Matthew 20: 1-16
Years ago when I used to direct Vacation Bible School this same principle – equal wages for equal work - played itself out. At the end of Vacation Bible School I liked to give the volunteers a small token of appreciation for their help. Seemed like the nice thing to do. But as more people are in the workplace there are less and less volunteers who can give an entire week to help at VBS. So I had to make a grid of the teacher roster and it looked like a patchwork quilt. It helped me determine “if it’s Tuesday it must be Carol in the kindergarten class.” There were a lot of creative, children loving volunteers.
Well I thought about what I should give to the volunteers, usually it was a plant. Should the ones who could only help for one day be given the same gift as the ones who were there to help for the entire week? I tell you, I stewed about this one for about a week. Until it hit me. VBS needed every single person, whether they could give a week or a day, Vacation Bible School wouldn’t be able to happen unless each person were there giving of their time and resources.
So I realized that fairness, as we might see it, in my gift giving with volunteers was absolutely NOT the issue. Having a good program with happy volunteers was the issue! They all worked, they all received plants. Still, I wanted parity, I thought the ones who worked 5 days should have gotten a bit more than the ones who worked one day until I realized that I needn’t be such a tight wad.
In this parable of the laborers in the vineyard it is disconcerting to think that those who work eight hours get the same wage, the exact same amount of money and benefits and acceptance as those who work for only one hour. In our 21st practice of fair labor it would be an outrage. It goes against all of the labor practices that we are conditioned to expect, work for, and demand. And, if this parable were about impartiality, and justice, and workplace equity, then it simply wouldn’t be fair.
But this parable is not about justice or being fair…nor is it about our human nature so much as it is about the nature of God much like the other parables that we have examined this Lenten season: the sower, the pearl, the treasure, and the Samaritan.
We try very hard to justify God’s ways, God’s actions on our own human terms. But God’s ways are not our ways. God’s peace and love, and justice goes far beyond our human capacity for understanding. Here lies the tension and the grittiness of this parable. This is why it makes our hackles spike higher than Mount Everest.
Systematically the landowners would come early in the morning to the public square where commerce began early in the day. The day laborers, those living hand to mouth, gather, at nine, at noon, at three and at five…they just keep coming out in hopeful expectation for a little work so that they could feed their families. Who doesn’t want to feed their families?
The landowner also, systematically comes out to see who is there, who is still waiting, hoping to land some honest work for the day. They were not just idly standing there pounding down beer in the blazing heat. The laborers were waiting there unemployed in anticipation that they would be chosen for the next job. They. Needed. Work. And the finally get it.
The landowner comes through and gives the laborers what is needed – work and wages only on his terms. Each laborer is provided for, there is enough work for all, and enough wages for everyone, no one’s family will go hungry that day. They were given their daily bread. Isn’t that what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer? “Give US (all of us) OUR daily bread”. Just enough for today, for everyone, so that no one has to live with a growling stomach.
But still, the scent of unfairness permeates the air we breathe right? Often in the situations we find ourselves, perhaps like this scenario…..
I gave a good portion of my life caring for my father while my sisters and brothers maintained their normal routines, their lives and when he finally died they grieved as if they were alongside of him the whole time. And then, to top it off, the will named all four of us as equal beneficiaries of the estate. What’s fair about that? Or…
I’ve worked here for 15 years and worked really hard to receive $25 per hour and along comes this naïve, inexperienced worker and they offer him $25 to start mind you, where’s the justice in that? That’s not fair.
If we take this parable literally then it just flat out makes no sense as far as justice and fairness is concerned. It might even anger some of us depending on where you place yourself in this parable. God doesn’t come off looking so good here, God wouldn’t win a popularity contest with most of us probably because we think of ourselves as the hard working laborers.
There are two absolutes here in this parable where Jesus seeks to define a new world order for the kingdom of God. The first is that the landowner can do what he wants to with what belongs to him. The second is that because he can do what he wants with what belongs to him he claims the right to be generous with his holdings. He doesn’t give in to the kvetching of the laborers who worked the entire day. He has empathy for those who worked only one hour of the day, they, too receive the grace and generosity of God.
We look for equity but find only generosity. Our ways and thoughts and actions are not God’s ways and thoughts and actions.
Justice and grace just can’t be reconciled here. Justice we understand, we get that. Grace well, that is as elusive as can be. It is a part of the nature of God and God’s generosity often violates our own sense of right and wrong. We’ll never know why God seems to act unjustly to some, why the first that show up in line, that worked their tails off receive seemingly so very little then those who show up at the very end and also receive a portion of God’s love.
There will be times when others will receive a blessing and you will not. Don’t be hurt. You are not diminished because someone else is lavished upon. It does not mean that God loves you any less than someone who got more than you. Get over it. God, our benevolent God is generous, and God meets us when we are in need of being met, and where we are in need of being met.
God is consistent and systematic in pursing a vibrant relationship with us. We come to the vineyard hungry and in need and without fail are met by God who loves us, who knows us and who provides for our living. Like the landowner God, who knows our needs, receives each one of us into the vineyard to collect our sustenance for living. We are cared for, we are loved.
Why then should we grumble?
The Kingdom of heaven is like this.