The owner went out at midday, and, again, at three in the afternoon, and he made the same offer. Again he went out, at the last working hour—the eleventh—and he saw others standing around. So he said to them, ‘Why do you stand idle the whole day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ The master said, ‘Go, and work in my vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wage, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ Those who had gone to work at the eleventh hour came up, and were each given a silver coin. When it was the turn of the first, they thought they would receive more. But they, too, received one silver coin. On receiving it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
They said, ‘These last, hardly worked an hour; yet, you have treated them the same as us, who have endured the heavy work of the day and the heat.’ The owner said to one of them, ‘Friend, I have not been unjust to you. Did we not agree on one silver coin per day? So, take what is yours and go. I want to give to the last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do as I please with what is mine? Why are you envious when I am kind?’
So will it be: the last will be first, the first will be last.”
The parable is not about economics or labor-management relationships but about the kingdom of heaven. The main stress of the story is not on the industrious laborers who went to work early and got a just wage. The stress is on the latecomers. Out of pity for their poverty, the owner paid them a full day's wages. The owner is not being arbitrary and unfair. He shows mercy and compassion to the poor.
This is how God deals with us. The way the vineyard owner acted toward his employees is the way the Lord of the kingdom acts toward us. As Pope Francis would like to say, “The name of God is Mercy.”
No one earns the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom is a gift, because the kingdom is won by grace, and grace is freely given by God. No one, however holy, can demand this from God as though it was a right or a reward for a righteous life.
We have no right to begrudge and murmur against God’s generosity and mercy if he shows compassion to those who come in the last hour like the deathbed convert. Jesus said, “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Lk 15:7). We recall too the criminal who was crucified with Jesus and who begged to be remembered at the coming of the kingdom. Jesus did not reject his wish by saying “You're too late. You should have converted earlier.” Instead, he said, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Lk 23,43). We are called to be “merciful like the Father.”