by Fr. Tommy Lane
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) means different things to different people. I would like to see it as Jesus teaching us about being called by God and staying close to God when called. The householder went to the market place to hire laborers. That was the place where the unemployed would wait each day hoping for someone to hire them. If they already had work they would not have been standing by idly in the market place. They were hired because they had nothing. God can only invite us, call us, and give us his gifts when we are open to receiving God’s gifts. For some, it may be easier to hear God speak when they are in the market place with nothing else in life, when life appears to be in turmoil. When we are not in control God can take over and direct us. We see this in many characters in Sacred Scripture.
St. Paul was on the ground on the road to Damascus when Jesus spoke to him (Acts 9). When Jesus spoke to him he was not riding along happily but was already on the ground. And even lying helplessly on the ground he was not ready for what Jesus wanted to tell him. Jesus told him to go to Damascus where he would be told what to do. He was blind for the three days before his baptism in Damascus. Paul spent three days in darkness, on an intense retreat, to prepare to receive the word that Jesus wanted to give him, to be his missionary to the Gentiles. Paul received his call to work in the vineyard when he was thrown on the ground and blind for three days.
The good thief, as we call him, received the call on the last day of his life (Luke 23:42-43). Nailed on a cross beside Jesus he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) We could not find someone in a worse predicament in the gospel than nailed to a cross. But in that dreadful moment this thief had the humility to speak to Jesus and hear the beautiful words, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” If he had not been on that cross that day he would not have spoken to Jesus as he did, nor received the beautiful promise that he did from Jesus. The good thief had to be crucified to enter Paradise that day with Jesus. On the worst day of his life he was called to work in the vineyard because it was the only day he would stop to listen to the call. He had to be last in order to hear the call from Jesus to become first.
We would expect those who received the call first in the day to appreciate the unparalleled privilege they had received. But their grumbling, when they were paid the same amount as those who were called last into the vineyard, betrays what was really going on in their minds. Even though they worked in God’s vineyard from the beginning, they were not close to God. Their resentment towards those who came last betrayed what their problem really was; they did not know the love of God. It is possible that those who were hired last to work in the vineyard knew God’s heart better at the end of the day.
The unhealthy spirituality of those first called to the vineyard is a warning and invitation to all those who work in the vineyard. We have received the unparalleled grace to work in God’s vineyard but we are also in need of ongoing conversion. Those called later in the day underwent some sort of conversion to be able to respond to the call to work in God’s vineyard. But those called first to work in God’s vineyard are in need of ongoing conversion not to develop an unhealthy spirituality like those called first in the parable. We have very helpful moments built into our day to keep our hearts converted and focused on God. We celebrate the Eucharist, we pray the liturgy of the hours, make holy hours, we do spiritual reading, we pray the rosary, we have fraternity groups. These are all precious and necessary moments to help us know the love of God while working in his vineyard. We can only work fruitfully in the vineyard if we withdraw from the work of vineyard a few times each day in silence. It is only by withdrawing from the work of the vineyard to contemplate the love of God of the vineyard that we can fruitfully do the work in the vineyard. To me, it seems the error that those first called in the parable made was that they did not stop to reflect on God’s gift to them. Those who were called later, knew what they did not have before they were called to the vineyard and were more capable of appreciating God’s gift.
I like to see the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard as Jesus teaching us about being called by God and staying close to God when called. Sometimes we can only hear what God has to say to us when we are in the market place with nothing, when we are thrown on the ground and blind, or nailed to a cross. Although painful, if we respond to God’s call, these painful moments become precious moments of conversion. The unhealthy spirituality of those first called to the vineyard is a warning and invitation to all those who work in the vineyard. It is only by withdrawing from the work of the vineyard to contemplate the love of God of the vineyard that we can fruitfully do the work in the vineyard. Whether we receive the call to work in God’s vineyard later in day because of drama in our lives, or received it early in the day, we are all alike in need of reflecting on the love of God so that we can fruitfully serve the loving God who called us.
© Fr. Tommy Lane 2014
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