May 2012 - Vol. 60

The Outrageous Generosity 
of God

Parable of the laborers in the vineyard
By Jeanne Kun

The parable challenges the attitude and behavior of the listeners. The question is addressed to them: are you jealous because I am good for your neighbors? This question challenges them to allow such a God into their life.
– Jan Lambrecht, SJ, Out of the Treasure:
The Parables in the Gospel of Matthew
“I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you” (Matthew 20:14). How we react to the way the landholder paid the men he hired to work in his vineyard depends on the state of our own hearts. We could respond, “Oh, what a generous employer!” or we could say, “Isn’t that terribly unfair?”

In giving so liberally to those who had worked only a short time, the landowner was taking nothing away from the laborers who had worked all day. “I am doing you no wrong,” he reminded those who felt cheated. “Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” (Matthew 20:13). Then he got at the heart of the problem by asking the grumblers, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (20:15).

As he so often did during his public ministry, Jesus once again turned customary rules and expectations upside down. He was not concerned here with labor relations or market-based economics. Rather, with this story and its surprising twist, Jesus exposed the canker of envy in the human heart and vividly illustrated the mercy and generosity of God generosity so unstinting that it confounds not only our logic but also our sense of justice.

As long as we insist on equating “fairness” with “equality,” God’s generosity will never make sense to us. We need to get past our human tendency to interpret another’s gain as our loss before we can truly appreciate the magnificence of God’s gift to each of us. The fact is, no matter how long we work or how hard we try, we can never earn God’s love or his salvation through our own efforts. God freely loves us. He is eager to welcome all of us into his kingdom sinners and latecomers as well as the upstanding and hardworking. Unreasonable? Outrageous? That’s the extravagant nature of divine mercy.

In its setting in Matthew’s gospel, the parable is addressed to Jesus’ disciples who had left everything behind to follow him (Matthew 19:27-30). Perhaps Jesus wanted his closest companions to know that despite their sacrifice, they were not to think they merited a greater reward than others who would later follow him. If Jesus also told this parable to the crowds that flocked to listen to him, he may have been warning self-righteous scribes and Pharisees not to resent the favor he shows to sinners a warning that we, too, should take to heart.

Since Matthew addressed his gospel most particularly to the Jewish Christians of the early church, we might further recognize in this parable an admonition to them, “God’s chosen people.” The gentiles, who had not labored under the strict Mosaic code for centuries, were the latecomers, yet they were receiving the same blessing of salvation as the Jewish Christians. The Jewish Christians were not to begrudge the grace freely given to the gentiles, nor were they justified in looking down on them.

Since Jesus first told this disquieting parable two thousand years ago, it has continued to speak to diverse audiences and probe the hearts of countless men and women. Today the parable of the laborers in the vineyard perhaps better named the parable of the good employer still challenges us with its timeless message that God freely offers to everyone who would receive it the same mercy and reward: eternal life with him. And there is no room for envy in his heavenly kingdom!

In the Spotlight

A Denarius a Day

In the early days of human history, trade was conducted by bartering, and payment for services was made in goods. Later, precious metals such as gold and silver were used, with value measured by weight. Coinage was introduced around the seventh century B.C. The earliest coins were simply pieces of metal of a standard weight impressed with a seal. Consequently, coins were often named after the weight they represented a shekel equaled 11.4 grams; a talent, 30 kilograms.

During the first century A.D., three different currencies were used in Palestine: the official imperial money (Roman standard); provincial money minted in Antioch and Tyre (Greek standard); and local Jewish money, most likely minted in Caesarea.

The denarius was a Roman coin made of silver. During Jesus’ ministry, the denarius showed the head of Tiberius, the emperor of the Roman Empire from A.D. 17 to 37. Soldiers and farm workers were paid a denarius a day for their services or labor, which was considered the standard wage, enough to cover life’s basic necessities.

In the Spotlight

Eye of Evil, Eye of Envy

“Are you envious because I am generous?” the landowner asked the grumblers. The literal translation of the original Greek of Matthew’s gospel would be, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

This “evil eye” is the eye of envy. The Book of Sirach, which includes maxims and sayings written in Hebrew by the Jewish sage Ben Sira around 200 B.C., was later translated into Greek by the author’s grandson. A passage from this Greek translation reads, “The eye of the greedy person is not satisfied with his share. . . . An evil eye is envious over bread, and it is lacking on his table” (Sirach 14:9-10). A similar expression equating the eye with greed, avarice, and envy was used again by Ben Sira in Sirach 31:13. Jesus refers to the state of the “eye” as healthy or unhealthy, calling it the lamp that brings light or darkness to the rest of the body (Matthew 6:22-23). 

In the Spotlight

Celebrating Our Oneness

Suppose the all-day workers in the parable had walked home with the one-hour workers, rejoicing all the way over the generosity of the employer. Wouldn’t that have been a beautiful time of sharing for all? If we are able to rejoice in God’s grace for all, without comparisons and without envy, we live in shared joy and tender appreciation for everyone. We learn then what it means to love both neighbor and enemy. . . .

It is a rare person who loves enough to rejoice in all goodness, whether he or she benefits directly or not. Yet we can all practice this happy attitude. When we hear of something wonderful falling into another’s life, we can set aside that nagging “But what about me?” and simply enjoy the beauty with that person. We may even celebrate it. It is recommended that we do this, even though in the beginning it may feel unreal, if we have habitually envied every good thing that happened to others. Our emotions carry on in their habits, but do our emotions tell us the truth? Rarely! . . . 

Let’s not count the hours we work, nor the hours another works. Let us press on, our eyes on the goal and our hands joined for the going. God awaits his full entry into our hearts.

 Marilyn Gustin, How to Read and Pray the Parables

Excerpted from Treasures Uncovered: The Parables of Jesus, by Jeanne Kun (The Word Among Us Press, © 2005).  Used with permission. This book can be ordered online.

Jeanne Kun is President of Bethany Association and a senior woman leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. 

Matthew 20:1-16

[Jesus said to his disciples:] “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage [a denarius], he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market place; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage [a denarius]. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

In the Spotlight

Contemporary Voices

What galls those who were hired first (and us) is that there is not equal pay for equal work. It is within the frustration over this imbalance that the parable makes its point. If we insist that justice be followed to the letter, then God is not free to be merciful. If mercy, however, were taken off the table, we would all be lost. For the most essential aspects of our lives go beyond what we deserve. Are we owed life or health or love? It is only because God gives us more than what we deserve that we have happiness, salvation, and eternal life.

God is not limited by our desire to measure everything out according to our merits. God will be generous to whomever God chooses. Even though we may at times be peeved that others are recipients of God’s mercy, such gifts to them are good news for us. Their God is our God. Mercy to them is an assurance that mercy will be available to us.

 – George Smiga, God’s Word Today

Pondering the Word

1. The landowner merely told those hired later in the day that he would pay them “whatever is right” (Matthew 20:3). What does this seem to imply? How does this add to the suspense of the parable and increase the shock value of its ending?

2. How did the landowner respond to the grumblers’ complaints? Do you think he adequately addressed their issues? Why or why not?

3. Explain how you think Verse 16“So the last will be first, and the first will be last”  –  relates to the rest of the parable. Note that a similar verse (Matthew 19:30) provides a link between Jesus’ previous conversation with his disciples and this parable. What does Matthew’s framing of the parable in this way suggest to you?

4. How does the parable of the laborers in the vineyard act as a metaphor for the final judgment?

5. What have you learned about human efforts and God’s grace from this parable? In what ways does this parable summarize the whole message of the gospels?


1. In what ways does the action of the landowner reflect your concept of God and his mercy? In what ways does it differ?

2. How do you usually respond to the good fortune of others? If you have ever felt jealous or resentful of another person’s blessing or benefit, how did you handle your feelings?

3. Recall a situation when you were generous or acted with mercy toward someone. How did your kindness affect this person? What motivated you to act so generously?

4. Several Fathers of the Church interpreted the hours of the day in the parable as an analogy for the point in life when a person responded to God’s callchildhood, adolescence, midlife, the later years. Where would you place yourself in such a time framework?

5. How does this parable challenge your own concepts of fairness and justice? How does it move you to embrace God’s idea of “fairness”?


1. Reflect on these words from Pope John Paul II calling you to labor in God’s vineyard:
From that distant day the call of the Lord Jesus “You go into my vineyard too” (Matthew 20:4) never fails to resound in the course of history: It is addressed to every person who comes into this world.... Since the work that awaits everyone in the vineyard of the Lord is so great, there is no place for idleness.
 God calls me and sends me forth as a laborer in his vineyard. He calls me and sends me forth to work for the coming of his kingdom in history. This personal vocation and mission defines the dignity and the responsibility of each member of the lay faithful. (On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World)

2. Reflect on the following passages to deepen your appreciation of the parable you have just studied:

 The greedy person stirs up strife,
  but whoever trusts in the LORD will be enriched. (Proverbs 28:25)

 The eye of the greedy person is not satisfied with his share; greedy injustice withers the soul. (Sirach 14:9)

 What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.... So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses.... (Romans 9:14-16, 18)

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christby grace you have been savedand raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)

[W]hen the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)


Make a list of the ways you have experienced God’s generosity to you. Then turn your list into your own “litany of thanksgiving,” praising God and thanking him for his mercy and loving kindness.

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