Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16

Justice in the Kingdom

What is the difference between fairness and justice?

How many of us have felt someone treated us unfairly? Has someone favored another over us? All of us have endured some hurt when our dreams are dashed or ambitions denied. Preferred treatment can lay the foundation for bitter memories.

Yet, does our ill treatment serve a greater good? Do others in need benefit? Sometimes we endure unequal treatment in the name of justice. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus presented the Kingdom as one of justice, not necessarily of fairness.

Popular Translation

1 "The Kingdom of heaven is like this story," Jesus said to his followers. "Just after the sun rose, a businessman went out to hire some workers for his vineyard. 2 After he agreed to pay them what they usually received for a day's work, he sent them into the vineyard.

3 About nine o'clock, he went out. In the market place, he saw other men standing around the without any work. 4 "Go work in my vineyard," the businessman said to them, "and I will pay you a fair wage." 5 And they went. At noon and three o'clock, he did the same thing.

6 About five o'clock, he went out and found more men standing around. "Why have you stood around all day doing nothing?" the businessman asked them.

7 "Because no one has given us work, " they answered.

"Go work in my vineyard," the businessman said.

8 Just before sunset, the businessman told the man in charge of the workers, "Call all the workers together and pay them. Begin with those hired last and finish with those hired first." 9 Those hired at five o'clock were paid for a full day's work. 10 Those hired first thing in the morning thought they would receive more money. They, too, were paid for a full day's work, but no more.

11 When they got their money, they began to grumble. 12 "These men worked only one hour," they complained to the businessman. "But we worked hard all day long in the hot sun. Yet, you paid us the same!"

13 "Friend," the businessman said to one of them, "I didn't cheat you. Didn't you agree to be paid for a full day's work and no more? 14 Take your money and go home. I want to give to those I hired last the same amount I paid you. 15 Can't I spend my money the way I want? Or, do you hate me because I am generous?

16 "So," Jesus finished, "the least will be the most important, and the most important will be least in the Kingdom."

Literal Translation

Jesus said to his disciples:

1 For the Kingdom of heaven is like (the parable of) the head of a household who went out at the same time each morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 Having agreed with the workers (to pay each) a denarius (for) the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 Having gone out around the third hour, he saw others having stood idle about the marketplace. 4 He said to those (workers), "Go as well into (my) vineyard, and whatever is the right (pay for a full day's work) I will give you." 5 And they went off (into the vineyard). Again, having gone out at the sixth and the ninth hour, he did the same thing. 6 Around the eleventh (hour), having gone out, he found others having stood (idle) and said to them, "Why have you stood idle here the whole day?" 7 They said to him, "Because no one hired us!" He said to them, "You, too, go off into (my) vineyard." 8 When evening came, the master of the vineyard said to his foreman, "Call the workers and give them the (daily) wage, beginning with the last until the first." 9 The ones having gone out around the eleventh hour received a denarius (each). 10 The ones having gone out first (at dawn) thought that they would receive more. And they received a denarius (each). 11 But, having received (their wage), they complained against the head of the household, 12 saying, "These last (arrivals) worked one hour and you made equal to us, having borne the burden of the day and the blazing sun. 13 Having answered, he said to one of them, "Friend, I am not doing you an injustice. Did you not agreed with me for a denarius? 14 Take your (pay) and leave. I want to give to the last (arrivals) in the same way as to you. 15 [Or,] is it not possible for me to do what I want with my (wealth)? Or, (do you give me) the 'evil eye' because I am generous?" 16 So the last will be first and the first, last.

20:1 "the same time each morning" Since the work day began at dawn, we can assume the man went out at daybreak.

20:2 "denarius" was a silver Roman coin used as payment for a day's wage.

20:3, 5, 6 "third hour...sixth and ninth hour...eleventh" Ancient people counted the hours from dawn. So the third hour would be 9:00 A.M., the sixth hour would be noon, the ninth hour would be 3:00 P.M., and the eleventh hour would be 5:00 P.M.

20:15 "(do you give me) the 'evil eye'" is literally, "is your eye evil." Both the English (evil eye) and the Greek ("is your eye evil") have the same meaning. Both infer a facial expression of negative judgment.

In today's gospel, Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as a conflict. Day laborers in the vineyard objected to the amount of pay the owner gave them. This tense image rode against the popular view of the Kingdom as a peaceful feast of the faithful in paradise. Jesus told this story to emphasize how the Kingdom differed from people's expectations. According to Jesus, the faithful, even those who practiced faith all life long, did not earn the Kingdom. The Father gave his children the Kingdom as a gift.

Four images dominated the parable: the vineyard, the owner, the workers, and the pay. Connected to the first image, Psalm 80 painted the vine as a symbol of Israel. God transplanted the vine from Egypt, tended it, and saw it flourish on the hilly region of Palestine. Yet, enemies had trampled down the walls of God's vineyard, only to ravage the fruit. Israel was God's vine in his vineyard. When Jesus told a parable of the Kingdom in the context of vineyard, his audience knew the symbol well. [20:1]

Hearing the second image, Jesus' audience clear saw the owner of the vineyard as the Father. Jesus used two twists in the parable, however. First, the need for work in the vineyard was immediate (most likely, the harvest arrived and the vineyard had an overabundant crop). In other words, the Kingdom was immanent. Second, the owner hired any migrant worker at any time of day to harvest the grapes. Symbolically, the Father chose anyone, not just the learned community elders for ministry in the coming Kingdom. Credentials and dedication were secondary to the Lord's work. Only the Father's call mattered, and his call leveled the "playing field."

As unskilled workers, they lived day to day at a subsistence level, just above the homeless and destitute. In areas where such workers can gain employment, they gather together in a common area known to employers. (In the time of Jesus, the marketplace acted as their gathering area). The employers sought the workers out, hired them only for the day, and paid them the same night. Some workers travel seasonally to gain work. Others remain within a local area. [20:2-7]

Like Elijah and Elisha in ancient Galilee, Jesus traveled in his ministry and depended upon the hospitality of his audience for food and shelter. Those who lived closest to the Lord, lived a transient life, even for the briefest of times. When Jesus addressed this parable to his followers, they could easily relate to the image of the day laborer, for they lived such a life.

The pay scandalized Jesus' followers the most, however. Imagine the most dedicated and hard working were paid the same as the others. And they were paid last! Beyond the question of money lie the question of social treatment. The owner treated those who worked for only an hour as he would treat his own family. Those hired at dawn were treated as mere workers. The owner gave greater honor to those who worked the least by paying them well and paying them first. The owner belittled those who worked all day long by paying them so little and paying them last. And, when the workers grumbled, the owner rebuked them in public. No wonder they gave him the "evil eye." [20:11-15]

Jesus had a bitter message for Christians, especially their leaders. The followers of Jesus would sacrifice a sense of fairness for the Kingdom. Those who grew in the faith would feel lonely. Those who grew in ministry would feel abandoned. God did not have favorites in the Kingdom. But he did have the saved community where the most senior and the neophyte shared equally in God's very life. Indeed, the first would be last and the last would be first. [20:16]

What image of the parable strikes you? How does the perceived injustice help you understand your place in the kingdom?

Catechism Theme: The Person and Society (CCC 1878-1889)

"All men are called to the same end: God himself." (CCC 1878) God created all of us as individuals and has the greatest personal concern for each one of us. His love established an order that makes the human person the highest value. "...the human person...is and ought to be the principle, the subject, and the end of all social institutions." (CCC 1881) While society and institutions within society are necessary for the good of all, such are meant to serve the person. They should have limits to insure our freedom.

However, our freedom entails a responsibility for the good of others. We can abuse freedom by reducing it to a choice with minimized consequences. Such choices reduce others to vehicles for our own ends. (In this sense, our freedom can deny the dignity of others.) We cannot act outside society or social institutions for our own self interest. Our freedom, whether as individuals or as a group, must be exercised for the good of all.

When the value of the human person is abused, either by social institutions or by the misuse of individual choice, justice demands that value be restored. Hence, we, as individuals and as a society, are called to a conversion, a change of mind and heart for the good of others. Only God can guide us to such change. But he gives us this power when he inspires us to perform acts of charity.

"Charity is the greatest social commandment. It respects others and their rights. It requires the practice of justice, and alone makes us capable of it. Charity inspires a life of self-giving." (CCC 1889)

When has the need for charity required you to set aside your desires for the needs of others? When have you set aside your fair share for the good of others?

There is a difference between fairness and justice. The question of fairness is really based upon self-interest. When we insist upon our rights without regard to needs of others, we become narcissistic. Even our ministry emphasizes the word "our" (or "mine"). How can God reward us when we insist upon making ourselves "Number One?"

The question of justice, however, is based upon the needs of others. When we focus upon the needs of others, even if they encroach upon our rights, we sacrifice ourselves for the Kingdom, just as Jesus did. Our ministry becomes more transparent. Our leadership really leads others to Christ.

Ultimately, service means sacrifice. What are we willing to give up for the Kingdom of God?

Reflect upon your sacrifices. What sacrifices face you now? Pray for the strength and wisdom to make those sacrifices for the good of others.