Today’s gospel reading tells a parable about a landowner, a vineyard, and some day laborers and the wages paid to them. Like all of Jesus’ parables, it uses familiar and ordinary imagery: at harvest time workers are needed, and some are hired at the start of the day. The work is more than expected, so more and more workers are hired…some at midmorning, some at noon, some more in the afternoon, and even more with an hour to go in the workday. The scene is easily recognizable and sensible to the hearers in Jesus’ day and ours, until a surprising twist occurs at the end. The last workers into the field are paid a full day’s wage…and then the first ones hired receive the same wage!
The parable is hard to hear for people who expect “fairness” for a long day’s work. Everyone should get something for their effort, but we prefer to reward the industrious by giving them more than the “under-producers.” Jesus wanted his disciples to know that the Kingdom of God is meant to be every bit as full for the marginal, the lost, the unemployed, and the forsaken ones as it is for the world’s “model citizens.” The work that God gives us to do carries its own reward, and God’s economy of grace is not the same as the expected natural order of people. For many Christians, the grace God shows to others becomes a stumbling block, but for the marginal ones it brings a chance to fully contribute to the harvest.