Envy, Justice, Generosity and the Workers in the Vineyard

SCRIPTURES & ART: A look at the readings for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, through the eyes of 18th-century painter Christian Dietrich

Christian Dietrich, “The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard,” ca. 1752
Christian Dietrich, “The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard,” ca. 1752 (photo: Public Domain)

Reduced to its essence, today’s parable is a lesson in humility. Everything we have is God’s gift, and God is generous beyond compare. We are his servants, his “useless” servants (Luke 17:10). By doing “the work we should do,” we do God no favors.

Jesus today speaks of a landowner who hires day laborers for his vineyard. He does so in four shifts. The first workers sign on at 9am. Additional laborers are added at noon and 3pm. The final batch is recruited at 5pm. But when the day ended and the laborers were paid, they all got the standard daily wage.

This obviously pleased the latecomers, who got a day’s wages for maybe an hour or two’s work, but it irritated the morning crew, who expected more. 

In strict justice, nobody was denied his due. Everybody got the “usual daily wage,” the amount for which even the longest working had contracted. That the vineyard owner is “generous” is his affair: overflowing charity does not create new obligations in justice. 

Why the vineyard owner parceled up his day this way is unknown. Perhaps it was harvest time. He hired a certain-sized cohort, based on previous experience. Soon he discovered his harvest was more bountiful and he required more help. Even with the additional hands, more were needed. Finally, as evening came, it was perhaps clear that the final push couldn’t be finished by nightfall without a few more bodies. The vineyard owner is grateful for his good fortune, and he shares that with others. “Are you envious because I am generous?”

But the parable really isn’t just about a Jewish vineyard in ancient Israel at harvest time, much less a lesson in farm worker collective bargaining. The vineyard is God’s world, and we are his laborers. The wages are his graces, all of which are gifts and none of which are entitlements. 

Sometimes some Christians may feel frustrated that, having strived to live according to God’s will throughout their lives, God is “equally generous” with the public sinner who, at the last minute, turns Prodigal Son. Some of those Christians even act resentful, like the elder brother, not wanting to enter into the feast the Prodigal Father throws. 

We are God’s servants, but we are also his sons. “I no longer call you servants … but friends” (John 15:15). And God is very generous with his friends and his sons … because he wants “none to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (1 Peter 3:9) and salvation. 

One of the beautiful aspects of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” is where one saved soul pulls another one heavenward. Fraternity and solidarity are heavenly: compare that to the “every damned for himself” on the left, Charon beating the cowed souls in his infernal ferry. 

Material goods diminish by division: eight people are going to get less of a pizza than six. But spiritual goods — like love — do not shrink though divided. Least of all does the Summum Bonum — the Highest Good — shrink. God is not a pizza. There’s always more than enough of him for everybody to be completely full.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated in art by the “German” (there’s still no Germany) painter, Christian Dietrich (1712-1774). Dietrich came from Weimar and spent much of his life in and around Dresden in eastern Germany, though he did travel to Holland and Italy, obligatory destinations for painters of his era. Many commentators put him down, treating him as an epigone: great at imitating others’ styles, not terribly original on his own.

“The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” is an oil painting, measuring 32 x 26 inches and dating from about 1752. It is held by the Royal Łazienki Museum in Warsaw. It’s often spoken of in the same breath as Rembrandt’s painting on the same subject, although even a cursory view makes clear that — except perhaps for some features of how each uses light — they are very different works. Dietrich may today be regarded as an imitator but, as the Łazienki notes make clear, that “eclectic” style was very popular in the 18th century.

The painting depicts six workers collecting their wages. The two most prominent (and well-lit) figures are the man in the reddish garment and the vineyard owner. The light of the waning day comes through the arch into the vestibule where pay is being handed out. The man stands before the seated owner, complaining, his tool lying at his feet. He’s clearly been one who’s labored the whole day through and feels aggrieved. We see the vineyard owner dismissing him with the pointed finger of his right hand: “Take what is yours and go.”

Next to the landowner his accountant (with a feather in his hat) is disbursing wages, the laborer in green looking up anxiously on the matter of his pay. Is he happy or aggrieved? What about the man in gray behind the complainant? He seems happy: he’s doffing his cap at the vineyard owner, presumably out of respect though maybe it’s just an empty gesture concealing other sentiments. The crouching man on the far left is listening to somebody, perhaps informing him about the unusual payday. The men carry their farming implements. Above the whole scene, two ladies look on from an overhang wall, perhaps attracted by the commotion below. Their garb (and the sculpture on that wall) are typical of the classical preferences of 18th-century art. Other men, presumably of the vineyard administration, observe from behind the owner’s chair. 

Isaiah reminds us in the First Reading that God’s thoughts are not ours, nor “your ways my ways.” We do well to remember that — however hard it is — when tempted to measure God’s Providence (especially in suffering and hardship) by our yardsticks. The complaining laborers try to do that. So did that proto-laborer, Job, who asks God to justify why he suffers (since it did not make sense according to the Jewish notion of “this sin/that punishment”), only to get God’s pushback from out of the storm (Job 38). As God asked Job, we are asked: is your faith and love big enough to recognize God doesn’t have to account by your measuring stick?

So, what sentiments do I bring to God’s generosity? What “expectations” do I harbor, maybe deep down, about what God might “owe” me for having been a faithful Catholic for so long? How will today’s Gospel reshape my thinking and teach me humility?