I empathize with these workers. I know why they are upset. To pay everyone the same disrespects the work put in by those who labored all day. “You have made these last ones equal to us” is a valid complaint. Is human labor worth nothing? The landowner claims that he is simply being generous. They are not angry because the landowner was generous but because he stopped being generous when it came to them. They were not upset to see the last workers get paid extra. They were glad, since “they thought that they would receive more.” It was only when they realized that they would not be getting any bonus themselves that they became angry.
What should we think about this parable as an economic system? I am reminded of nurses. When a hospital needs to hire temporary nurses, they pay several times what the permanent nurses get. I am reminded of the mercenaries that the United States government hired in Iraq. They were often paid as much for a month as the average soldier received in a year. This is often true in other professions as well. And what about the landowner? He seems kind of stupid. He will have difficulty getting anyone to do a full day’s work anymore. All the workers are going to show up an hour before sunset the next day and expect the same generosity. The economics of this gospel are unfair and, in the long-term, bad business.
But all this presupposes one point: that work is an unpleasant activity that we would avoid if we could. The first workers speak of bearing the burden and the heat; they clearly would rather have not worked all twelve hours. If we turn this on its head and think of work as good, these first workers should have said, “Not only did we get the same amount as you, but we also got to work for eleven more hours than you did.”
The ancient Greeks made a distinction between two kinds of work: slavery and the liberal arts. A slave is someone who works because they have to. A free person works because they want to. A slave is anyone who works for a paycheck, waiting for the weekend to arrive. A free person would do their job even if they did not need the money. A slave is glad when they do not have to work. A free person is glad when they are able to work.
A great example of a free person is given to us in our second reading today. St. Paul is debating whether it would be better to be alive or dead. On the one hand, it would be nice to die and go to heaven, but, on the other hand, there is still a lot of work to be done here on earth. This is not the attitude of someone who hates his job. He wants to preach the Gospel from one end of the earth to the other. St. Paul did not preach in hope of getting a reward. If he could have gotten the reward with less work this would not have interested him.
There are some people who live in remote parts of the world where a priest can only visit once a year, so they only have Mass once a year. When you hear that, do you think “Lucky them”? If we are slave who only love God as much as we have to in order to get to heaven, we will not be happy. Prayer and morality will always seem like an imposition on our lives. If we are free men and women who choose to love God out of our freedom, than we will be happy. If prayer is considered to be an interruption of our TV time, we will resent having to pray. If TV is considered to be an unnecessary distraction from prayer, we are free.
If we are free people, we will not be upset if someone does not have to work as hard as us to get their reward. It will not be considered a bad thing to have loved more than someone else. Ultimately it comes down to who we want to be: free workers or lazy slaves. The free worker looks at what they have accomplished with pride and joy.
True freedom is not freedom to do whatever we feel like doing. True freedom is the freedom to do what we want to have done. With true freedom, we become participants in the destiny of the world. If you want peace, work for peace. If you wish that there were more beauty in the world, make something beautiful. If you want parents to take better care of their children, take good care of your children. True freedom is the freedom to be the change you want to see in the world.
We should not be like those workers who spent their whole day harvesting the field, only to discover that they could have shown up at the eleventh hour and been paid the same. The ultimate purpose of our lives should be something which we will never be disappointed in, never wish we had done less of.
Would you do your job if money were no object? What would you do with your life? I know that many of you are working jobs that you hate. It is good to be free, but even if you hate your job, even if you are only working to support your family and you would quit in a second if you no longer needed the money, you can be free with respect to serving the Lord. We serve the Lord by doing what he commanded us to do: love: love of God and love of neighbor. We love God, so we pray and go to Church and obey his commandments. We love our neighbors, so we give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and those in prison.
Many people today do not know why they exist; they have no reason to get out of bed in the morning. They kill time with television and games and other entertainments. Love is the reason. Instead of wasting time with a lot of nonsense, we can love. If we are free with respect to love, we will not avoid love, we will not shirk our duty. Instead, we will look for opportunities to love. The question will not be how little love we must do to get into heaven but how much can we love.