A good Sunday to all.
Soon we will hear a parable of Jesus that will leave a little bitter taste in our mouth; it will be difficult for us to accept the message that he wants to communicate to us. By the way, when I have to comment on this gospel passage in the homily, sometimes I start by asking people in the Church: ‘Do you agree with what the parable says?’ And I see that everyone shakes their heads; they disagree.
How is it that Jesus narrates this parable? He narrates it because Peter asked him: ‘Master, you see, ... we have left everything, because we have decided to build that new world, the Kingdom of God that you came to bring. We want to commit ourselves, but we want to know what we will get.’ And Jesus answers that they will have a hundredfold and they will inherit eternal life; and then Jesus adds a mysterious phrase: "The last will be first, and the first will be last.” A phrase that is taken up at the end of the parable: "Thus the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
What is the topic being addressed? This is what Peter raised: the issue of wages; and when an employment contract is made, salary is the issue that is in the foreground and Peter did well in posing the problem because it is a question that involves us too. Like Peter and the apostles, we too have joined Christ. We are committed to building a new world, committed to making things better in the world, according to his Gospel, but we want to know what he will pay us in the end.
To sign a contract, we want things to be done fairly, and what is the justice we want? Exactly what Peter wanted, what all the Israelites had in mind when they signed a contract. There are rabbinical parables, very similar to those of Jesus. For example: there was a 28-year-old rabbi who died very young. And when a chief rabbi gave the funeral eulogy, he told a parable and said that: There was a king, who had workers; one worked only two hours, the others worked all day and the king paid them all equally; those who had worked all day complained and the owner replied: in two hours, he has done much more than you. So, I rightly gave him the same payment as everyone else. This is justice that is good when a contract is made; one is paid according to the work one has done.
Let us now listen to how Jesus thinks when he responds precisely with a parable:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just. So they went off. And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’”
The parable that we have begun to listen to, places us in the social context of the time of Jesus, that of a peasant society. It is the time of harvest; it is the time when the winegrowers are very tense, worried because when the grapes are ripe they should be harvested and press quickly and therefore he must choose the right day, a day when it doesn't rain; and for a large vineyard owner there is an additional concern, since he must find workers to send to his fields.
For workers who do not have a permanent job, this is an opportunity not to be missed because working under the care of winemakers, they can get a higher salary and in fact, we find that there is a group of these willing people who want to make money, and very soon they appear in the town square waiting to have some winegrowers pick them up for the day.
It is at this point that our parable begins, in a very realistic way: the first character to enter the scene is the owner of a vineyard who arrives at the plaza at 5:30 in the morning, but is on foot from three because he wants to organize all the work. He could have sent his assistant, but maybe, the assistant is still sleeping and it is he who goes directly to the square; he is very interested in finding workers and in fact he finds the first group, and he hires them for a denarius for 12 hours of work a day. Then he goes out four more times to look for workers, at 9:00 in the morning, at noon, at 3:00 in the afternoon and with these he does not contract any amount. He tells them to go to work and he will pay what is right.
To understand what Jesus wants to tell us with this parable, we must refer to the biblical symbolism of the vine, the grapes, and the wine. to which Jesus also often refers. We remember the wedding wine at Cana or when Jesus says: "I am the vine, you are the branches that have to produce grapes." The vineyard is one of the symbols of the people of Israel; we find this image in the psalms, in the prophets. In the fifth chapter of the prophet Isaiah, there is the famous ‘song of the vineyard,’ when the Lord planted a vineyard of which he was proud, he expected tasty grapes but—the prophet says—it had sour grapes, inedible, those were not the fruits the Lord expected: fruits of love, of justice.
The grape: Why is the grape the symbol of these people who must produce this fruit? Because the grapes give wine. Intoxication is condemned in the Bible. Sirach in chapter 31 says: "Don't make yourself strong, with wine". And the prophet Hosea in chapter four: "The wine and the wort take your mind off you." You should not get drunk on wine. Wine is a creature that has its own reason for existing if drunk in moderation, as it should be. Wine is the symbol of joy and celebration. Psalm 104, the prayer addressed to the Lord says: "You make plants grow for man, man cultivates them to obtain food and wine that gladden his heart." Sirach’s book in chapter 40 says: "Wine and music gladden the heart." Always Sirach in chapter 31: "What life is for those without wine?" And also, the Qohelet in chapter 10: "Wine animates life."
Here wine is something extra, it is not essential for life like water. You can do without wine. Wine is the symbol of gratuitousness, of celebration, of joy, of love ... In this parable, we find the owner of a vineyard who must produce grapes, must produce wine, that is, it must produce joy. This owner clearly represents God, who is very affectionate, urges him that his vine bear abundant fruit, that is, fruits of joy. And this image of the vineyard was immediately applied by Christians, not to Israel but to the Christian community. They felt themselves as the vineyard of the Lord and were very aware of what God expects from this vineyard. What does God expect? Only one thing. Joy, because God only wants the joy of his sons and daughters.
We were the ones who covered the Gospel with a veil of sadness, but if we remove from the Gospels the pages that speak to us of joy, we are left with the two covers because the Gospel is precisely the news that should fill us, and fill us with joy. In this pursuit of the owner, it is observed that he wants this plan of joy, peace, harmony to be carried out soon, in all humanity. This is the kingdom of God; this is the new world that He wants to build. Working in the vineyard, therefore, means committing ourselves to building this kingdom.
And now the topic of payment, which is what worries us. With the first group, we have seen that he has agreed on one denarius. With others, whatever is correct. At 5:00 in the afternoon, another group enters the scene, because the owner goes out again when there is only an hour left to end the day; and with these workers he has a longer conversation than with the others and says: "What are you doing here idle all day without working? They answer him: No one has hired us.” The last group are the leftovers, the ones who nobody wanted, maybe because they are weaker, more fragile, a little sick, or because, when the winegrowers arrived he realized that they were tired and did not hire them. Or maybe, the owner of the vineyard, did not find them because those who were in the square perhaps saw him arrive and said: "That is an owner who makes us work very hard," and they went back into the tavern or a pub. In the end, when they came out, the owner took them almost by surprise and sent them to the vineyard to work for only an hour.
So far nothing strange, everything has taken place in a very realistic way. Now is the time for payment. Let's try to be us to give the correct pay. The day went very well, the owner is happy because the tanks are full of wort, the grapes were quickly harvested. No basket was broken. Then we would gather all the workers and start with the first: "We had agreed on one denarius, but I give you two because you have worked very well, I see you tired." And then with the others we can raise the pay a little, up to a denarius and a half. And to the newcomers, ‘Also to you half a denarius ... do not spend it in the pub ... go home ... no more tavern; you didn’t really want to work, but join the celebration today.’ I would say, this is the right way to pay those who have worked.
Instead, Jesus doesn't end the parable this way. Let’s listen:
“When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘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?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Night comes and the workers return from the vineyard; the owner who is a just man, observant of the law, knows that he must pay the salary at the end of the day, not the next day and must give it before sunset because the employee, who is poor and needy, has spent all day impatiently waiting for that money and have to take it when the sun is still shining says the word of God in the book of Deuteronomy, and adds: "Be careful, do not disappoint, because the clamor would come to me, he is poor and your sin would be great." The vineyard owner is a good and honest person and says to the manager: ‘Put the workers on line and give each one a denarius starting with the last ones.’
This was not supposed to be done. If you want to be a generous person, do it in secret because you face those of the first hour who do not even get up from fatigue and are forcing them to see a mocking scene. Meanwhile, those who came last are there, they are relaxed and can barely believe that they are receiving the same pay. The first ones even notice smiles on the faces of the latter and almost take them for fools because they worked hard. And when the first ones come to receive their payment, they begin to strongly challenge this strange justice of the owner.
We wonder why they challenge him? And we also challenge the owner because we understand that this owner is God, who in the end gives everyone a denarius. And we protest because this means encouraging vagueness, it means favoring the lazy, those who have enjoyed life, while ‘we are working hard.’ Workers from the first hour tell the employer: "You pay us the same amount as those who only worked an hour."
Who are the ones who get mad at this injustice? We are the ones… the devoted Christians, good Christians, those who have observed all the commandments since childhood; those who, at night, before going to bed, are grateful to the Lord for the good works we have done because in this way we are accumulating merits in paradise and we ask the Lord to verify that everything is well written in His book. And now we hear that in the end the pay is the same for everyone!
Let us note then these are precisely the most fervent Christians who find it difficult to accept this justice of God. At the end Jesus says: "Why do you envy my goodness?" Fervent Christians are the ones who are not happy that, in the end, even those who were late to understand the Gospel, and to live according to the Gospel, now are equally happy. And if you later hear that, in addition to not having worked, they have hindered others, have created a lot of problems with everyone and they are not punished ... so you get angry.
These Christians look like that older brother in the parable, convinced that the younger brother had enjoyed his life, partied for years, ‘he was happy while I had to work hard, obeying through clenched teeth to all the orders from the boss.’ As if they were lucky for not having found the boss; as if they were fortunate of not having known the Gospel ... "so I too could have enjoyed life." These Christians think that following the Father's will entails sacrifices, sufferings, carry heavy weights and therefore, deserve a reward. This is our justice.
God's justice is completely different, and we cannot compel God to practice our justice. We would have paid in a different way. Why? Isaiah says it in chapter 55: "The Lord's thoughts are not our thoughts; as heaven is far from earth, so God’s ways are far from ours."
A certain spirituality has instilled in Christians 'the religion of merit,' which is equal to the religion of the Pharisees. It has been taught that we must do good because in this way we accumulate merit in Paradise. But this is not love, this is selfishness, it is thinking about ourselves. It is one of the conditions that Jesus sets for those who want to follow him: forget about yourself, think only on giving joy to your brother.
Let us try to identify the error on which our justice is based. It is that these devout Christians, righteous ones, do not understand that the Gospel is not a burden, an effort, a set of duties, which they would gladly do without. But the Gospel is a treasure and we were fortunate to have met and welcomed him. These devout Christians do not say: How pleasant to have met the Lord at the dawn of my life ... how lucky I was to be born into a family that raised me to accept the proposal of man that Jesus does in his Gospel! And what a grace it was for me to have been involved from childhood in the kingdom of God, having participated in the vineyard of the Lord, in building the new world! I am happy to have lived like this!’
A committed life, of course, also involves sacrifices, but is a beautiful life, because if I hadn't found the Gospel, I would have stayed, like so many others, chatting in the square throughout life.
And the one who understood the grace and joy that he had in finding the Gospel since he was a child. How does he see those who come later? Those who arrive after 9:00 in the morning ... age of youth. Those who arrive at 12 ... in the prime of life. To those who arrive at 3 in the afternoon, therefore, in middle age; and some who reach old age, when perhaps their life has passed looking for joy in the square, without finding it. When I see them coming, I, who am happy, say: ‘Good that you also come now, you arrive at the right time ... you will give us a precious hand ... now, in building the kingdom of God. You met the owner late, but look, in the end, He makes us all sit down to dinner. No matter who came first, who came late, He wants everyone to participate in his feast.’
And what does he say to the one who arrived late? ‘What a pity not to have discovered before the beauty of the Gospel. Too bad I haven't met the Lord before.’ This is sin, not anything else. Sin, the righteous say: ‘is to enjoy life’ ... NO. The one who reaches at the last hour says: ‘What a shame, I have not discovered before the beauty of living as indicated by Jesus of Nazareth in his Gospel!’ This is sin.
Sin is not an enjoyment; it is a loss. With this parable, Jesus wants to permanently demolish the religion of merit. The words used by the teacher in the parable are very harsh, he says: ‘Friend, I am not doing you any harm, you have agreed a denarius with me, take yours and go.’
He's talking to those who defend the religion of merit. ‘Do you like this religion of merit? Keep it, take your denarius and go enjoy your selfishness that makes you impulsive, makes you hostile in the community of brothers and sisters. You will be a Christian with a mean heart, unable to rejoice in your brother's joy; and when you hear that the Lord won't send his son to hell ... you get mad.’ In the end, Jesus will say: "because your eye is bad when you look at my goodness."
And there is the phrase of Jesus that frames this parable: "The last will be the first and the first will be the last." Who are the first? They are the devout Christians, those who have fought, from the first hour, and they are sad that in the end even the brothers who came last have this fullness of joy; they do not understand, or understand it only at the end, what is the justice of God. Instead, the latter come to understand first the free and unconditional love of God and ... they are sad, for not having discovered it from the first hour. The parable is not finished.
The Gospel does not tell us what response the workers of the first hour gave, when the teacher told them: "... take your pay and go away". It's the invitation for us to finish this parable. If we don't understand that it is we who must change our justice and adhere to the justice of the Master, we are still good Jews, ... committed, generous people, but we are not yet Christians!
I wish you all a good Sunday and a good week.