God's Goodness and the Laborers in the Vineyard | A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, September 18, 2011 | Carl E. Olson
• Is 55:6-9
• Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18
• Phil 1:20c-24, 27a
• Mt 20:1-16a
Why did God make us? The Baltimore Catechism, in its first lesson, answers this question succinctly: “God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.”
The opening paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the same topic, saying, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. … In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life” (par 1).
It is a foundational belief of the Catholic faith that man was created because of the goodness of the loving Creator, and that God desires each of us to enter into the Kingdom of God and to live in perfect communion with Him. This relational, familial fact helps make sense of passages such as today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
This parable, of course, is not an economic treatise or a business blueprint. Like many parables, it draws upon the agrarian life that most first-century Jewish readers would know and understand intimately, and uses that familiar context to reveal something significant about the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus throughout his public ministry. Matthew’s Gospel was meant first and foremost for a Jewish audience and one of its main themes is that the kingdom of heaven is not meant exclusively for the Jews, but for Gentiles as well (cf., Matt. 12:18-21).
The parable has often been interpreted as referring to the Jews—the laborers chosen early in the day, that is, earlier in history—and to the Gentiles—the laborers chosen later in the day. Cyril of Alexandria wrote that “day” refers to “the whole age during which at different moments since the transgression of Adam [God] calls just individuals to their pious work, defining rewards for them for their actions.” The laborers hired first are angry that the laborers hired late in the day receive the same wage. This indeed seems unfair to us as long as we think in temporal, earthly terms. But, as today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah reminds us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.”
In fact, if man—whether Jew or Gentile—was judged by God on his own merits, he would fail to receive the wage of eternal life; that “wage” is actually a gift from God. As Saint Paul explained to the Ephesians, the Gentiles, who were once “without hope and without God in the world … have become near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:11-13).
Another interpretation, given by Saint John Chrysostom (as well as others), is that the vineyard refers to “the commandments of God, and the time of working refers to the present life.” The workers are those who are “who have come forward at different ages and lived justly.” Some are baptized as babies and remain in the family of God their entire lives, some enter the Church as adults, and some accept Christ on their deathbeds. Those who might think this is unfair fail to appreciate that the issue is not who is most deserving, but Who is most merciful. It is God who has pity on man, who invites him to work in the vineyard, and who pays the generous wage.
“The Church is a cultivated field, the tillage of God…” states the Catechism, “That land, like a choice vineyard, has been planted by the heavenly cultivator. Yet the true vine is Christ who gives life and fruitfulness to the branches, that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ, without whom we can do nothing” (CCC 755). This echoes what Paul explained to the Philippians in today’s Epistle: fruitful labor is only possible in and through Jesus Christ.
That is how God shows forth His goodness and shares with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the September 21, 2008, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)