The Eleventh Hour
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
At that time, Jesus spoke to His disciples this parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And having agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And about the third hour, he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace idle; and he said to them, ‘Go you also into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is just.’ So, they went. And again, he went out about the sixth, and about the ninth hour, and did as before. But about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing about and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here all day idle?’ They said to him, ‘Because no man has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘Go you also into the vineyard.’ But when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers, and pay them their wages, beginning from the last even to the first.’ Now when they of the eleventh hour came, they received each a denarius. And when the first in their term came, they thought that they would receive more; but they also received each his denarius. And on receiving it, they began to murmur against the householder, saying, ‘These last have worked a single hour, and you have put them on a level with us, who have borne the burden of the day’s heat.’ But answering one of them, he said, ‘Friend, I do you no injustice; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go; I choose to give to this last even as to you. Have I not a right to do what I choose? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ Even so the last shall be first, and the first last; for many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 20:1-16).
In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, some of these day laborers have been working since dawn; others since high noon; some only since mid-afternoon. And other began working just an hour before quitting time. And each of us receives the same pay.
Back then, in Biblical times, the usual working day was twelve hours long, pretty much from sunup to sundown. In the parable the vineyard owner of the vineyard goes back to the marketplace at 5:00 pm in the evening, as the sun is just beginning to set, with only one more hour of daylight.
It is literally the eleventh hour, since Jewish people measured the day from 6:00 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening. There he finds workers idle at the end of the day and he asks them,
"Why are you standing here idle."
We might think that they were lazy and didn't want to work. But their answer reveals differently,
"Oh no, we want to work but no one has hired us."
The fact that they'd been waiting there for 11 hours meant that they wanted to work, in fact that they were desperate to work. They needed money to feed families who might go hungry. They said:
“Oh yes, we will go to the field for one hour, we are so glad to have the work. Pay us whatever you will."
So, they go with the vineyard owner and work for one hour. At 6:00 pm, just one hour later, the vineyard owners would line up all the day workers to pay them.
God commanded the Jews: (Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 24):
"You shall not keep someone's pay for a day's work overnight. You shall give it to them at the end of the day, at sundown."
This law was prescribed out of deference to the poor who were desperately counting on that money to feed their families. They were to be paid at 6:00 pm sharp.
Those eleventh-hour employees were working on faith that the employer would be fair and kind to them. To these men who did just one hour of work they were very pleased because the owner was "more than fair" – in fact, he was downright generous! But the early risers, those who put in 12 straight hours of work, were angry and jealous.
In worldly economic terms, this would be a very foolish thing for an employer to do. If you pay people who work for only an hour the same wage that you pay to people who work all day, you will have a hard time finding any all-day workers. Besides which, you will be in big trouble with the Fair Labor Standards Commission and with the Farm Workers’ Union. But the parable is not about worldly economics; it is about the economics of the Kingdom of Heaven. Worldly economics is the economics of scarcity; but heavenly economics is the economics of abundance. Businessmen on this world only know about strict justice. Do your work – get paid only for what you do.
But this is not the way with God’s business. His business is a business of generosity. In the work of the world the question boils down to – how much can I get out of you and how little can I pay you for it? In the work of heaven God is working to see how much he can give you because He loves you so much. This is why Jesus said,
“I have come that you may have life, and that you may have it abundantly.”
This Gospel parable is heard on Septuagesima, roughly 70 days before Easter, and just three Sundays before Lent. It is time to reflect upon God’s goodness to us. God is telling us to imitate His generosity. Make sacrifices for love of Him and for the good of others. Do not be stingy. Forgive faults quickly. Do not hold grudges.
Rather, pray for your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you. For if you lovingly show mercy to those who are unkind to you, if you offer forgiveness to those who offend you, then you are rooting out that stingy spirit which does not want to love, and you are practicing God’s economics—loving your neighbor as you yourself wish to be loved.