Who are God’s laborers?  “Going out about nine o’clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’” (Mt 20:3-4)

Monks are laborers. St Benedict would agree with the landowner’s philosophy regarding idlers, since he begins his chapter on manual labor with the dictum: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul” (RB 48.1). He then proceeds to fill in gaps in the monastic schedule with set times for work and reading. We would be mistaken to think, however, that Benedict sees labor only as a negative – something to keep us out of trouble. Labor clearly has a positive value also, governed as it is by necessity, poverty and the desire to follow in the footsteps of our fathers and the apostles by living by the work of our hands. Today, we speak of participation in God’s work of creation and restoration, of solidarity with all workers, especially the poor, and of a balanced life which fosters health of mind and body as well as growth in maturity and self-transcendence. Our labor must lead us beyond mere subsistence. As Qoheleth puts it: “All human toil is for the mouth, yet the soul is not satisfied” (Eccl 6:7). To satisfy our thirsting souls, there must be an inner work associated with the outer.

There are other kinds of work that go on in a monastery. St Benedict’s chapter on manual work (of which many of the 24 verses actually concern reading and mealtimes) is dwarfed by the ten or more chapters he devotes to the Divine Office – the work of God (RB 8-18). This form of labor is carried out seven times a day and once at night. I find it interesting that the landowner in the parable goes out seeking laborers at the very times we are singing the office in choir – at dawn, nine, midday, three and five. Who knows, perhaps he was up at night too! The question is: who is really working here? Is it called the “work of God” because it is the work enjoined on us by God? Or is it really actually God who is at work? The hard-working landowner goes out at the time for lauds, terce, sext, none and vespers to gather the idle and unemployed from the marketplace into his vineyard. Into his Church. Into his kingdom. Into his bosom. Day by day and week by week, year by year and psalm by psalm, he is working, drawing all people to himself.

But, I dare say that neither the work of our hands nor the work of God exhausts Benedict’s concept of work in the monastery. One of his favorite descriptors of the monk is as God’s laborer or workman in yet another sense. The Prologue opens with references to the “labor of obedience,” which is contrasted to the “sloth of disobedience” (RB Prol. 2). And again, like the landowner in the marketplace: “Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again: ‘Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?’” (RB Prol. 19). The Lord is hiring, but what he offers is more than mere daily sustenance. If we idlers happen to hear his voice and follow him to the vineyard of the monastery, the content of our work is made clear and simple: “turn away from evil and do good” (RB Prol. 17/Ps 33:14-15). In a word, the real work of the monk is conversion. The voice that calls is delightful, the work is good, we have the good gifts in us to carry it out, the tools of the workshop are at our disposal, and the Lord has promised to manifest in us, through the Holy Spirit, “his workman now cleansed of vices and sins” (RB 7.70). So what are we waiting for?

Today’s parable is not about harvesting grapes so much as harvesting people….