As so often, the main actor in today's parable does not behave true to life. No normal householder would pay the same wages to those who worked twelve hours and to those who worked one. If trades unions functioned in his society, he wouldn't get away with it.
Today's parable stands out by making us re-examine how normal life works. The sower who scatters on unproductive land is not a role-model for any farmer. But may today's householder be a role-model for those who control finances, as well as a symbol of Jesus?
A denarius a day was the minimum wage. If a labourer earned it, he and his family would eat; otherwise they would go to bed hungry. By paying all his workers a denarius, the householder provides them with basic necessities. Maybe those hired at the third hour were unlucky, and got missed earlier. Maybe those hired at the sixth hour had slept in. Maybe those hired at the ninth hour were ill and couldn't work a full day. Those hired at the eleventh hour sound feckless. None of them is allowed to starve through misfortune, none through his own fault. All are accorded the dignity of doing at least something that contributes to their families' evening meal.
If members of our own family are physically ill, or unfortunate, we do not let them starve. If they are mentally ill, we not only feed them, but involve them in as much normal activity as possible. Even those who are lazy and feckless, we care for. We might chivvy them, and impose what discipline we can, but at the end of the day we set a meal before them. Despite occasional grumbling, those with physical, mental and moral health see it as their vocation, hence their fulfilment, to care for family members without.
Why should it be different at the level of the bigger society? We are still one family. Literally God's family, because through birth from Mary God became our relative. Can we be indifferent if the unlucky, the ill, the feckless – and their dependents – go hungry? If society becomes so complex that only a welfare state can ensure the care of such people, then those who pay taxes should recognise how this solidarity fulfils them, is for the well-being of all. Further, in today's parable, and in the provisions for the poor he included in the law of Moses, the Divine Householder asks us not to humiliate the needy, but to accord them as much self-respect as possible.
That is what the Divine Householder does for us during the day, as we look forward to the 'evening meal' he promised to serve. Our most basic necessity is the vision of God the Father, without which our thirst for truth and goodness would remain unfulfilled. Jesus offers to share with us his own knowledge of his Father. That is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in which we will truly live.
We are made for God, yet have no right to the vision of God. Despite our thirst for truth and goodness, human beings cannot lay hold on the infinite God who is Truth and Goodness. God must give himself to us, and enlarge our hearts and strengthen our minds so that we can receive – indeed survive – such a gift.
Jesus has already given us the Holy Spirit, who has begun to enlarge our hearts and strengthen our minds. The Spirit empowers us to labour in the vineyard by ministering the Householder's generosity. So we can lay hold on the coming Kingdom, for we don't work simply as human beings. The good we do has a divine value, as energised by the Divine Spirit. When the Householder comes 'to repay every one for what he has done', we hope to find our works of loyalty and mercy have contributed to our eternal glory; we will have done something to 'earn our supper'. But 'in crowning our merits he will be crowning his own gifts.'
Embraced within the divine generosity, the Saints rejoice for those who by the Spirit's gift have laboured faithfully, and for those who were drawn by a final act of love to lay hold on the Kingdom.
Let us be wary of saying to ourselves, 'I have worked hard for six hours' (or nine, or twelve). We do not know all the Spirit is doing, or plans to do, in others. Perhaps he is currently doing less through us than we think – or, perhaps, a lot more!