18th Week in Ordinary Time, Friday (Year II)
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay each according to his conduct.Matthew 16:27
How does one reconcile this statement about proportional payment with the parable of the laborers in the vineyard?
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you.Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”Matthew 20:1-16
Contradictory images are an indication that the reality to which they point exceeds their sign power; they are hints of a beyond which words cannot encompass.
What happens if word-images about realities beyond spacetime are taken literally?
Both passages in Matthew use the image of payment or wages, a notion derived from economics: employees receive money in return for services rendered. What is the purpose of this image? In the first case, the wages are variable, and in the second invariable.
The notion of unequal payments or distribution of goods presupposes a finite quantity. Such a quantity cannot be uncreated or divine. Therefore, if this image is taken literally, heavenly glory involves a created, finite, divisible good. Something created is superadded or sandwiched between humanity and divinity, the created and uncreated.
In the parable of the “Good Employer,” as some call it, the pay scale is disregarded and each worker receives the same salary (a denarius) regardless of length of service. The employer is a poor capitalist and seems to be ignorant of the profit motive, resulting in complaints. He takes the focus away from the laborer and his work to the employer himself. “I am generous,” he says. The Greek original of verse 15 reads, “Is your eye evil (or envious) because I am generous?”
If there is one theme that stands out in Jesus’ overall teaching, it is purity of heart. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)
The grumbling laborers have a divided heart, split between “mine” and “thine.” The parable is not ultimately about economics, in which the employer’s business would fail miserably, but about eternal union and communion in the Trinity.
A single eye and a pure heart sees that the only “reward” is the Giver himself; any gift outside of the Giver could only be created and finite. What is created and finite is humanity itself, which has been wholly immolated by Christ on the Cross.
The spiritual life is like a classroom of young children. A teacher can motivate students by offering prizes and rewards, but the most mature are those who do what is right without seeking reward or attention. Saints like Thérèse of Lisieux preferred to be hidden and unknown. “Crowns” do not intensify the eternal and infinite joy of communion in the Trinity. Verbs such as “add,” “increase” and “intensify” come from the material realm. The new consciousness will no longer be able to cogitate such concepts, just as a 3-dimensional sphere cannot operate like a 2-dimensional circle.
So what is the point of the first saying? Since it follows the exhortation to self-denial and taking up one’s cross, it is a motivation to persevere like children running for a prize. St. Paul uses similar imagery (I Corinthians 9:24; Philippians 3:14).
In the parable of the Good Employer, hired servants driven by the profit motive gradually mature into sons and daughters of the Father who live and act out of their royal identity. Being takes precedence over having or gaining.
“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” (Matthew 20:13)
The Good Employer addresses his workers as “friends.” He invites the “first” and the “last” alike to receive the joy of union and communion in the Trinity. When the Trinity is all in all, ordinal numbers and sequence will no longer be thinkable.
“All mine are thine, and thine are mine” (John 17:10).