Of all the parables of Jesus, I find the parable of the laborers in the vineyard particularly intriguing and thought-provoking. The story never fails to elicit strong reactions from its listeners that include disbelief, protest, or even outright anger. But once properly understood, its reward for those who care to really listen is the consolation of a big “Aha” moment and the priceless satisfaction of seeing the truth more clearly.
A skillful story-teller that Jesus is, he knows just what to say to break the apathy of the human mind so that it’s back into focus and ready for wisdom. To do so sometimes he may say something that seems to defy all logic and generally accepted norms, as is the case in this Sunday’s gospel. How can it be fair for the landowner to pay all laborers in the vineyard the same usual daily wage regardless of how many hours they have worked? People wonder aloud. When they realize that the landowner in the parable refers to God, it triggers in them even more discomfort and resentment: Isn’t God just and righteous? Why does He act like a tyrant who does whatever He pleases? The progression from bewilderment to resentment and then to strong protest can come in quick successions.
The key to understanding this parable is to see the “usual daily wage” not as a monetary compensation for work done, but as God’s grace freely given to save first the people of Israel and later the Gentiles. The fact that God’s saving grace is extended equally to both Israel, who took part in God’s plan of salvation first, and the late-coming Gentiles suggests not unfairness on God’s part, but His generosity and mercy. (Ref: Ignatius Catholic Study Bible commentary on this parable.)
The concept that proves so difficult to grasp for so many people is that God’s grace, i.e. the “usual daily wage” in the parable, is something that cannot be earned. Contrary to human understanding, which is often blinded by our earthly way of life, the kingdom of heaven - the subject matter of this parable - is not a “market place”. Unlike this world, which, due to human limitations, is dominated by consumerism and the principle of buying and selling, the kingdom of heaven is powered by God’s grace alone, which, shocking as it may sound, is not for sale. Neither is grace something that can be bought or earned by mere human efforts (cf. Fr. Richard Rohr, Things Hidden – Scripture as Spirituality, 2008, p. 160).
Now that we know better what grace is, we would appreciate more what the prophet Isaiah said when he proclaimed the magnificent gifts that God would lavish on His people: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!” (Is. 55:1)
Shocking, isn’t it? Don’t know about you, but to me the parable is more like a shock therapy for resuscitating our hearts which are totally numb, or a powerful stimulant for rejuvenating our brains which are all but dead. No, I’m not talking about drugs. I’m talking about Jesus, the master story-teller, who knows exactly what to say to revive us from apparent death.