The parable in today’s Liturgy of the Word has been modified a bit by the author of Matthew’s Gospel; the emendation was intended to address an issue facing Matthew’s church community. In its Matthean context the parable was a warning to the community’s leaders. The warning was intended to dissuade them from acting as if the responsibility of church leadership made them more virtuous than ordinary believers, and therefore, more respectable in God’s eyes.
Immediately prior to this parable a rich young man had approached Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16) Jesus responded, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) The Gospel tells us that the young man “went away sad, for he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:22)
At this juncture, Peter saw an opportunity to extol his own virtues. He told Jesus, “We have given up everything and followed you.” (Matthew 19:27) Jesus assured Peter and the Eleven that their sacrifices would not be in vain, but he warned them against the sin of pride. He said, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30) Those who were “first,” by virtue of having forsaken everything to follow Jesus, might turn out to be the last of all. Following upon this warning Jesus told the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
At the end of a work day a vineyard owner distributed payment to his workers, beginning with the last hired. He payed the same wage to those who were hired at the eleventh hour and to those who were hired at daybreak. This would have appeared just as arbitrary to Jesus’ hearers as it appears to us (although for different reasons). We would interpret the vineyard owner’s action as being unjust based on a sense of proportionality; Jesus’ culture would have interpreted it as showing favoritism to those who had not earned it.
Those who worked the longest complained that they had been treated fairly, but not with favoritism. They said, “You made these guys, who worked only the final hour of the day, equal to us who have borne the full burden of the day and its heat.” (Matthew 20:12) The vineyard owner’s response contains a classical Mediterranean cultural reference. The vineyard owner protested, “Why give me the evil eye because I’m good-natured?” (Matthew 20:15)
The story line of the parable is set up to require the first hired to wait around long enough to see the last hired paid the same wage as themselves. Jesus summed up the parable by inverting his earlier statement to Peter. He said, “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16) This is a repetition of the earlier warning. Matthew’s Gospel portrays Jesus as telling the church community members not to seek reward from God, but rather to accept any reward that might come as an unexpected, and undeserved, gift.
This Scriptural reminder about the gratuity of God’s mercy might seem superfluous. We refer to God’s favor as “Grace,” something freely given. Despite the language used, there remains a tendency to treat God’s favor as something to be earned or merited. There was an excellent illustration of this tendency in the news this past week.
Last Sunday Pope Francis performed a group wedding ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica. Local news media in the City of Rome reported that some of the newly married couples had been living together prior to the wedding ceremony. A group of Catholic neo-traditionalists reacted angrily to the news that the Pope had done a wedding ceremony for couples who were “living in sin.” The group’s reason for criticizing the Pope was that co-habitation (a couple living together outside of marriage), is a sin, and the Pope’s action minimized the seriousness of the sin. The group advocated for a prohibitive, if not punitive, attitude toward those couples.
That group of neo-traditionalists accurately portrayed the sinful action of those couples who were living together before marriage. Co-habitation remains a moral issue for Catholic couples. However, the group failed to distinguish between morality and faith. Their concern about a moral issue made them blind to two serious issues about the Faith. The couples who participated in that wedding ceremony did so because they wanted to be in a regular relationship with the Church, and wanted to be able to receive Holy Communion. Pope Francis, as Bishop of Rome, has a pastoral responsibility to the people of his Diocese; in this case, he had a responsibility to provide the opportunity to rectify an irregular situation.
The neo-traditionalists portrayed a moral injunction as having more importance than matters of faith; Pope Francis treated the Faith as having an importance greater than a moral injunction. In other words, the neo-traditionalists were very concerned about what needs to be done to merit God’s favor; the Pope was more concerned about the gratuity of God’s favor.
It is easy to grasp the point made by the neo-traditionalists. They are people who are fastidious about their religious observance. They probably find it insulting that known sinners were given the same access to the Sacraments that they themselves receive. On the other hand, Pope Francis’ gesture of conciliation has removed the barrier to sacramental participation for those couples who were previously in irregular relationships with the Church.
Both sides of the issue have much to commend them. Convincing arguments can be made to support both points of view. The argument that I find most convincing is the one made by Jesus. He said, “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16) God’s favor is no sign of distinction, and not to be interpreted as reason for pride. God grants mercy for the same reason that some people heap disdain on others: it is a reflection of their nature. If you are the sort of person who has always made a sincere effort to live a virtuous and faithful life, be grateful for that gift because it is pure gift from God in the same way that repentance is a pure Divine gift offered to all sinners. No one, including God, deserves the “evil eye” for being merciful.