The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard found in The Gospel of Matthew 20:10-16 is arguably the most infuriating words of Jesus ever to make it to print. There is a deep sense of something gone wrong when we hear that the ones who only worked one hour are paid the same as the workers who arrived at dawn and labored in the hot sun all day. Life in the kingdom simply cannot be this unfair.
We all could tell our own version of this parable. We all have known people who, in our “not-so-humble” opinion, have received more than they deserved: the promotion, the raise, the recognition – even though we worked harder and longer. We have been taught from a very early age that fairness matters. It’s that well-worn loop that plays in our head – “If someone gets what I am getting – but hasn’t put in as much work as I have – then I’m being cheated.” (John Shea)
I’m a child of the 70’s and so one of the first things to involuntarily pop into my mind when I read this parable is Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, in the classic “Christmas Special.” I remember Sally writing a letter to Santa Claus about how good she is. The list of toys that she wants is ridiculously long and she ends the letter with “But if all that is too much to carry, just send cash.” Of course Charlie Brown rolls his eyes and let’s out a big sigh of embarrassment over his sister’s greed and Sally indignantly responds, “What? All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me.”
This sounds just like my daughter the other day. I was dolling out some candy to my kids in exchange for their help in cleaning the house (because I believe in the power of bribery) and one of my daughters actually counted the microscopic candy nerds I gave her and then eye-balled the candy in her sisters palm and proclaimed “Hey! She got the same as me! I put away the towels AND did the dishes – that’s way more work than she did! That’s not fair!”
I’m confident that I need not elaborate this point. If there’s a single parent reading this reflection who hasn’t heard “It’s not fair” about a billion times, I’ll eat my hat. And it’s not just the kids, right? We adults want things to be fair too. We like the kind of fairness based on how hard we work and what we deserve because it gives us a sense of control and predictability. We feel we should be rewarded for our good behavior. We like to be recognized for our achievements. We live-in and promote a rewards based system in which we reap the consequences of our actions; our choices, good or bad.
So, of course this parable sticks in our craw! Because Jesus is in essence saying, “Welp! I hate to break it to you, but that’s not the way it works in the kingdom!”
But our fiercely independent, competitive way of thinking is so engrained in our culture and in our daily lives that we can scarcely imagine any other way to hear this parable, and it becomes even more radical when considered within its historical context.
Day laborers in the first century, much the same as today, were among the most poor and vulnerable of society. They had no job security, no disability or unemployment insurance, no 401K and no company loyalty was extended to them. Theirs is a situation of survival of the fittest; a true hand to mouth existence. If they don’t work that day, their families do not eat that night.
The first workers hired head to the vineyard only after agreeing to the usual day’s wage which is neither generous nor miserly. The landowner agrees to what is expected and reasonable. It was just enough to subsist for one day. The first hired were happy to be paid what they believed they were worth since they were no doubt chosen because they were the youngest, strongest and healthiest in the crowd. They were chosen first and were confident they were worth the going rate. The first hired got what they bargained for.
It is more than likely that workers who were standing idle, waiting in the marketplace all day and invited to the vineyard with only an hour remaining in the work day would have been the ones who had been picked over all day by many other employers, repeatedly humiliated because they didn’t measure up; the sick, the elderly, the weak, the malnourished – those considered basically unemployable. They waited all day but were not hired because they were not strong, efficient, effective, productive.
What is shocking about the landowners behavior and is revolutionary about Jesus’ teaching, both in the first century and for many people even today, is this parable tells us loud and clear that our value in God’s eyes is in NO WAY dependent on our performance. God knows that each of us is worth much more than what we achieve and accomplish. Our behavior and choices, be they good or bad, do not in any way effect God’s love for us. Truly, don’t we love our own children this way?
How could we not believe that God’s love for us is at least as strong and faithful as our love for our own children? Yet this truth is still hard to internalize. It’s almost “too” good of news. This is not how a “rewards” based society works. Jesus wants to completely dismantle the world view that we ARE what we EARN – especially in our relationship with God – because true freedom can never be found there.
The good news of Jesus is that God’s love for each and every one of us is lavish and wild – without boundary or breaking point – and God loves us as we are, not as we should be. God hires us on the spot, no resume or drug test needed. God’s mercy and care for us is beyond anything we could ever imagine.
So, when the first hired negotiated their daily wage they shortchanged themselves. They settled for too little. Obviously, the landowner was willing to pay a full day’s wage for much less than a full day’s work. And they are right. This is NOT fair; this is unreasonably lavish. This is bad business. This is recklessly ignoring your profit margin.
The other workers who arrived at 9AM, Noon, 3PM and 5PM didn’t negotiate their wage. They trusted that the landowner would pay them “whatever is right.” And as it turns out “what is right” is not based on what we earn but rather on the goodness and generosity of the landowner, knowing that they needed to eat! That everyone deserves to have their most basic needs met.
The workers hired later received much, much more than they earned – much more than they deserved – more than they had a right to ask or hope for – and this, Jesus says, is how it is in our relationship with God. God’s love and grace for each of us is limitless and is in no way based on what we achieve.
Jesus repeatedly urges us to stop judging and keeping that useless tally in our heads about what we deserve and what others deserve. There is more than enough to go around – and then some.
Rather when really know this unconditional love in our gut, our gratitude enables us to share freely with others. We, the church, are to be the sacrament – the concrete, efficacious sign and symbol – of God’s love and grace to the world; to give what we have received. This is the revolution Jesus came to spark in us. It’s quite an ambitious vision; a worthy dream.
Fr. Ron Rolheiser writes: “The God that Jesus reveals to us is a God of infinite abundance. Inside God there is no scarcity, no stinginess, no sparing of mercy. Jesus assures us that God is reckless…wastefully extravagant: Like the father of the prodigal son and his older brother, God embraces both the missteps of our immaturity as well as the bitterness and resentment within our maturity.”
God wishes to give us much, much more than we would bargain for; more than we think we are worth…and Jesus in this parable is advising us not to settle – God is more than happy to pay up!
* Some of the insights for this reflection come from the work of John Shea.