A kinder gentler look at the Parable of the Vineyard Laborers

This kinder gentler look brought to you by the Fathers of the Church…

Yesterday, Septuagesima Sunday, our brothers and sisters worshipping in the extraordinary form meditated on two powerhouse readings.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians (I Cor 9-10) about crossfit training for our souls: Those who would win the race need to train by disciplined self-denial.  In the Gospel (Mt. 20) our Lord instructs us with the parable of the vineyard workers being paid.  

So much has been said about both of these classic selections.  Analysis usually (at least in my experience) devolves into a rah rah encouragement (Paul)… and questions of fairness in the case of the Gospel reading.  For a different look…to keep my own eyes of faith fresh… I decided to consult the Fathers of the Church in the Cataena Aurea, particularly about the Gospel parable.  Here’s just a very few highlights from their approach:

St. Gregory the Great considers the several hours at which the workers were called to labor in the vineyard.  He identifies each hour as a series of Old Testament covenants!  I never would’ve thought of that!  …which may be why I’m not a patristic scholar… In this reading, the vineyard owner isn’t just calling workers off the streets to employ them, but because he has a lively concern for the salvation of all! 

Origen and St. John Chrysostom make an interesting observation: “The market place [from whence the workers are called] is anywhere that is outside the Catholic Church.”  “For in the world men live by buying and selling: and by defrauding each other to sustain their own lives.”  The market… the rat race of life without the Gospel… is always marked first and foremost by self-concern at best… and at worst self-centeredness.  Working in the Vineyard, it’s true, there will be a day’s wage for the workers, but the lion share of benefits accrue to the owner.  In other words: God desires to give us what we need, that we might work first and foremost for his glory and praise!  

Is this itself a slavish setup?  Certainly not.  When we live for others it lightens the load of our personal sadnesses and contextualizes the whole of life… gives it meaning.  Often enough, I find myself lamenting the administrative side of church life… but at the very least there is almost always kindness among colleagues… From what my people tell me, this isn’t always the case in the world.  

As a side note, I recently heard an interview (I think it’s a replay actually) between Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post and jazz great Winton Marsalis.  Over the course of an illuminating conversation, Marsalis laments the completely commodity-based culture that has developed around us, in which everything that art produces needs to be sell-able.  Consider having a listen HERE.

My favorite reading of this Gospel though comes, again, from Origen: 

He did not call the laborers of the third hour to a whole day’s work: whatever they were able to do he reserved to his own judgement to reward accordingly.  For they could do an amount of work equal to that done by those who had worked from the early morning, were they willing, in the shorter space of time, and not sparing their toil, to put forth a greater effort to the work at hand.

We always assume that the latecomers were lazy, but maybe the Lord knew they would work harder than the others.  Alternately, perhaps he called them knowing they would offer 100% of what they were able.  It reminds me of St. Philip Neri who “asks not our all, but only what we can spare him.” (cf Hymn: St. Philip and His School, by Faber).  In either case, the point is this: God knows how much each can work and what that person’s labor merits… NOT us.

A final thought… Some propose that God loves the first laborers more because they put in a whole day’s work, signing on with him from the beginning.  The later laborers may have made it into his good graces, but this is reckoned as some pure kindness on God’s part, keeping them in second-class status.  But consider the words of St. John Chrysostom:

Therefore God in rendering reward to all the saints (i.e. early workers) appears as just: but in giving to the Gentiles (i.e. late workers) He is seen as merciful, as the Apostle says ‘but the gentiles are to glorify God for his mercy.’  …Boundless mercy has not regard to order.

Our Lord’s justice and his mercy are equally beautiful gifts of his.  Who are we to try to make one look better than the other?

As I read these words this morning… these brilliant observations by the Fathers… I smiled.  Often we think of the ancient Church as a stoic cheerless time.  While they were certainly tough as nails compared to us, our ancestors in the faith were also deeply passionate and positive offering theological reflections full of color and nuance.  As we approach Lent, might we think the same about the Holy Season itself??

More to come…