Working in the Vineyard: Joy or Burden?

by Joannie Watson | August 20, 2021 12:04 am

“What if we instead showed that those laborers in the vineyard had it better than the idlers in the market?”

In the Gospel readings this week, we have been hearing about what it means to follow Christ. Lessons on the commandments and parables about the kingdom in a sense culminate in the first reading for Sunday’s liturgy. Joshua asks the people to make a decision: choose today whom you will serve. They insist they will serve the Lord  (Joshua 24).

Perhaps when we reflect on the idea of following Christ, we are faced with a choice: to serve now or to wait. Wedged between the commandments and call to true discipleship in Matthew’s Gospel is a parable read earlier this week – the laborers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16). This parable can be hard for cradle Catholics. It’s easy to view ourselves as the early workers, those who were hired first and had to work in the heat of the day. Perhaps it’s easy to be jealous of those who came at the end but received the same payment.

At first glance, it is easy to imagine myself getting angry that I worked hard the entire day when seemingly I did not have to. I could just come in at the very end and collect my same denarius. How is that justice? Why didn’t I spend the day goofing off? I should have spent my life having fun, not worrying about the commandments or precepts of the Church. Why not make a deathbed confession and receive the same heavenly reward?

I remember being taught that we should not aim for deathbed confessions because death could come at any time. Don’t rely on being in the last group of workers because you might not have a chance for confession. What happens if by the end of your life, your heart is too hardened and you don’t want to repent? What if death comes unannounced?

Looking back, while not only is this a skewed presentation of the mercy of God, this is one of the least helpful ways to teach this parable. It fits into a spirituality based on fear, a morality based on rules, and a view of God as judge. But for many Catholics, this is our view of God, whether we are aware of it or not. I must spend my days being a good Catholic, obeying all the rules, getting an A+ on my heavenly report card, just in case judgment comes quicker than expected.

What if we instead showed that those laborers in the vineyard had it better than the idlers in the market? What if we taught that working for the King is a good thing? Do we really believe the early workers were blessed to get the job early? Is it not a gift to spend their day – their lives – as active members of a beautiful Church, the Body of Christ, working for Jesus?

If we present the Gospel as a list of rules, it is no wonder people would rather shoot for those deathbed confessions.

As the early workers, we must ask ourselves: how are we examples of the Christian life? Do we show people a life that is full and abundant? Do we exemplify a life full of joy? If so, they’ll want to join us in the vineyard. If instead we show them a life burdened by rules, pessimism, and thankless labor, why would they want to hear this supposed “good” news? 

Are we happy to be working for the Father? Are we living as free sons and daughters in the house of our loving Father? Or are we the older son in the parable of the the prodigal son, who is living with his loving Father but sees himself as a slave (Luke 15:11-32)? 

Do we see God as the Divine Scorekeeper or the Divine Lover? He wants us to rejoice in his vineyard. Let us examine our witness and see what we are preaching to the world.

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