IN THIS Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 20:1-16A), the landowner in the parable is accused of being unfair in paying the wages of workers he hired for his vineyard. As the story goes, these workers – contracted at various times of the day, the first group at dawn, followed by the second group at nine o’clock, by another at noon, by still another at three o’clock, and by the last group at five o’clock – were all hired with the agreement of being paid the usual daily wage. When evening came each group was called for the payment of wages starting with the last group and moving to the first group. When the workers in the first group received their pay, they complained saying, “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the day’s burden and heat.” To this, the landowner replied, “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”
The landowner in this parable represents God, while the workers represent us. The vineyard is the kingdom of God and the "wage" given at the end of the day is an approximate, not exact, representation of salvation.
We might ask ourselves, “is the first group’s complaint against the landowner justified?” In the same vein, “is God being unfair if he saves people equally, regardless of how long they have been laboring for his kingdom?” The quick answers are: first, the workers’ complaint is not justified; and second, God is not being unfair to anyone.
Salvation is not something anyone of us truly deserves. We receive it as a gift from God when we respond to his call to accept his Son Jesus Christ as our Savior, believing that he offered his life on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. Just as no amount of effort could entitle the workers in the vineyard to something that is not really theirs in the first place, no amount of personal achievement apart from the grace of God can earn heaven for us. In fact, everything is grace; there is nothing we receive in this life that is not entirely owned by God.
St. Paul writes, “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:8-9). We are saved not by works related to the exacting demands of the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament. We are saved by our faith in him who fulfilled that Law and gave it its true and deeper meaning – Jesus Christ our Lord. This faith is not superficial faith but one that is made alive by our good works, not the works demanded by the Law. As St. James puts it, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:17).”
Strictly speaking, what motivated the landowner to grant wages to the workers was not his need for their labors. His vineyard could remain equally well without the workers’ toil. What really motivated him was his generosity; otherwise, he could have compensated them in proportion to their hours of work. But why did he not simply distribute the money to them in exchange for no effort? Because he desired their obedience which, after all, will be for their own good. He wanted them to choose what is right, which in time blooms into authentic love.
Heaven will be well even without us, but God wants us to be there. By our own merit, we cannot earn our way to heaven; there is only one way and that is Jesus. Apart from God, our good works are just like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) but with God, these works make our faith in him alive. The old argument on faith versus works is now irrelevant; faith and works go together. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).