that we have spent our time and energy in fulfilling God’s will for us.
Then humbly and sincerely we can say from the bottom of our hearts: ‘We are useless servants, we have only done what we were supposed to do”.
Our human perception of unfairness in this story comes, not from the interaction between the landowner and the workers but from the comparison between the pay given to the workers in relation to the work they have done.
We assume that their pay should be proportional to the work they have undertaken because that is our earthly measure. We presume that this landowner should adhere to our perception of fairness and justice because, after all, aren’t those very same perceptions simply the reflection of our wisdom and common sense?
Let us contemplate the generosity of God the Father who is not an exacting God but a One who cannot be surpassed in generosity.
The greatest gift God gave to the world was His Only Son Jesus Christ. We can focus our attention on the Trinitarian will to make us all sharers of a heavenly inheritance.
We rejoice when we share our faith and invite others in their turn to serve the Lord lovingly, and in this way we express our love as we serve our neighbour.
The Parable explains the concluding saying of our Gospel today: ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last”. This is the best expression of the turning upside down of earthly values in the Kingdom of God.