Several years ago I wrote a column on this Gospel (Mt 20:1-16a). Hurricane Katrina had just battered her way across New Orleans leaving tens of thousands of people displaced, many finding themselves far removed from the city they called home. One group boarded an airplane, thinking they were heading for Texas, only to find that they were actually going to Utah. This group of mostly Baptist African Americans was faced with the prospect of living among a largely white, mostly Mormon population. Surely one could not have arrived later in the day than this!
Matthew’s Gospel about the landowner and the laborers used to really bother me. Having worked in office administration for years I’m aware of the tensions that can arise when one employee thinks that another, newer employee is being paid more than they. And the disciples could probably relate to this way of thinking as well. But then Jesus came and set out another way of thinking. What if, instead of focusing on the complaint of the worker, we were to focus on the generosity of the landowner?
Before the hurricane hit, the population of New Orleans, like that of any large city, pretty much hummed along to its own rhythm. People lived where they had always lived, workers who had been there since dawn. But then most of those workers had to be relocated. Some, able to evacuate under their own power, arrived in their new vineyard about nine o’clock. Others, having ridden out the storm but leaving in time to escape the flooding, came to the vineyard around noon, or perhaps three o’clock. But the last group, those who huddled in public buildings and hospitals, in attics and on overpasses waiting for help, arrived much later in the day. And to our nation’s credit, instead of grumbling, our citizens generously opened their arms to them.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” The answer must continue to be a resounding “No!” The body of Christ must continue to reach out to the body of Christ. And “Thus, the last [to leave] will be first,” even if they arrive in the vineyard long after dark.
Van Benthem is a longtime pastoral minister in the diocese.