Grapes grow riper and sweeter in these autumn days leading up to harvest. So many factors impact grape growth: air temperature, sun exposure, the health of other grapes in the cluster. There’s no way to plan the perfect picking day. Vineyards need workers who are nimble, attentive, and eager to embrace the unexpected — both when it comes to picking grapes and, as we see in today’s Gospel, in matters of money.
The first group of laborers in today’s parable get stuck in binary thinking at payment time:
Either you work a full day and get paid the usual wage,
or you work part of the day and get paid part of the usual wage.
This thinking makes sense. It seems fair.
But then they see the later hires get paid the full wage, and the first group makes an assumption:
If those who work part of the day get the full wage,
then those of us who work the full day will get the full wage plus a bonus.
Again, this thinking makes sense. It seems fair.
But the landowner rebukes this reasoning — and through his actions, Jesus shows us once again:
God is far too creative for binaries.
God is far too mysterious for assumptions.
Our God is a God of infinite possibilities, whose ways are high above the human ways to which we’ve grown accustomed. Our God cannot be tamed within the made-up constructs of in or out, worthy or unworthy, last or first. Our God is near to all who call upon the divine name in truth, no matter if we got to work at the crack of dawn or right before quitting time.
Through the landowner, Jesus shows us a God eager to break down the binaries and assumptions through which we so often operate, and to build up the dignity of every person. We see this in what the landowner teaches the first group of laborers. Picture him gently saying:
“My friend, you will get what we agreed to —
stop wasting your energy on envy.
Instead, take your place at the back of the line,
and pay attention:
See the people who began the day hoping for work, just like you did.
See the people who earnestly awaited their turn, just like you did.
See the people who answered my call, just like you did.
Watch as I give these people – people just like you – what they need,
and then come to the front to receive your share.”
The landowner sends the first group to the back of the line to give them the best view of generosity at work. He makes it so that the first group has no choice but to watch goodness and mercy lavished upon people they don’t think deserve it — people who, upon closer look, are just like them.
And by putting this group at the back, the landowner makes space for the later groups of workers in the front, a space they likely are not used to taking up. The generous, merciful landowner — reflecting the radical goodness of God — wants these people to know they matter too. And while there isn’t much dialogue recorded with the later groups, the landowner speaks volumes through his actions, which seem to say:
“My friend, you will get what you need,
the energy you exerted has not gone unnoticed.
Take your place at the front of the line,
and pay attention:
See that your worth cannot be measured in baskets filled or hours clocked.
See that it is never ‘too late’ in my vineyard.
See that your presence here matters—and nothing you do or don’t do can change that.”
It is with this same radical spirit of
fairness and generosity,
of justice and grace,
of creativity and mystery,
that God looks upon each of us — and it is in this spirit that God calls each one of us to act.
In our homes and schools, workplaces and worship spaces, we are called to break binaries that stifle diversity and clog possibilities. We are called to challenge assumptions that leave people and the earth in great need. We are called to see our fellow laborers, and ourselves, for who we are at every hour of the day in God’s eyes: beloved.
Jessie Bazan is a theologian and writer. She edited and co-authored the book, Dear Joan Chittister: Conversations with Women in the Church, released in September 2019 with Twenty-Third Publications.
Jessie also serves as the program associate for the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. She works with the Communities of Calling Initiative and the Called to Lives of Meaning and Purpose Initiative, two initiatives aimed at helping Christians deepen their sense of calling.
Jessie is a regular columnist for U.S. Catholic magazine and retreat facilitator across the Midwest. She earned her Masters of Divinity degree at the Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota and Bachelor of Arts from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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