Matthew 20:1-16a continues the discourse of Jesus in Matthew 19:28-30 which in turn is linked to the episode of the rich young man. Ultimately, the parable of the owner of the vineyard will have to be understood in the light of this preceding episode and the lesson on discipleship that follows it ((We do not have a section for the Catechism in this Guide simply because !Matthew 20:1-16a is not found in the Biblical Index of the Catechism.)).
Guide for Reading
The parable of the owner of the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16 is framed by two similar phrases about the first being last and the last being first (19:30;20:16a). The existence of a phrase that is similar to these in the middle of the parable itself (cf. Matthew 20:8) is an indication that the intent of the author is to explain the phrases in 19:30 and 20:16a. This is what Jewish interpreters would call a midrash (= interpretation) in the form of a mashal (= parable). Read the text of the parable keeping in mind the following things
- Cultural Backgrounder
- The Jewish day in first century Palestine is from 6 AM to 6 PM. The expression “early in the morning” refers to 6 AM, the first hour. The eleventh hour is equivalent to our 5 PM. The working day is 6 AM-6 PM. Figure out at what times the owner of the vineyard went out to hire laborers for his vineyard based on your text.
- One who wanted work went to the market or the crossroads to wait for possible employers. Laborers are hired according to their fitness for the job envisioned for them. There is a real possibility that one will not find work. Because of this, one can also distinguish between “idle” and “lazy”. One may be “idle” the whole day because one has not been hired.
- A denarion is a day’s wage and is sufficient for feeding a large peasant family for a day.
- Narrative Guidelines
- The character which is the subject of most of the verbs is also the main character of a story.
- Long sections are important. Pay attention to the length of certain elements in the text.
- Repeated phrases structure a narrative. Pay attention to these.
- A short story normally has a beginning, a conflict that leads to a climax and a resolution. Figure out where the conflict, climax and resolution of the parable.
- Particular Elements in the Parable
- Was the owner of the vineyard unjust to the workers who came first?
- Was the complaint of the workers who worked the whole day reasonable?
- The workers who came late and received a full day’s wage are quiet in the story. Could you explain their silence?
- Read what Jesus says about the recompense of his disciples in Matthew 19:28-29. If that is the “wage” for both the “first” and the “last”, would it still matter if one were “first” or “last”?
Comparing the Readings
The first reading is an invitation to “seek the Lord” immediately, with the added assurance that Yahweh’s generosity precludes all human notion of what is acceptable or not. God’s thoughts are above men’s thoughts: whatever assumptions men have about divine justice is not equal to God who is merciful and generous in forgiving. This insight can be linked to the response of the owner to the murmurring laborers. “What, do you give me the evil eye because I am generous?” (cf. Matthew 20:14-15)
The owner of the vineyard in the Gospel reading also displays generosity in giving work to the men he finds at 5 PM, one hour before the end of a working day. His paying them a full day’s wage too is an illustration of that generosity. One can just imagine the reaction of these workers. Perhaps the Responsorial for the day, taken from Psalm 145 can express their unverbalized reaction
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all
and compassionate toward all his works.
Suggestions for a Lesson Plan
God who is even merciful in His justice is the sole fixed point; everything else becomes relative. Before him, the “first” and “last”, the “high” and the “low” become mere categories created by men who can impose their labels upon others. In the parable of Matthew 20:1-16a, the owner silences the murmurring of the workers who came first by calling attention to his justice and to his liberal generosity. For a homily or a catechism, I would suggest the following:
1. Ask the audience how they would feel if they were the last hired but received a full day’s wage and received it first. An anticipated response from them would be positive. Relate the response to either the responsorial psalm or the first reading in Isaiah 55:6-9.
2. If you choose the responsorial psalm, concentrate on blessing and praising God (Psalm 145:2-3) in a spirit of gratitude for favors and graces received. Grace is after all “undeserved help.” One then can connect this experience of gratitude to the second reading (Philippians 1:20-24,27) where Paul tells the Philippians that though he already wants to be with the Lord, still he’d prefer to labor in the Church for he sees it as a necessity for the Philippians who are loved by the Lord. To serve those whom the Lord loves is for Paul better than being with the Lord, for that would be tantamount to asking for his wages before his work has been completed.
3. If you choose the first reading, then conversion becomes the theme. In this light, one can point to an element of the parable which Matthew leaves us to figure out. If we understand the parable in the light of the preceding discourse about the reward of Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 19:28-29), then it does not really matter whether one is first and last. The “wage” still results from both God’s justice and mercy and is beneficial to those who have begun to live for the sake of Christ. What matters then is that one “works” for the Lord. Conversion here, then is to commit oneself to the Lord immediately because one does not know when the end of days will come.