The parable of the workers in the vineyard has been interpreted in different ways. Some see it as a warning about the final judgment; some as a summary of salvation history; others understand it on a personal level, as presenting the stages of a man’s conversion and spiritual growth. All of these interpretations are profitable, as they reflect aspects of the different senses of Scripture: literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 115-119).
Kenneth E. Bailey, in “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” (InterVarsity Press, $26), notes while it is commonly called the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the “central focus of the story is the amazing compassion and grace of the employer, rather than the employees.” The focus of this parable is on the master, who can rightly be understood to represent Jesus.
This is certainly in keeping with the themes found in today’s other readings. The prophet Isaiah, writing near the end of the Babylonian exile, urged the people to seek the Lord, repent of their sins and humbly accept the mercy of God. This exhortation was followed by a beautiful expression of God’s unique otherness: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” It’s not that God’s ways are arbitrary or his thoughts are irrational, but they are utterly perfect and complete — and therefore beyond the grasp of man’s understanding. In light of this truth, man has two options: to pursue his own path in pride (leading to destruction), or turn in humble gratitude to God (and thus embracing forgiveness and life).
Likewise, the responsorial Psalm emphasizes both God’s greatness, which is “unsearchable,” and his nearness, which is due to his compassionate and gracious nature. God’s greatness and goodness are both fully and radically revealed in the Incarnation. By becoming man and dwelling among us, God demonstrates both divine power and divine humility; such a profound act was not required by justice, but was undertaken through love and mercy. The question for us is this: What do we deserve from God? The answer is, “Nothing.” But what have we given offered by God? Everything. Which is why St. Paul wrote, “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.”
In light of this, the parable reveals that God, through Jesus Christ, has offered his Kingdom to anyone who chooses to be a disciple of the Lord and to labor in his vineyard (see Catechism, No. 755). Those who accept this offer have already been gifted with something exceeding the demands of justice, for no one deserves to be in the Kingdom or can earn, on his own merit, a place within. As Bailey writes, “The Kingdom is where costly grace is offered to those who need it.” And who needs God’s grace, which is spiritual light and life? Everyone!
What was the problem? The laborers chosen first began to grumble, or murmur. This word is often used in Scripture to describe a complaint made against God by those who are ungrateful or obstinate. They fail to see they have not only been treated justly, but with unmerited mercy. In so doing, they put themselves at peril. “No one who murmurs receives the kingdom of heaven,” wrote St. Gregory, “and no one who receives it can murmur.” Loving God means living gratefully.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.