A reflection on the readings for September 24, 2023, the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, contains the story of the first set of brothers — Cain and Abel. In the tale, Cain is a farmer and Abel a shepherd. When Cain offers God the results of his labor, his crops, he receives nothing in return. When Abel, on the other hand, offers his lambs, he receives God’s blessing. Angered by this perceived injustice, Cain hatches a plan to commit the world’s first murder, killing his brother.
There have been many interpretations of this parable over the millennia. It has been said to represent the historical struggle between nomadic shepherds and town-dwelling farmers, the growing pains present at the very beginning of civilization, and the introduction of evil into the world. What is certain, however, is that the first Biblical account of conflict between brothers arises due to one sin — jealousy. Cain is jealous that his brother is receiving more of God’s blessings than he is. God did nothing wrong to Cain; he was not cheated or abused; He simply blessed Abel. Rather than gratitude for what he has received and joy that his brother has been blessed, Cain is filled with rage at this perceived slight and reacts violently.
In the example of Cain, Genesis gives an unambiguous and concise moral teaching — jealousy is bad.
If such a simple tale can so clearly explain the nature of a sin, why does Jesus take such a different approach through parables like today’s story of the laborers in the vineyard?
Jesus answers this question in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: “This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” While you would be hard-pressed to find a person seeking to justify Cain’s behavior in Genesis, finding someone who identifies with him would be equally challenging. The problem with this method of teaching moral truths is that there is nothing hard about it, no call to deeper conversion, no risk of self-evaluation. The scripture reader can encounter the story of Cain and Abel and see that jealousy is evil, but he is unlikely to see how the sin is present in his own heart.
Jesus’ parable today does not confront us with an open and shut, obvious story of the destructive power of jealousy. Like all good parables, it sets a trap through which we come to a greater knowledge of the room left for conversion in ourselves. A parable is effective because it presents a moral teaching in a manner that is relevant to our own lives, creates conflict, demands actual conversion, and announces the presence of the Kingdom of God among us.
While most of Jesus’ parables use pastoral examples that modern readers are unlikely to be familiar with, they also speak to us with universal human allegories. I can’t sympathize with Cain because I’ve never murdered someone over a sheep sacrifice. While I’ve never worked at a vineyard, I do know what it’s like to see someone receive the same compensation as me when it appears they haven’t worked as hard. I am familiar with what it’s like to grumble over perceived injustices. I have been in the position of taking someone’s generosity towards another person as a personal affront to myself. The parable describes a situation in which I am likely to find myself and involves characters making choices I could easily see myself making. If the story of Cain and Abel is effective as a tool for moral teaching, it is only when it functions as a parable itself, focusing on the story as an allegory for something more universal. This is necessary because morality doesn’t just exist out there with extreme examples of sin that we are not likely to fall victim to; it exists within us and our regular everyday interactions and temptations. The story of the laborers in the vineyard paints the picture of a moral decision we can identify with directly.
The situations that Jesus confronts us with in his parables are not only universal and relatable; they are also nuanced and complicated. Again, nobody in their right mind thinks Cain was justified in committing murder, but plenty of us read the story of the laborers in the vineyard and attempt to justify the actions of the grumbling laborers. Moral decisions in this life are rarely as straightforward as choosing whether to murder our brothers; they arise in complicated situations in which we face difficult choices. Jesus is being realistic here. He is giving us practice questions for a test that there is a great chance we’ll have to take one day. Just as a teacher who provides easy questions for a student to study, knowing full well the examination will be significantly more difficult isn’t doing a student any favors; Jesus uses parables to teach us to distinguish proper moral behavior in complex situations.
By presenting us with relatable yet complicated moral situations, the parables of Jesus force us to recognize difficult truths about ourselves and use them as a springboard for conversion. I learn very little about myself from the story of Cain and Able because the authors of Genesis and I are on the same page — Cain shouldn’t have murdered his brother. However, it’s not so easy when I’m confronted with a story like the laborers in the vineyard. Suddenly, I have to ask myself some questions: Do I sympathize with the complaining of the workers who labored all day only to receive the same payment as those who worked far less? Do the actions of the master in this story seem generous or unfair? If I find my personal interpretation of the story is at odds with Jesus’ interpretation, then perhaps I am being called to a deeper conversion; maybe I have recognized where I must grow in holiness and my understanding of what it truly means to reject jealousy.
Finally, and most importantly, parables serve as announcements of the Kingdom of God. In the story of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus is announcing that with his arrival, a new kind of logic has entered the world. This story reveals that everything we receive in life is a gift — God does not bless his children as repayment for their labor but from his infinite generosity. Today’s gospel asks us to examine our picture of God’s grace and learn to respond to God’s favor to others, even if we see them as less deserving than us, as something to rejoice in, not stew over. We must give thanks for the blessings we have received and look at the gifts of our neighbors with joy in our hearts.
Jesus uses parables like this one to introduce us to the complexities of the moral life, bring us to greater self-knowledge, and challenge us to something greater. If you find the logic of this parable hard to accept, then it is working properly. Allow the parable of the workers in the vineyard to call you to conversion away from the jealousy that can creep into our everyday life and towards the generous blessing of the Kingdom of God.
Image: Painting of the parable, by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet, mid-17th century. The Yorck Project (2002). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=160203
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.