ISAIAH 55:6-9 | PHILIPPIANS 1:20-24, 27A | MATTHEW 20:1-6A
The parable that Jesus is giving us for our reflection today was based on a common occurrence in the Palestine of his time. The marketplace was the gathering spot for a poor class of workers, the day laborer. They were good, hardworking men who didn’t have salaried jobs. The scene takes place during the grape harvest at the end of September. This harvest was always a nerve-wracking gamble. The owner of the vineyard would want to have the grapes on the vine as long as possible to ripen and sweeten them in the sun. But timing the harvest was a problem. The end of September and the beginning of October was the beginning of the rainy season. If the harvest couldn’t be taken in before the rains came, it would spoil, and the harvest would be lost. So, when the decision to gather the harvest was made, the owner had to make sure he had enough workers to gather the harvest fast and efficiently.
In the parable, the owner of the vineyard went out at the beginning of the workday, 6 AM, and gathered what workers he could find. At 9 o’clock he realized that he needed more if he was going to get the harvest in on schedule. He went out again at noon and 3. It seems that the owner was getting nervous about the harvest because he went out again just before the end of the workday. At 5 o’clock he hired the last bunch. The work day ended at 6 PM.
He then paid each of the laborers a full-day’s wage, about 20 dollars. Some worked for 12 hours, others as little as 1 hour, but they were each paid a full day’s pay. A complaint arose from
one worker who had worked all day. He said that he should have been paid more since the last to be hired that day was paid a full-day’s pay.
Where do we go with this parable? The punch line seems like a riddle for us to solve. “Thus, the last will be first and the first will be last.”
In the working world, when people work for an hour, they are paid an hour’s wage. If they work twelve hours, they are paid for twelve hours. But time doesn’t seem to be of interest to Jesus. Remember, he begins the parable with a well-known phrase: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” He’s not telling a story about workers’ rights. He’s revealing a secret about the kingdom of God.
Every day is the day of harvest, and every minute we labor in the vineyard is an experience of the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom is a treasure in a field, a pearl of great price, a vineyard ready to be harvested. If we devote ourselves to gathering the harvest, or digging up the treasure in the field, or selling everything we own to buy the most valuable pearl in the world, our reward is the kingdom of heaven itself. It’s worth more than a full day’s wage or an hour’s wage. Every minute we spend devoting ourselves to the harvest of the kingdom is a minute we ourselves experience the kingdom. We touch it when we kiss a crying child, or hug a man who has lost his family in a flood or earthquake, or fire. We feel it when a kindness is shown to us, or when we lift up someone who has fallen. We know it deep inside ourselves when we open our hearts to let God’s love flow through us to touch another heart.