In the parable in the Gospel Reading, the laborers who work all day receive the same wage as those who work just one hour, and so they complain.
You can see their point. Justice is giving a person what is owed to him. A person who works many hours deserves a bigger wage than a person who does the same work but for only one hour.
Or so it seems.
But think about how Jesus might have unpacked this parable if he had explained it to his disciples in the way he showed some of his other parables to them.
Here’s one possibility. The vineyard owner is God. The laborers are human beings who are doing God’s work in this life. The wage given is eternal life in union of love with God in heaven.
If we think about the parable this way, the laborers’ complaint looks a lot less reasonable. When it comes to eternal life, what is justice? What does any human person deserve? What, actually, does God owe him?
Well, here is the first thing to see: No one—that is, absolutely no one—is owed eternal life in union with God.
To think otherwise is to suppose that you can work your own way to heaven. And you can’t. Salvation is God’s free gift. He gives it generously to anyone who will receive it, but it is still God’s free gift.
The problem with the laborers who complain, then, is that they think the vineyard owner owes them something. In their eyes, their work deserves a reward, a really big reward, more than the vineyard owner gives them. And so here is what we can see about them: they were working for themselves, to get that big reward for themselves.
And that is why they are last, not first, in the final distribution of God’s rewards. God’s people are meant to work for God, and not for what they can get from God for themselves.
What God gives to people who work for God in this way is gift. It isn’t deserved payment. What’s more, the gift is God himself. There is no greater reward than this, and joy is the only right response to the gift.
Those who understand their work and God’s wage in this way may have come late to their labor, but they are the ones who are first in God’s eyes.