Photo: Lasseter Winery on Unsplash
The gospel is difficult for us to interpret because we come from a cultural experience very different from what was experienced in this gospel.
Most workers today are not impressed by this gospel- the owner giving the same wage to workers who had laboured all day as those who only spent a short time in the vineyard after the heat of the day had passed.
However, people from backgrounds influenced by the Spanish for example, people in the Philippines and from Mexico, would readily have a clear grasp of this gospel.
The difference is cultural for those who understand: the owner of the vineyard hires workers for his vineyard in the morning when they gather looking for someone to hire them. They will work for a full day in the sun but they are content with their pay.
Here the owner is an employer.
Later in the day, the owner returns to the village square and hires workers even when the day is almost over. Trouble surfaces when the workers who came very late to the vineyard get paid the same wage as those who have worked all day in the sun. These latter workers are justifiably angry.
But the owner has treated the latecomers to the vineyard not as their employer but as their patron! He has been generous in his dealings with them, the way he would be with members of his own family. His relationship is different with the latecomers because he chose it to be so.
To this day, poorer families in certain countries will try to get a wealthy person to become godfather or godmother to their children because then the child will have a patron to fall back on when the going gets tough which is most of the time.
The parable has some elements of the sandpit in which a young child is playing happily with a toy until another child arrives with a toy which the first child sees and wants to play with. Trouble ensues when the child tries to take the toy away, the previous happy arrangement being revoked and discarded.
We identify the owner of the vineyard as God. God is just to the workers who work all day. They are happy until they see the latecomers getting the same wage as themselves. They see this action as unfair to them. And they are angry.
The owner stands his ground and asks the question which is key: why are you so full of envy because I am generous? The owner may act as an employer or as a patron as he wishes. The workers receiving their just wage are now dissatisfied with the owner and envious of the latecomers.
No equivocation here. Today’s gospel finishes with the words, "the first will be last and the last will be first". If we hold God to account for being generous with others when God has already loved us, our place is at the back of the line.
Columban Fr Gary Walker is currently living at the Columban house in Sandgate, Brisbane.