This is a difficult gospel reading to hear. We relate immediately with the workers who toiled all day in the hot sun. We relate to their disappointment and anger when they are paid no more than those who worked only an hour. It brings to mind all the times we have been short-changed, the times when we were denied our fair share. That Jesus would compare God and his kingdom to such an arbitrary landowner as the one in the gospel challenges our sense of fairness.
Let's take a few minutes, however, to look at the gospel in a different way. Instead of putting ourselves in the place of the laborers who worked all day, let's put ourselves in the place of the workers who were in the field only part of the day.
All these men were day-laborers. They would gather in the market place every morning in hopes that someone would hire them for the day. If they were called upon to work in the fields, they would be able to return to their families with some money. If, however, they were overlooked and not chosen, they would have to go home empty-handed.
When the landowner first arrives, all of them wanted to be in the first group picked to work in the vineyard. Imagine the disappointment of those men the landowner didn't choose as they saw the others jump on the back of the carriage to get carted off to their jobs. The fear that they would go another day without work would have been eating them up inside. They had no choice but to wait and hope that someone else would arrive with work for them.
Just when it looked as if the day would be a total waste, the landowner shows up again and hires the rest of the men to work the remaining hours of daylight. They go along happy to at least bring some money home to their families. And, at the end of the day, when they get in line to receive their pay, they must have expected to receive only a fraction of what they would normally make because of the few hours they worked. Imagine their surprise and delight when they are handed a full day's wage! The day is saved! They will not have to go home empty-handed. Their families will not have to go one more day without the food and clothing they need. Excited and thankful for the pay they received, they would have hurried home and probably had no idea that the laborers who worked a full day earned no more than they did. They were just happy to have something to bring home.
As much as we may tend to identify ourselves with the first group that worked all day, we are really much more similar to the group that is called last, especially when it comes to our relationship with God.
All that we have and are is a gift from God. From the moment we are born until the moment we die, we are utterly dependent on God. No matter how much or how little we have, it has all come from the generous hand of God. None of us can make a claim on God that we deserve more from him than we have. It is up to him to decide for he is our Creator and Lord. Like the landowner in the gospel, God will give to each one as he sees fit, according to his infinite generosity.
It is in our spiritual life, however, that we see just how generous God is to us. All of us, even if we were baptized as infants and raised in the faith, are late-comers to God's vineyard. There are many millions of believers who have gone before us. There are believers who have given their lives to preach the good news. There are those who spent their whole lives laboring to teach and live their faith. When we read the lives of the saints, we realize just how little we have contributed. Nonetheless, God holds out to us the same promise of salvation. God willing, we will stand in the same assembly of the saints in heaven, looking upon the same God with our holy mother, Mary, with Saint Peter, with Saint Mary Magdalene, with Saint Francis of Assisi and with Jesus himself. None of us can claim to have given as much as they gave in service of the gospel. Nonetheless, God desires that we enter into the same everlasting life. And we can expect a warm welcome from the saints when we enter into our heavenly homeland. They will not be like the laborers in the gospel who complained that they didn't receive more for their labors. Instead, they will rejoice that God in his infinite mercy was so generous to us poor sinners.
As we gather in this church today, we are all different. Some of us have great faith, and some of us are just beginning to grow in our faith. Some of us give of our time and talents regularly, and some of us are still learning how to use our talents in God's service. Some of us have been coming to church all our lives. Some of us are just coming back to church after a long absence. Some of us believe to the depth of our being. Some of us are struggling with confusion and doubts. No matter where we are on our journey, no matter how much we have been given, we will all be called to get in line to receive the same pay - the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. Jesus gives of himself to each of us in the same way. He comes to the sinner in the same humble form of bread and wine as he comes to the saint.
God is calling each of us to labor in his vineyard. Some of us will give more than others. Some will respond more generously than others. Nonetheless, all of us are called in the same way and by the same God. Let us pray that we will be generous when God calls upon us, no matter how early or how late in the day it is. And, let us pray that all of us will receive God's abundant gifts with gratitude and awe.