Today’s parable in the Gospel of Matthew has been understood in various frames and interpretations over the course of history. For some it was proof that works or good deeds were required for an individual to be a member of the family of God. For other it was proof of the exact opposite: a belief that our membership in God’s family lays not in what we do but in the freely given gift of God. Some believed it was referring to ages long past up until their current time. They believed the morning workers referred to Adam, Eve and our primordial ancestors, the nine o’clock workers to be Noah and his family, the noon workers to be Abraham, Sarah and their family, the three o’clock workers to be Moses and the early Israelites being led to freedom and finally the five o’clock workers to be Christ and the followers who came after him. And yet others felt this parable revealed the opportunity for individuals to adopt the Christian faith regardless of their age in life; whether they were infants, youth, adults, elderly or even on their deathbed - they were still offered full inclusion in the Church. I should note this was a very needed pastoral understanding of the parable during periods of Christianity when some felt those of certain ages or backgrounds should never be allowed to enter the Christian community. Needless to say, there is no shortage of ways to understand and explain this parable.
However, I think we might be missing another angle within this parable. In order to find it we need to understand the setting of the story. We are told the owner of the vineyard goes out looking for employees to help bring in his crop. It would seem this vineyard is of decent size but not large enough to have its own permanent working crew, instead simply a hired manager. The owner hires some workers, first thing in the morning, for the day and promises them a set amount of payment. Throughout the day the owner continues to hire additional help without the promise of a set amount, simply guaranteeing a fair wage. One has to wonder at this point, what is a fair wage in the eyes of the owner? The owner does this a total of four times hiring additional sets of employees. We can gather that the owner is quite invested in his vineyard, why does he not simply have the hired manger do all the work? The end of the day finally comes and most of us already know the ending. However, imagine this is the first time you are hearing it. You would no doubt be expecting payments to go down in a certain way with varying amounts, most likely first given to those who have toiled in the heat of the day the longest. Instead the owner gives payment to those who were hired last-first and he gives them the amount of payment promised to the early morning employees. If you did not know what to expect you would be sitting there, saying, “Oh yes, and those morning employees will be getting a great wage!” And instead then they are handed the same amount as those hired last. Quickly grumbling starts up and the owner looks the employees in the eye and says, “I haven’t been unfair, I gave what I promised. Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?”