Having been an employee in private industry for years, Matthew’s Gospel about the landowner and the laborers used to really bother me. There were no unions in my office, but I was part of an association formed to represent my fellow workers and so, in these days of political wrangling around issues of unions and collective bargaining, this Gospel takes on a special significance for me. I’m well aware of the tensions that can arise when one employee thinks that another, newer employee is being paid more than they, and I’m guessing that the disciples could relate to this way of thinking as well.
But Jesus came to teach another way of thinking. Rather than focusing on the worker we are to focus on the generosity of the landowner. Could there not also be a lesson there for us?
When I was growing up, teachers and public employees, like most other workers, pretty much took it for granted that they would be compensated based on the number of years they had worked and the education and experience they brought to their jobs. People worked where they had always worked; laborers who had been there since dawn were paid what they had always been paid. But changes in union rules meant that many of those jobs were no longer secure. Some workers who found their previous expectations altered or totally dismissed managed to find other employment paying as well or better, arriving in their new vineyard about 9 a.m. Still others, having ridden out the storm of political debate secure in their jobs, came to the vineyard around noon, or perhaps 3 p.m. But the last group, those who lost their jobs or ended up taking jobs at considerably less pay, arrived much later in the day.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” How do we answer this question if we’re the ones who worked through the day? How do we respond to those who enjoy the benefits of the job but show little interest in making the workplace better for those who come after them? How does God think? How do we?
Van Benthem is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order and a longtime pastoral minister in the diocese.