Jesus tells a parable which, like other parables, has its surprises. The parable starts out with a landowner of a vineyard who goes out at dawn looking to hire laborers. Like any other landowner, he settles with the laborers on the usual daily wage, which at that time was one denarius. Later, at different times of the day, he goes out to send other workers into his vineyard saying only that he will give them what is just. But at the last hour before sunset, he finds others who have had no work that day. He simply sends them out to work in the vineyard. I would imagine that these who were last called were willing to work as hard as they were able. The first surprise is that this last group receives the full daily wage. The second surprise is that this same group gets paid before the other laborers. Thus, the other groups, especially the group that came at dawn, would be expecting to be paid more. Certainly, if I were part of that first group, I would be more than disappointed.
Why did Jesus tell this parable? He told us that it pointed to the Kingdom of Heaven and not to the kingdom of this world. He gave us a window to a kingdom where "the last will be first, and the first will be last." Jesus's parable is in line with the first reading from the book of Isaiah. The prophet proclaims the words he has heard from God, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
The gospel parable would seem strange as an economic model where money is the bottom line but is better understood in a system where mutual love and caring is the guiding principle. An example of this system would be work by monks at a monastery. In these religious communities, elderly monks might be capable of only doing light work or doing harder tasks for only an hour or two. Some of the older monks may have medical needs and get special attention. Of course, another situation would be a family at work on their own farm, where the children might be too young to do much work. In fact, they may want to play more than help. After a long day of work in the fields, the family gets together for dinner. The youngest who hardly did any work might need help to have the meat and vegetables cut up to bite-sized pieces. Nobody makes any complaints in monasteries or within families when some members work longer and harder than others. Mutual love is foremost in their hearts.
The gospel parable is helpful for the group of us who do pastoral ministry at a Social Security hospital here in El Salvador. Often we find ourselves assisting the sick at the eleventh hour of their lives. Can these people on their sick beds be put to work in the vineyard of the Lord? Yes, they can. In fact, I believe they can accomplish much by divine grace for the Kingdom of God. While the sick receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, and the Holy Eucharist, they are invited to surrender their physical, emotional, and spiritual sufferings to God in union with our resurrected Lord who suffered much through his passion and death on the cross. Yes, through our visits to the sick and delivering the sacraments, we see a change in their attitude. They feel comforted in a way that is beyond what medical care can give. They are grateful. But they also feel empowered to spend the remainder of their lives as missionaries, even if it is in their beds. Blessed are those who the Lord calls at the eleventh hour of their lives. Indeed, they will enjoy the rewards of eternal life.
Photo of farmers by the Ministry of Agriculture in El Salvador via Flickr.