Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Are You Envious Because I Am Generous?

Today’s gospel (Matthew 20:1-16) is the well-known story Jesus told his disciples about the landowner who goes at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sends them out to his vineyard. Then he goes back about nine o’clock, and hires more workers. And he went out again about noon, and around three in the afternoon, and hired more workers. Finally, about five in the afternoon, he finds others still standing around. “Why have you been standing here all day long?” “Because no one has hired us.” “Then you, too, go to my vineyard.”

At the end of the day, the vineyard owner told his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals, and ending with the first.” When those who started at about five o’clock came, each received the full day’s wages. So, when those who started early in the morning came, they thought they would get more, but each of them, regardless of whether they started early, late or in between, got the same amount: a full day’s wages

They complained to the owner, “These men who came last have done only one hour’s work, and yet you have treated them the same as us, even though we’ve done a heavy day’s work in the heat.” He replied to one of them, “Friend, I am not being unjust to you, since we agreed on one full day’s wages, and that is what you received. Take your earnings and leave. If I choose to pay the late-comers as much as I pay you, don’t I have a right to do what I choose? Why be envious because I am generous?”

Thus the last will be first and the first will be last.”

The key to understanding this parable is the audience to whom it is addressed in Matthew’s gospel: Jesus told HIS DISCIPLES this parable.” This parable is not about social justice or about labor relations. The moral of the story is that God is generous with His gifts. God does not give us grace not as a reward, but as an incentive for doing what he asks of us: to love him with all our heart and mind and might, and our neighbor as ourselves.

Saint John Chrysostom, in a sermon on this gospel, asked this question:“Why didn’t he hire them all at once?’ This was his answer: “As far as the Lord was concerned, he did hire them all at once. But not all of them listened and followed at the same time, so the difference in time was caused by them. Some are called early, some in mid-morning, some at noon, some at mid-afternoon, some at sundown. He calls them in the same way he called the thief on the cross next to his at Calvary: If he had called them sooner they – the vineyard workers and the “good thief” would not have obeyed.

Rabbis used to tell a story about a landowner who paid a man as much for two hours work as he paid others for a full day’s work. But this was because the worker had accomplished as much in one hour as the average worker did in two. This rabbinical story is only superficially similar to Jesus’ parable; it is about wages, not about gift; about merit, not about grace. On the other hand, in Jesus’ parable, the late arrivals didn’t deserve as much as the others, but they received as much, by reason of the generosity of the landowner. He knew that a man could not support his family on the wages for one or two hours work, so he paid him a “family wage”. In other words, he did not see the workers as mere “hired hands”; he treated them like full human beings.

The ones who had worked all day long were “envious”. A more ancient – and more literal – translation reads, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The complainers had an evil eye. When they looked, they were blind to the generosity of the landowner, because it was not they who benefitted, but others. That is how the ego sees: it is the original evil eye. Whenever the ego – the self-centered part of human nature – prays, it says, “Give me this day my daily bread, and don’t be concerned about the others.”

No comments: