24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 20:1-16a
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
As the Fathers of the Church consider the parable of the landowner who hired laborers throughout the hours of the day and, at the end of the day, paid them all the equal daily wage (i.e. one denarius); they recognize that the reward of heaven is equal on one level, insofar as all receive the one denarius (signifying the eternity of heaven), and diverse on another level (insofar as each receives a diverse glory throughout eternity).
What is more, the Church Fathers see that the various workers called at the diverse hours of the day (the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours) represent the progressive covenants which God established throughout the ages.
The “hours” of the day and the “ages” of the history of salvation
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide tells us: “By the day is to be understood the course of this world; by the various hours the different ages of the world; so that the first hour is the age from Adam to Noah, the second that from Noah to Abraham, the third from Abraham to Moses, the sixth from Moses to Christ, the eleventh from Christ to the end of the world. Thus S. Hilary, S. Gregory, and Theophylact explain it.”
Notice that the Lectionary renders the first hour, the third hour, the sixth, the ninth and the eleventh hours as dawn, 9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm. This is simply the translation of the ancient Jewish (and Roman) mode of calculating time into the modern method of measuring the day.
This is the truest interpretation of the parable - it describes the relation between the Gentiles and the Jews. While the Jews were called first, the Gentiles who were last shall be first by the grace and mercy of Christ. Then, the Jews also shall be received into the kingdom, if only they convert and believe in the Savior.
The “hours” and the “ages” of a man’s life
Again, our Jesuit scholar Fr. Cornelius writes: “Or the day is the life of each man; the first hour being infancy; the third, youth; the sixth, manhood; the ninth, old age; the eleventh, decrepitude. So S. Jerome and S. Basil explain it.”
The tropological or moral interpretation
Finally, Fr. Cornelius offers the moral sense: “The vineyard is the soul which each man has to cultivate. Morally, therefore, we learn that we are called to labour in the vineyard, i.e., our own souls and the Church of God. The cultivators of this vineyard are not held in honour for the time during which they have laboured, but for the diligence, the zeal, and the spirit with which they have laboured. S. Jerome (Epist. 13, ad Paul): Hence the Spouse in the Canticles says, They have made me keeper of the vineyards, mine own vineyard have I not kept. The essence of the soul is the vineyard, planted in the soil of the body; its faculties are the vines, and works of charity are its wine; the vines are to be fastened to the Cross, at the foot of which we make a grave, against the approach of our death and burial. This vineyard must be kept from the wild boar out of the wood (Ps. lxxx.)—i.e., from lustful pleasure; and from the singular wild beast (Vulg.)—i.e., from the sin of pride, which makes a man singular; from the fox of cunning flattery; from the wolf of greediness; from the dog of detraction. We must pray the Lord to send upon this His vineyard the rain of His doctrine, and the warmth of His charity, and dung—i.e., the memory of the death of His Son and of the holy martyrs. The soul is green like a vineyard with flowers and leaves, that is, with holy desires and edifying speech; it pours forth the tears of compunction; it sheds forth the sweet odour of virtue; it bears the ripe grapes of good works. Again, the faithful man performs in his own soul the same works as the vine-dresser in the vineyard. He prunes, hoes, transplants, disentangles, &c.; the faithful does the same mystically in his own soul.”