HomeCommentaryThe Parable of the Vineyard Workers and the plight of migrant workers

The Parable of the Vineyard Workers and the plight of migrant workers

The 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time falls as a celebration of the 109th World Day of Migrants and Refugees and the 37th National Migrants Sunday. It is just worth considering, how the gospel readings of today are related to these celebrations.

In 2021, the Philippine Statistic Authority estimates that about 1.83 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) worked abroad from April to September.

The same data reveal that about “four in every ten” OFWs work low-status or ‘elementary’ jobs, such as street vendors, construction and factory workers, cleaners, domestic helpers, and agriculture laborers.

They are the hired workers, doing the 3 Ds works, (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning).

It was recorded that the majority of OFWs work in Asia, specifically Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Singapore, and Qatar.

The plight of poor and vulnerable migrants is precarious and fraught with difficulties. Aside from lacking proper work, food, and housing, they experience harassment, exploitation, and at times outright violence.

What does it mean to read the New Testament in the context of vulnerable migrant workers – the so-called heroes? How do the realities of vulnerability, poverty, lack of economic opportunities, and threats of violence influence the reading of the parable of the vineyard workers (Matt 20:1–16)?

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Those who are familiar with the socio-cultural and economic realities in the Philippines, immediately notice many similarities with the parable: a place where day laborers gather each morning for employment, whether in villages or cities; agreement or negotiation of a daily wage; day-to-day realities of the poor and vulnerable laborers, including the uncertainty of finding employment; and the presence of large landowners (or contractors) and middlemen (equivalent to the manager in the parable).

These features in the parable are realities of millions of day laborers today, the same with our OFWs who are in the same way vulnerable.

Matthew 20:1–16 and the plight of migrant workers. The above description of the workers’ plight highlights features that resonate with the parable, prompting reflection.

The plot of the parable focuses on the landowner who goes out to the marketplace to hire workers.

As the exposition indicates, the landowner shows extraordinary compassion and care for the well-being of the laborers.

He personally goes back and forth to ensure the remaining workers are hired. In that sense, he represents God (and Jesus).

He is good, compassionate, and generous. He wants the last laborers to avoid public humiliation and gives them a chance to work, even if for just one hour.

The workers demonstrate extraordinary endurance for waiting around until the end of the day. They must have been desperate to accept the call to work that late.

Landowners were not exactly trustworthy employers in the eyes of day laborers. As such it is surprising that the laborers trusted the landowner’s promise to “pay what is just.”

So, what is the meaning of the parable and how does it relate to migrant workers?

As the exposition indicates, the focal point is the surprising justice of the landowner toward the latecomers and the reimagining of social relations between the landowner and the workers.

The fact that there is work for everyone and each is given the dignity to earn their daily wage is remarkable.

We may ask, “What is justice for an unemployed man [or a woman], eager to work … [for] those willing to stand in a public place all day long and endure the humiliating glances of the financially secure[?]”

The call for justice becomes an even more pressing issue like that of Mary Jane Veloso, who is a victim of trafficking, and others who are victims of labor trafficking, unjust wages, unpaid work, torture, and are still in jail due to a bureaucratic and broken socio-legal political system; institutional violence, exclusion from citizenship, and forced sexual favors are considered.

Neighbor love compels followers of Jesus to act with justice (Matt 5:6, 33; 23:23), hospitality, and solidarity (25:19–31) in the economic and sociopolitical sphere.

Socio-political and economic powers want to divide and conquer and maintain the status quo. In some sense the oppressors have already won, socio-cultural and caste division hampers cooperation within the church and the society.

Organization of the migrant day laborers together with various NGOs is particularly important, and churches play a major role in this.

The parable challenges the day laborers, and all those in solidarity with them, to stand united and work for a better community and society where there is work, justice, and dignity for everyone.

Challenging oppressive systems is risky, especially when justice is denied and those in power and serving their own selves.  

Without a doubt, this does not only antagonize the powerful but will also elicit disgruntlement on the part of those who feel that they have “borne the heat of the day.”

Yet Jesus was willing to confront the powers of his day as he embodied the kingdom of God and lived in solidarity with the outcasts of his day. This is the call of the kingdom for the church today as well, however risky it might be.

Pope Francis would state that to make migration a choice that is truly free, efforts must be made to ensure everyone an equal share in the common good, respect for his or her fundamental rights, and access to an integral human development, thus, to offer to each person the possibility of a dignified and fulfilling life, whether individually or within families.

Heeding the message of the Holy Father let us work to ensure that in every case, migration is the fruit of a free decision, we are called to show maximum respect for the dignity of each migrant; this entails accompanying and managing waves of migration as best we can, constructing bridges and not walls, expanding channels for a safe and regular migration.

In whatever place we decide to build our future, in the country of our birth or elsewhere, the important thing is that there always be a community ready to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate everyone, without distinction and without excluding anyone.

Let our parish, our community, our diocese, and our society become a welcoming land to welcome the migrant Jesus.

It is clear that not many interpretations consider the present-day implications of the parable for analogous situations.

It was argued that the focal point of the parable is the goodness and justice of God’s kingdom as manifested through the actions of the landowner.

By considering the idea, it can be concluded that the parable challenges Christians to be agents of God’s kingdom together with and on behalf of migrant workers and those in the same situation, the most vulnerable.

Gospel reflection of Sr. Beth Pedernal, MSCS for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Is 55:6-9 Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18 Phil 1:20c-24, 27a Mt 20:1-16a

Balik-Tanaw is a group blog of the Promotion of Church People’s Response (PCPR). The Lectionary Gospel reflection is an invitation for meditation, contemplation, and action.

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