From Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazarath, pp 110-114
There is a pervading sense of joylessness in the parable. Work is drudgery without a sense of a joyful harvest. At that time in Israel people had lost their land to large landowners and the Romans demanded high taxes. Farms had to be large, using cheap labour, slaves or day workers. The day labourer earned enough to feed his family for one day; if he was not hired they would go hungry. A denarius was not a bad day’s wage but if the one who only worked for a single hour received as much as those who toiled many hours in the blazing heat, that seemed unjust and inhuman: the latter felt degraded.
The force of the story lies in the collision of two worlds. In the society they were used to everyone was for himself; each struggles for their own existence. The hearers would expect the last workers who came at the eleventh hour to get a few coppers. Yet they receive exactly the same as the first. This was shocking. Their world was turned upside down by Jesus. But if they could hear the parable they would realise a new world, the reign of God, had arrived.
In the reign of God different rules apply. Work has dignity and solidarity. There would be no need to go home worried and in distress. The early comers would rejoice that the late ones received the same. No one is alone. People are not in competition but in co-operation. People would suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice. Here was something new. This new reign of God is visible in Jesus and his disciples when they learn to abandon their rivalries and live in communion. The parable is not simply about God’s generosity. God’s generosity costs nothing and changes nothing. If Jesus had talked only about the generosity of God he would never have been crucified.
The grumbling of the workers reflects the grumbling of the contemporaries of Jesus who were outraged by this new thing he was beginning with his disciples: a common life growing out of forgiveness where late comers find their place. Jesus speaks of the generosity of God as a reality here and now in the reign of God. This new reality is breaking into the weariness and hopelessness of the people. It is an outrageous process. It makes the lowest into the highest, it causes scandals. And it is happening now before the eyes of his listeners, even though its impact is still hidden. Can the hearers – can we – enter into the story and do our part to make this reign, this new world, come in all its fullness?
Jesus’ words are effective: they create a new reality. In this parable which so exactly describes the gloomy social conditions of his time, Jesus was thinking that the time of this new harvest in Israel should become a time of happiness with shouts of joy.
Fr. Charles Searson SJ (adapted)