Translation of the Holy Gospel According to Matthew
At that time Jesus spoke to his disciples this parable: The kingdom of heaven is like to an householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And having agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour, he saw others standing in the market place idle, and he said to them: Go you also into my vineyard, and I will give you what shall be just. And they went their way. And again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour: and did in like manner. But about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing, and he said to them: Why stand you here all the day idle? They say to him: Because no man has hired us. He said to them: Go you also into my vineyard. And when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard said to his steward: Call the laborers and pay them their hire, beginning from the last even to the first. When therefore they were come that came about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first also came, they thought that they should receive more: and they also received every man a penny. And receiving it they murmured against the master of the house, saying: These last have worked but one hour, and thou hast made them equal to us that have borne the burden of the day and the heats. But he answering said to one of them: Friend, I do thee no wrong: did thou not agree with me for a penny? Take what is thine and go thy way: I will also give to this last even as to thee. Or, is it not lawful for me to do what I will? Is thy eye evil, because I am good? So shall the last be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.
From St. Pope John Paul II’s Homily for Mass, September 1987.
That message has to do with a spiritual reality, the Kingdom of God, towards which Jesus seeks to raise the minds and hearts of his listeners. He begins today’s parable with the words: “The reign of God is like the case of the owner of an estate who went out at dawn to hire workmen for his vineyard” (Mt 20:1). That our Lord is speaking about more than just human work and wages should be clear from the owner’s actions and the ensuing conflict between him and some of the workers. It is not that the owner refuses to honour the agreement about wages. The dispute arises because he gives the same pay to everybody, whether the person worked all day or only part of the day. Each receives the sum which had been agreed upon. Thus the owner of the estate shows generosity to the latecomers, to the indignation of those who had worked all day. To them, this generosity seems to be an injustice. And what response does the owner give? “I am free”, he says, “to do as I please with my money, am I not? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15).
In this parable, we find one of those seeming contradictions, those paradoxes, that appear in the Gospel. It arises from the fact that the parable is describing two different standards. One is the standard by which justice is measured by things. The other standard belongs to the Kingdom of God, in which the way of measuring is not the just distribution of things but the giving of a gift, and, ultimately, the greatest gift of all – the gift of self.
The owner of the estate pays the workers according to the value of their work, that is, the sum of one denarius. But in the Kingdom of God the pay or wages is God himself. This is what Jesus is trying to teach. When it comes to salvation in the Kingdom of God, it is not a question of just wages but of the undeserved generosity of God, who gives himself as the supreme gift to each and every person who shares in divine life through sanctifying grace.
Such a recompense or reward cannot be measured in material terms. When a person gives the gift of self, even in human relations, the gift cannot be measured in quantity. The gift is one and undivided because the giver is one and undivided.
How can we receive such a gift? We look to Saint Paul for an answer. His words in the Letter to the Philippians are fascinating: “I firmly trust and anticipate that I shall never be put to shame for my hopes… Christ will be exalted through me, whether I live or die. For, to me, ‘life’ means Christ; hence dying is so much gain” (Ph 1:20-21).
With these words of Saint Paul we find ourselves at the very heart of that standard of measurement which belongs to the kingdom of heaven. When we receive a gift, we must respond with a gift. We can only respond to the gift of God in Jesus Christ – his Cross and Resurrection – in the way that Paul responded – with the gift of ourselves. All that Paul is, is contained in this gift of self, both his life and his death. The gift of a person’s life cannot be valued merely in terms of the number of hours spent in an earthly vineyard.
Saint Paul, and everyone like him, realizes that one can never match or equal the value of God’s gift of himself to us. The only measure that applies is the measure of love. And love’s measure, as Saint Bernard says, is to love without measure (S. Bernardi De Diligendo Deo, I, 1). This makes it possible for the last to be first, and the first last (cfr. Mt 20:16).
… Only in the Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ do we come to see that love is the measure of all things in the Kingdom of God, because “God is love” (1 Io. 4:8). We can fully experience love in this life only through faith and repentance.