Unless we know something about the community for whom Matthew writes, today's gospel makes little sense. After hearing this passage proclaimed in the old Sunday lectionary, my strong pro-union father warned us that the landowner's behavior was the main reason unions are essential. Without them, employers can pay whatever they want to whomever they want, whenever they want. Workers would have no rights.
Though I presume my father (in agreement with the Catholic Church's teachings on social justice) was correct, Matthew wasn't writing for him or his concern for workers' rights. Matthew composed his gospel for second and third generation Jewish/Christians. By the time he writes in the late 70s, an unforeseen phenomenon is playing out. A church which had begun almost 50 years before as a completely Jewish religious movement was nearing a point at which Jews were becoming a minority in their own movement.
Gentiles were always welcome in Christianity, but since Jesus was originally regarded simply as a reformer of Judaism, these non-Jewish converts were expected to embrace Judaism and its 613 laws before they could begin going down the road of imitating Jesus' death and resurrection.
This practice continued only into the late 40s when liberals like Paul of Tarsus began baptizing Gentiles without insisting they first convert to Judaism and its laws. Though Gentile/Christians appreciated this 180 degree turnabout in church discipline, lots of Jewish/Christians had problems with it. They had borne "the day's burden and the heat," submitting to circumcision and the responsibility of keeping those all-pervasive regulations. In their minds, this newfangled way of bringing Gentiles into the faith was clearly unjust.
That's when Matthew's Jesus comes on the scene with his story of a landowner who pays each of his workers the same amount of money even though some worked over twelve hours while other worked just one or two!
When confronted over his blatantly unjust wage scale, the employer reminds his workers he did nothing illegal or unjust: he paid the amount each picker and trimmer had agreed upon. They could only challenge his generosity, not his breach of contract.
In other words, Jewish/Christians who still were obliged to follow the Mosaic laws were not being treated unjustly by God. As Jews, they had made that commitment at the foot of Sinai 1,200 years before. God simply was demonstrating God's generosity by not demanding the same commitment from Gentiles.
At its core, this message, though distasteful to some, is fundamental to our faith: God rarely works in black/white, either/or patterns, and more disturbing, God's never bought into a "one size fits all" theology.
Deutero-Isaiah discovered this aspect of divine behavior more than 500 years before Jesus' birth. The same God who is as close to us as our breath, at times can be as far away from us "as the heavens are above the earth." Like all people of faith, the prophet frequently encountered a God who is immanent and transcendent at the same time. Some of what God does fits into our puny minds; a lot of it doesn't.
No wonder Paul struggles with his personal living and dying in our Philippians pericope. From his first letter to the Thessalonians we know that when he first began to follow the risen Jesus, he presumed the Parousia was just around the corner. But as the years went on and Jesus’ Second Coming was delayed, the Apostle was forced to ask the questions we find in this second reading. At some point, someone seems to have changed the rules of the game.
This is a great occasion to reflect on how our understanding of God has changed since we first learned about God as children. I presume some aspects we like, others create problems,