Phil 1:20c-24, 27a
As Luke tells us the story of the Prodigal Father who unconditionally welcomes back his errant son, Matthew gives us the parable of the Prodigal Vineyard Owner.
Matthew’s final words may lead us to interpret the parable as an allegory: “last” people receive the same reward as “first” people. When traveling, were you ever annoyed to discover that the person sitting next to you had purchased a ticket at the last moment at a fraction of the cost you had paid months in advance? And you both receive an equal allotment of peanuts! Is this the way Matthew’s first century audience felt on hearing this parable. In many ways they would see themselves as the early workers in the vineyard. What are they hearing?
They hear of a vineyard. This is a magical, beautiful word for the Jewish people. The prophets speak of Israel as the vine and vineyard cared for by the Lord. “Israel is a luxuriant vine whose fruit matches its growth (Hosea 10:1).” “I have planted you, a choice vine, a shoot of soundest stock (Jer 2:21; and 5:10; 6:9; 12:10).” “Sing of the delightful vineyard! I, the Lord, am its keeper (Is 27:2).” “Your mother was like a vine planted beside the water (Ez 19:10-14 and 15:1-8; 17:3-10; 19:10-14).”
These were people who grew their food and cultivated grapes for their wine. They were a people who valued a good harvest more than we do. They knew the pain of enemy weeds and the consequences of laziness that led to poor planting or care of seedlings and to untrimmed vines. They rejoiced in the harvest and the good meals that crowned their efforts. The vineyard of the Lord, the house of Israel, speaks to them of God’s attention, care, delight, and life! How beautiful an image it was for these people of the year 80 or so!
And when they heard the word “ harvest,” it must have been like a call to arms! That the vineyard owner hired workers several times during the day may well speak of the urgency of gathering the grapes. There is not a moment to lose! Even an hour’s work will save some grapes that might otherwise die on the vine. Many in Matthew’s audience must have involuntarily flexed their shoulder muscles at the memory of hours spent laboring in the vineyards.
Matthew’s words “vineyard” and “harvest” will not trigger in us the same feelings they did for his first audience, but it seems that we and that audience do share a response. We question the justice of the way the vineyard owner paid the workers. We know what it is to feel envy of what others receive. But should we not rejoice with the recipients? Are we not often the recipient of unmerited gifts?
The parable brings us in touch with the urgency of the harvest and introduces us to a very generous vineyard owner whose justice we tend to question. Through it Matthew reassures us that we are still the cherished vines of the Lord, that a harvest continues to call us to be workers, and that we must stand with humble reverence before a Prodigal Vineyard Owner whose generosity far exceeds any boundary we may erect.
“O shepherd of Israel…take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted (Psalm 80:1,16).”
Father Bill Murphy, C.P. is the pastor of St. Joseph Monastery Passionist Parish in Baltimore, Maryland.