by Father Mike Stubbs
Even though I do not own a vineyard like the man in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 20:1-16a, I do have some experience with employees and volunteers.
They often will compare themselves to co-workers. That’s only natural. Sometimes that means that they will exaggerate the amount of work that they do and downplay that of those around them.
Similarly, parishioners will at times underestimate the work that church employees and volunteers perform. There is an awful lot that goes on in a parish that people don’t see.
In the Gospel reading, the workers who have only put in a few hours of work receive the same pay as those who worked all day long. The latter complain fiercely about it.
At the end of the parable that Jesus has told, the writer of the Gospel attaches a punchline that does not exactly fit: “The last will be first and the first will be last.”
That is not what has happened in the parable. A more appropriate punchline would read: “The last and the first will be the same.”
Nonetheless, the basic point of the parable remains the same. God does not operate according to our expectations. God has other plans, which do not correspond to our own.
We probably have heard the interpretation of this parable, which points to a deathbed conversion as one leading to salvation.
For those of us who are Catholics from birth, that can be a little hard to swallow. It does not seem fair. And that is exactly the point of the parable.
But there have been other interpretations of this parable besides those focusing on the last moment of an individual’s life.
In the early church, some identified the workers who had spent all day long in the vineyard as the Jewish people who had figured in the scheme of salvation from the very start, while the Johnny-come-latelies corresponded to the Gentiles, who had only recently received the possibility of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Despite the differences in arriving at faith in God, both groups would be equal in God’s eyes.
When Jesus told the parable, he may have intended to identify the tax collectors and sinners — whom he frequently defended — with the workers who started in the vineyard late in the day.
The workers who spent the whole day in the vineyard would have corresponded to the Pharisees.
Once again, the parable would be making the same point — that everyone receives the same treatment from God. It does not depend upon our own efforts, but upon God’s overwhelming mercy.