How can God be so unfair? 25th Sunday in ordinary time – Matthew 20: 1-16
The parable of the labourers in the vineyard is unique to the Gospel of Matthew, found in no other Gospel. Matthew, who follows the narrative of the Gospel of Saint Mark, breaks the flow of Saint Mark to insert this parable. What then did Matthew want to communicate that the other Gospels did not seem to be too interested in?
We have to constantly place the Gospel of Matthew in its historical and social context. Written in approximately 80 to 90 AD, the Gospel is principally addressed to the Jewish Christian community who lived in some proximity to Jerusalem. However, the Jewish Christians were not the only ones attracted to the message of Jesus.
Paul, by this time, had already crisscrossed the Roman world. He had evangelized in Antioch, Macedonia, Achaia, Asia Minor and finally in Rome. It is rather possible that by the time Matthew had written the Gospel, Paul was already martyred under Emperor Nero. From the Acts of the Apostles, we can safely surmise that the message of Christ found appeal in both Jewish Christians and even more among Gentile Christians. Here in lies the problem.
Central to the council of Jerusalem, which took place in about 49-51 AD (Gal 2:1-10; Acts 15), was the contentious issue of the Gentile converts as a result of Paul’s missionary activity. Some sections of the Jewish Christians felt that these converts needed to be catechised in the Jewish traditions of circumcision, ethics and dietary habits. The council, however, swung in Paul’s favour, albeit with a couple of riders. The Church now began to open its doors to the Gentiles.
The Gospel of Matthew, while keeping its focus on its principal audience of Jewish Christians would have been confronted by the reality of an emerging cosmopolitan Church. By the time Matthew wrote the Gospel, Galilee was more Gentile than Jewish. The Gentile congregation perhaps wanted more say in Matthews’s community; a wish that would certainly be resented by the Jewish Christians.
Look again now at the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. The vineyard was always understood as a symbol of Israel. Ironically, the owner of the vineyard would never go looking for labourers at six in the morning; that was the job of the manager. But not this owner, for He is Jesus. That leaves us with the labourers; who might they be?
Through the parable, we get a glimpse of the situation that Matthew’s volatile community finds itself in. While the Jewish Christians were the first to answer the call to work in the vineyard they were not the only ones. In time, and perhaps much later, the Gentile Christians were made welcome to labour in the vineyard. The irony is that all are paid the same, even though the Jewish Christians laboured much more. This was a brewing labour problem no modern-day union would want to be drawn into.
There is one thought that must cross our minds on reading this parable; how can God be so unfair? We are not alone with such thoughts for the Jewish Christians must have felt the same. But Matthew wants us to see Jesus as he did and not as we would like Him to be and act. The problem is often in our heads, especially when we think we deserve more than others because we came to serve the Lord before they did.
The JBC well describes the labourers and perhaps us, as ‘victims of the revolution of rising expectation’. The parable focuses on a magnanimous God who is not to be evaluated by our levels of human pettiness. He is generous by His standards; for if He followed our measures of generosity, how poorer the world would be. Be thankful that God does not play by our rules.
Fr Warner D’Souza