The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16

Posted by Dim Bulb on August 17, 2013

Mat 20:1  The kingdom of heaven is like to an householder, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
Mat 20:2  And having agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
Mat 20:3  And going out about the third hour, he saw others standing in the marketplace idle.
Mat 20:4  And he said to them: Go you also into my vineyard, and I will give you what shall be just.
Mat 20:5  And they went their way. And again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did in like manner.  

“The kingdom of heaven,” &c. In the Greek, ὅμοια γαρ εστιν ἡ βασιλεια, &c., it is, “FOR, the kingdom of heaven,” &c. It is the same in the Syriac. The main design and scope of the following parable may be clearly seen from the context, from the identity of the proposition which immediately precedes it (19:30), of which it is, according to the Greek—“FOR, the kingdom of heaven,” &c.—the demonstration on elucidation, with the conclusion deduced from it by our Divine Redeemer (v. 16). The article prefixed to “first” and “last” in the Greek, in verse 16—οἱ πρωτοι, “the first;” οι εσχατοι, “the last,” shows, they manifestly refer to “first” and “last” (19:30). The parable is clearly intended to show, that, in the economy of God’s providence, “the first shall be last, and the last first,” regarding the meaning of which words, as shall be seen hereafter, there is a great difference of opinion among commentators.

The literal meaning hardly needs any explanation. The phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like,” &c., frequently means, in the Gospel, that in the economy of God’s merciful dealings with His people, in His militant Church here, and in the kingdom of His glory, or Church militant hereafter, something occurs, similar to what happens when a householder goes out early, &c. For, taken literally, it is not the kingdom, but, rather, the King, or ruler of heaven, that should be compared with a householder. The several hours of the day are allusive to the division of time among the Romans and Jews. The Jews, at this period of their history, having been now subject to Rome, adopted the Roman custom of calculating time. They divided their days and nights, at all seasons of the year, into twelve hours each, which, of course, were longer or shorter at several periods of the year. The twelve hours of the night they divided into four watches, each watch comprising three hours, at the close of which the military guard relieved one another. In like manner, they divided the “twelve hours of the day” (John 11:9) into four greater hours, or principal parts, consisting of three hours each. The first, or prime, commenced at sunrise, corresponding with our six o’clock, supposing sunrise to take place at the same hour as at the Equinox, and embraced half the space of time between sunrise and mid-day. The second, or terce, commenced at the end of the first three hours, nine o’clock, and ended at mid-day, or twelve o’clock. The third principal part, or sext, commenced at twelve o’clock, and ended at three o’clock. The fourth principal part, or none, commenced at the end of sext, and ended at six o’clock, at sunset or close of the day. Not only were the civil duties among the Jews, but also their sacred aim ecclesiastical duties, regulated by this division (Mark 15:25).

It is at these different principal points of division of time, the householder in the parable is said to have gone forth to hire the labourers into his vineyard. At the present day, this division of time is still kept up by the Church in the office of her sacred ministers. The 118th Psalm, which, with the exception of one verse, is all employed in treating of the law of God, is thus divided in the daily rentation of the Divine office. Prime, began among the Jews at the commencement of the first hour of the day, or at sunrise; terce began at the end of the third, or a nine o’clock; sext, at the end of the sixth, or twelve o’clock; none, at the end of the ninth, or three in the afternoon. The three hours, included under none, closed the day at sunset, or twelfth hour, viz., six in the evening. Hence, “the eleventh hour” (verses 6, 9), means, one hour before sunset.

“The kingdom of heaven,” as has been already conveyed, means, the Church militant, where men labour; and the Church triumphant, where they are rewarded.

By the “householder,” is meant, Almighty God, the King of Heaven, who at all periods of time from creation, and at all stages of life, calls men to labour in His service. “Labourers,” those called to serve God by the practice of good works. “Vineyard,” the Church, which is often, in SS. Scripture, compared to a “vineyard” (Ps 80:9).

By the several hours of the day are meant, according to some, the several leading religious epochs—the several dispensations under which God called men to labour in His Church, and thus to reach securely the goal of salvation. According to these, the time comprised between the first and third hour, refers to the interval between Adam and Noah; from the third to the sixth, the interval between Noah and Abraham; from the sixth to the ninth, the time between Abraham and Moses; from the ninth to the eleventh, between Moses and Christ, whose religion embraces the last hour, between the eleventh and sunset. Hence, the period of the Christian dispensation is called “the last hour” in the Gospel, in which men receive such abundant graces and privileges, and amass such treasures of merit, compared with those living under preceding dispensations, that, although last in point of time, they are first in glory and merit; and hence, the Apostles take precedence of the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Law. Moreover, they might be termed first, because they had not to wait long, like the just of old, before entering heaven (Heb. 11:40). These expositors understand, by “evening,” the end of all things, when God shall come to judge the world.

Others, by the “day,” understand, the term of man’s life, during which one can work (John 9:4), and insure his salvation; and the principal hours of the day, the period or stage of life at which men are called, and enter God’s service—some, from infancy; others, from boyhood; others, in manhood; and others, in decrepid old age. These, by “evening,” understand, the close of a man’s life. The first class have to labour long and hard against the strength of youthful temptations, and the heat of their unruly passions. This latter opinion is preferred by Maldonatus, who maintains, that it is beside the scope of the parable, at what age of the world a man was called. Our Redeemer only wishes to convey, that some labour more, and acquire greater merit in a short time, than others do in a longer period; and to serve this object, it matters little at what age of the world, but only at what period of his life, he was called and entered on God’s service.

It is deserving of remark, that our Redeemer supposes in the parable, that men merit eternal life; for, He speaks of an agreement to labour for a certain “hire,” which implies merit. Moreover, He speaks of paying “what is just,” which proves merit, founded, however, on God’s gracious promises.

For “penny,” the daily hire, Kenrick has “shilling,” his rendering of “denarius.” The value of the denarius is computed differently. Some say, it was nearly equal to one shilling of our money (Kenrick); others, to 7½d; others, less. But, whatever may have been its value, it denotes in the parable, life eternal; and, although given the same, to all; it was only generically, but not specifically so; for, we know, the Saints enjoy different degrees of glory. (1 Cor. 15) All the Saints enjoy in common the glory of being admitted into the kingdom, and to the beatific vision of God; as it is common to all the stars to be set in the firmament of heaven, with different degrees, however, of lustre and brightness. (1 Cor. 15)

Mat 20:6  But about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing, and he saith to them: Why stand you here all the day idle?
Mat 20:7  They say to him: Because no man hath hired us. He saith to them: Go ye also into my vineyard

“Why stand you here all the day idle? Because no one hath hired us.” Almighty God calls men at all times. But men do not always choose to correspond with His call, or enter His service. The “householder” hired all whom he found in the market-place in the first instance. This he conveys by the Prophet Jeremias. “I have spoken to you rising early in the morning” (Jer. 7:13; Jer 11:7-8; Jer 30:11). Hence, the answer, “because no one hath hired us,” may be regarded as an ornamental part of the parable; because, although not strictly true in the sense of the parable, it expresses the kind of false excuse which idlers generally allege; nor are householders in general supposed to be cognizant of the falsehood it expresses.

Mat 20:8  And when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard saith to his steward: Call the labourers and pay them their hire, beginning from the last even to the first.
Mat 20:9  When therefore they were come that came about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
Mat 20:10  But when the first also came, they thought that they should receive more: And they also received every man a penny.
Mat 20:11  And receiving it they murmured against the master of the house,
Mat 20:12  Saying: These last have worked but one hour. and thou hast made them equal to us, that have borne the burden of the day and the heats.
Mat 20:13  But he answering said to one of them: friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree with me for a penny?
Mat 20:14  Take what is thine, and go thy way: I will also give to this last even as to thee

“Evening.” The end of the world, or the close of human life. They both, practically, come to the same; since the sentence at general judgment is but a ratification of that passed at particular judgment at each one’s death.

“Steward,” refers to our Lord, who is constituted by His Father, Judge of the living and of the dead.

“Give them their hire.” Hence, the reward of merit. The hire given the last, far exceeding their expectations, gives us an idea of merit, in the Catholic sense, since the reward of merit far exceeds the intrinsic value of the act. It is from the grace and liberality of God, that our actions are meritorious, and receive so great a reward. Hence, St. Augustine says, “in crowning our merits, God crowns His own gifts.”

Mat 20:15  Or, is it not lawful for me to do what I will? Is thy eye evil, because I am good?

The entire context of the parable clearly refutes the false conclusion deduced by heretics from the words of this verse, as if the householder said, that the reward of life eternal was utterly gratuitous, exclusive of merit. The reply of the householder is altogether ornamental, and suited to the dignity of a master in dealing with murmuring labourers, without entering into any discussion at all regarding the merits of the case. At best, the words would only prove that the value of merit and its reward flow, in the first instance, from the grace and gratuitous liberality of God, which every Catholic readily admits.

The word, “evil,” applied to the murmurers, in the phrase, “is thine eye evil?” &c., means, envious, a signification of the word common among the Jews (Prov. 28:6; Eccles. 31:14; Mark 7:22).

Mat 20:16  So shall the last be first and the first last. For many are called but few chosen.

“So shall the last be first,” &c. This is regarded by the generality of commentators, as the application of the parable, and as the conclusion which our Redeemer means to draw from it, identical with proposition (Mt 19:30). But how the application is made, is a subject about which they are much divided, according to the difference of interpretation given of “first” becoming “last;” and “last,” “first” (Mt 19:30, and here). Nor, indeed, is it easy to see how the conclusion, and especially, the reason given for the conclusion—“for many are called, but few are chosen”—is warranted by the parable, in which all are represented as receiving the hire or reward in equal proportions. I pass by as improbable, the opinion of St. Chrysostom, who holds, that the words of this verse are not a conclusion from the parable at all; that our Redeemer merely wishes to convey, that as the labourers all received an equal amount contrary to the expectations of all; so, something more wonderful occurs also, when “the first”—by whom St. Chrysostom understands, the Jews, and those Christians who fell away from the summit of perfection to the depths of spiritual misery—became “last;” and the “last”—those who arise from the depths of sin and misery, and reach the height of perfection—become “first,” Some expositors hold, that the words are allusive to the rejection of the Jaws and the calling of the Gentiles. Hence, according to them, by the “first” becoming “last,” are meant, those who are utterly excluded from the kingdom of heaven. The words are used in this sense (Luke 13:30). The second conclusion, or, rather, reason assigned for the conclusion, regarding the “first” becoming “last,” &c., viz.: “For, many are called, but few are chosen,” is in favour of this interpretation; so, is the murmuring of the early workmen. Hence, according to them, the scope of the parable is to show, that the Gentile believers would be preferred, both in the Church militant here and triumphant hereafter, to the Jews who rejected Christ. Hence, the murmurs of the Jews, at seeing the Gentiles called of late to the Church, preferred to themselves, who had such claims to preference, on the ground of their early call, in the persons of the Patriarchs and their fathers at different periods, as well as on account of their labour in cultivating the vineyard with such inconveniences, and such sparing distribution of graces and helps, so abundantly dealt out to the children of the New Law. These interpreters say, that whatever has reference to this object in the parable, should be regarded as significant; whatever does not tend to illustrate this, should be regarded as ornamental. It is not easy to explain, in this opinion, how the “penny,” the daily hire promised by the householder, is given to all the labourers; and it is in reference to “the kingdom of heaven” it is given. Moreover, it is given at “evening,” that is to say, either at the close of human life, or at the end of the world. It could not, therefore, be understood of the temporal retribution given the Jews; since, among those who gained eternal life, are many faithful Jews; and besides, such temporal retribution was given during man’s life—not at its close, nor at the end of the world. Hence, others say, that “first” and “last,” refer to those who are saved, and receive the crown of eternal life. According to these, the scope of the parable is to show, that it matters not at what stage of human life, or period of the world, a man is called; provided he labours and co-operates more, fervently and zealously, he shall gain the first place in the kingdom of heaven, in preference to those who may labour less fervently for a longer period of time. These expositors say, looking to the scope of the parable, that, the “first” in the order of reward are termed such, because, although called last, and their labour of shorter duration, it was a source of greater glory to them to be the first favoured with the reward. This was a proof of greater diligence on their part. Moreover, they received a greater reward than they expected from the liberality and beneficence of their employer, while those who imagined themselves entitled to the first place, who filled high stations in this world, and occupied prominent positions in the opinion of men, were not so much exalted in glory as the lowly and the humble. Thus, the Apostles, and other such abject and humble men, would be preferred to the great ones of the earth, and their judiciary power and exaltation would be signified by their being termed “first,” whilst the others, over whom they would be appointed judges, would be “last” in comparative judgment. “First” and “last” are verified of every class of persons, and at every stage of the world. Against this latter opinion, it will not militate, that the householder says, “take thine own and go thy way.” These words may be regarded as ornamental. Moreover, they refer to eternal glory in this opinion; neither will the phrase, “thine eye is evil,” that is, envious, illiberal, which may be also regarded as ornamental, and would, at best, only convey an idea of the magnitude of the glory which God bestows on His singularly beloved and faithful servants, calculated to make the very elect envious, if possible, or cause them to wonder at the sovereign liberality of God. While the former opinion—which understands, by “last,” those excluded from everlasting bliss—accords better with the context (Mt 19:30), this latter opinion seems to accord better with the parable, in which all received the “penny,” or daily hire, in different degrees, no doubt; preference and pre-eminence being conferred on some before others. It is, however, rather difficult to see the connexion between the parable in this latter interpretation, and the second conclusion, or, rather, the reason assigned at the close, “For, many are called, but few are chosen.” This would naturally follow from the words of the parable understood in the former sense, which understands “last,” of those rejected from the kingdom of bliss, the same with “many are called;” and “first,” of those who actually gain eternal life, the same with “but few are chosen.”

The opinion of Suarez on this point seems to be the most probable. He holds that the words, “for many are called,” &c., are an argument, a fortiori, as if our Lord meant to say: It is no wonder that of those who are called, some do not obtain the first place, although they receive life eternal; since even of those who are called, many are excluded altogether. Others explain, “many are called,” to the Gospel and the observance of God’s commandments; and understand “chosen,” of extraordinary graces, and the observance of the Evangelical counsel. And this accords well with the context (c. 19), where those who merely observe God’s Commandments, are contrasted with those who practise the Evangelical counsels, and who receive the special reward attached thereto.

This parable of the labourers is meant to convey to us a very practical and important lesson of instruction, as to the importance of eternal salvation. This can be seen—1. From the magnitude of the gain to be secured for all eternity, in case of success; and of the loss we sustain for all eternity, in case of failure. 2. From the price paid to ensure it for us, “not corruptible gold or silver, bid the precious blood of the Immaculate Lamb.” 3. From the words of our Redeemer, declaring it to be the only thing necessary, “porro unum est necessarium.” Other things may be useful—friends, wealth, health, and the other goods of fortune; but, this alone is essential. Gain this, every other loss is gain; lose this, every other gain is loss. Other losses may be repaired; this is irreparable, unchangeable for all eternity. Let each one imagine, what should stimulate us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” viz., that, after being presented before the tribunal of Jesus Christ, and condemned, the pondus æternitatis is laid upon him; that he begins to suffer excruciating tortures, with the full knowledge of the loss of God, with the remorse of the undying worm of conscience, with the knowledge, every moment he suffers, that he is to suffer for eternity. What a dreadful thought. Let him seriously reflect on the words, EVER and NEVER. Ever to continue; never to end; then, he may estimate the importance of eternal salvation. Oh! “What doth it avail a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” Let him imagine he gained the whole world, enjoyed honours, pleasures, and riches, and all that his imagination could suggest, or picture to him, for the longest life—he “gained the entire world.” Let him imagine the other part verified, he is at the end of all this enjoyment damned—he “suffers the loss of his soul.” What will his past enjoyments avail him? Yes; the recollection of them will avail to aggravate his eternal torments. There is now no further redemption. “Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?” (Mt 16:26) We should practically resolve on adopting the most efficacious means of securing our salvation. These are, fervent and persevering prayer; flights of the occasion of sin; frequentation of the Sacraments; a tender devotion to the Immaculate Mother of God, &c.

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