The Ultimate Denarius
In Palestine at the time of Jesus casual laborers were in an insecure position. There was lots of unemployment and no unemployment benefit. One denarius was the going rate for a day’s basic work and it would support a man and his family for a day, if not lavishly. The social agreement was that they be paid each evening. To be unable to earn it was to risk real hunger for you and your family that day or the next.
What we see at the beginning of the parable is a landowner acting conventionally and also justly. Those workers expect and get one denarius so why do they complain? They end up unhappy, losing much of the satisfaction that could have been derived from an honest day’s work justly rewarded.
They could and should have seen the landowner’s initiative as a generous act to ensure that more people got what they needed to live on. Seen properly, there is no real question of the landowner being unjust to those employed all day. Rather he has been more than just to the others: he has been generous or merciful. Those that worked all day could have rejoiced in that, and been happier, not less happy, during the evening.
The parable is about receiving, co-operating with, and rejoicing in the graces necessary for our eternal salvation. To believe in Jesus and to love Him by keeping His commands and by generous service of God and neighbor is to work for the Lord. There is, like secular work, great dignity and consolations in it here and now, and in the future it is rewarded. Its eternal reward at the end of life is the vision and life of God. God wants as many people to receive this gift, and so in this world, like the landowner who frequently goes to the market to find laborers, He ceaselessly, generously and mercifully calls us back to Him.
Today’s parable invites us to recognize that what we have received from God, especially grace, is a gift. God does not need us, but is both just and generous to us. We are challenged not to commit the sin of envy of what others have, be it talents, money or leisure, and, added to that, resent God Himself for His generosity and gifts, which will poison our own relationship with God and reducing our love for our neighbor.
We are called to rejoice in the awesome scale of God’s goodness when we see God extend His gifts and mercy to others. To do so is to love. Not to do is to let our love grow cold. The Church teaches that although all in Heaven receive the vision of God – the ultimate denarius – those who have loved more on earth will appreciate and enjoy Heaven more. So let us rejoice now in the goodness and mercy of God, trust in it, and to see it extended to others.