We can't properly understand our Christian gospels unless we appreciate how each evangelist takes his community beyond the comfort zone it's already achieved in its faith.
Last April's death of Krister Stendahi has prompted me to reflect on some of his valuable insights into this phenomenon. "Christians," the famous scholar once remarked, "are divided into two kinds. There are always those who will ask 'Why?' But the early church, although beleaguered in many ways, was a free and happy church that moved through the surprise of grace and learned the mood of 'Why not?' The mood sprang from the sense that the movement was going where no one had ever gone before. Members were not custodians of an established morality, but rather explorers moving through new territory with a new message. Their guidance came from the Holy Spirit."
Nowhere is this unique Christian mood more clearly shown than in today's gospel pericope. It must be understood against the Jewish environment of Matthew's community. It appears only in this gospel because it wouldn't fit any other gospel community's movement of faith.
Among the four gospels, Matthew's church alone mirrors Christianity's earliest form. As practicing Jews, they're committed to follow the reform of Judaism Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught. No one in the faith's earliest days could have imaged a non-Jew becoming a disciple of Jesus. When eventually some Gentiles began to show interest in the faith of Jesus, they were expected first to convert to Judaism and to commit themselves to keeping the 613 Mosaic laws. Only then were they welcomed into the church.
This practice had changed drastically by the time Matthew writes in the early 80s. The vast majority of Jesus' followers were now Gentiles, and they weren't expected to follow the Sinai covenant regulations. Few even knew the difference between a bagel and a lox.
Matthew encourages his Jewish/Christian readers to look at this unexpected development from a new perspective. Instead of concentrating on the unfairness of the landowner paying his early workers the same as the late- corners, Jesus points out his generosity in paying a wage he wasn't obligated to pay. God's done no injustice to Jewish/Christians who are still expected to follow the law. That's part of their Exodus agreement with Yahweh. It's simply a matter of God's generosity in giving Gentile/Christians the same benefits of their Jewish brothers and sisters without having the same obligations. Who could have anticipated such a change in divine plans?
Paul's also about to experience something he'd originally not expected: his physical death. Like most first generation Christians, the Apostle believed Jesus would triumphantly return in his lifetime. But as his ministry progressed and Jesus' Parousia was delayed, he's forced to consider options he'd never before considered. "I am caught between the two," he writes the Philippians. "I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit." The best laid faith plans.
Five hundred years before Jesus, Deutero-Isaiah laid the groundwork for these and many other unexpected transitions. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts," says Yahweh. "As high as the heavens are above the earth, as high are my ways above your ways, and my thought above your thoughts."
One of the problems we face is "Why?" Christians giving us an interpretation of a "Why not?" collection of writings. Not much we can do about it, except to maintain our "Why not?" frame of mind in spite of the obstacles. That's what our sacred authors expect us to do.