TEXT: Matthew 20:1-16
Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” —Matthew 20:10-12 (ESV)
Well, I ask you, what kind of a way is that to run a business? Does this sound like any labour dispute you’ve ever heard of? Where employees are complaining that they received the wage they agreed to? Where the boss defends his right to pay more than is necessary? Where you get the same wages no matter how long you work? How on earth could you develop incentive to increased productivity in a system like that? What kind of fairness is this? The fairness of a system in which the first ones hired are the last in line? The last ones in move up to the front? Where sweat counts for nothing? What gives?
This, Jesus says, is how it works in the kingdom of heaven. When Jesus taught, he spent most of his time talking about the kingdom of heaven, telling us that the way the world works and the way the kingdom works are two very different things. Jesus taught that, in the kingdom, we are to love our enemies, give away our coat if someone asks for it, not worry no matter what’s going on, forgive as many times as it’s required, eat with people who have no reputation—or at least no good one!
None of this advice sounds like what the world suggests for those who want to get ahead. In the chapter preceding this one, Jesus said to his disciples: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24)
Tough words to hear, if you’re a first-world Christian! But Jesus was not condemning wealth per se. What he was saying was that we have to enter the kingdom as beggars—bringing nothing, contributing nothing—but expecting God to provide. To enter the kingdom, we need to have empty hands and light hearts. Wealth and possessions and status and responsibility are not bad things. But they can make it hard for us to be empty-handed and light-hearted.
Those who are first in position, first in achievement, are not necessarily going to be first in the kingdom of heaven. So, Jesus says, many who are first in this world will be last, and the last will be first. And to illustrate that point, he tells this parable.
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner, who goes out at the crack of dawn to hire labourers to work in his vineyard. He finds them, agrees on the usual wage, and sends them out. He’s made a covenant with them: if they work all day, he will pay them a day’s wage. Now every three hours or so he goes back to the marketplace, finds more people standing around, and sends them out, as well.
This is what I’d call “hands-on management.” He’s monitoring progress, “up-sizing” the workforce as needed. Then, an hour before quitting time, he goes back out to the marketplace. Finding still others standing around, he says to them, “Why have you been idle all day?” “Well, no one put us to work,” they say. “You go to the vineyard too,” he says, even though there’s only one more hour to go. It’s hardly worth the paperwork!
Then at six o’clock it’s payroll time—reckoning time. Like many parables of the kingdom that Jesus tells, this one deals with the Day of Reckoning. What’s going to happen when we are called to account at the end of our workday?
Well, this reckoning happens according to the deal struck at the beginning. The covenant is kept. The demands of the Law are met. Everyone gets paid the same, the amount agreed upon, the daily wage. What could be more fair than that?
And yet, those first workers laboured for 12 hours in the blazing sun! Shouldn’t they have gotten more than those who only worked one hour? Isn’t that more fair?
On the other hand, the landowner’s perspective is perfectly correct. It’s his capital; he can spend it as he wants. The complainers received not one penny less than what they had agreed to. Notice, their complaint was not that they didn’t receive enough. Their complaint was that the latecomers were elevated to a place of equality with them. Their complaint is not that they’ve been cheated, but that generosity is shown to others.
Now in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this may reflect the complaint of the Jewish leaders and Pharisees—or even of early Jewish Christians—that the promises of God’s Covenant were being extended to Gentiles and others who were unworthy. But I think it’s broader than that; I think it reflects something deep in human nature.
This is a theme that runs through all the gospels: resentment. Not at deprivation, you understand, but at generosity shown to another. The cry of the Pharisee—the cry of the good girls and good boys over all the ages—is, “Why are other people getting rewarded when they’ve been bad? When they haven’t done half of what I’ve done?”
Do we ever find ourselves resenting someone else’s advancement? Have you ever known yourself to be perfectly content with your title and your salary … until you hear of someone else getting a better one? What usually gets us into trouble is what got these 12-hour workers into trouble—comparing ourselves to others instead of focusing on what we have received.
Underneath that thinking—which is as common in the church as it is in the business world or academia or medicine or the playground—is a deep-seated fear that there is not enough to go around. We fear that if someone else receives more than we do (or even as much as we do) we will receive less.
The question for us today is: can we believe in enough? Can we trust in enough? We have a distorted outlook—one which tells us we don’t have enough. Now, it has nothing to do with what we actually do have. It has do to with our perception. We, looking at all our wealth, see ourselves as poor!
Why? Because we’re comparing ourselves to someone whom we think has more. For some reason, we rarely compare ourselves to people who have less! I heard a shattering statistic the other day: if you have just $4,210 to your name, you’re still richer than half of the world’s residents (!)* We are the richest of the rich, most of us. But that’s not how we feel.
So much of our way of thinking is based on an assumption of scarcity, of having to earn our way. But the message of the kingdom is abundance—a measure filled and overflowing.
God is always saying to us, “There’s more where that came from.” Food for 5,000 out of five loaves and two fish—and a dozen baskets left over! Jugs and jugs of finest wine created out of water, never running out! A spring of living water welling up to eternal life. Love that will never be exhausted. The message of the kingdom is one of unmerited love and forgiveness in abundance, of overwhelming grace.
So, what then? Should we all quit our jobs? Get out of the business world? Is the non-profit sector the only place for Christians?
I don’t think that is what Jesus meant. I think we are called to remember this parable in the way we do business—perhaps to evaluate success on lines other than by comparing ourselves to other companies or people. Evaluating, perhaps, by internal standards: have we accomplished what we set out to do? Are we doing more than we were before? Are we treating our employees and our competitors with dignity? But that’s just good business, and good business people already operate that way.
Ultimately, I don’t think this parable has any more to do with business than the parable of the good shepherd has to do with sheep. This lesson has to do with understanding the kingdom of heaven. And the currency of the kingdom of heaven is grace. Grace goes beyond the covenant. We cannot earn it, no matter how hard we work. Grace is given to those who believe, regardless of how much or how little they work.
Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s hard for me to hear. I guess I am what you would call a spiritual striver. Many of us who are very achievement-oriented in life—who tend to evaluate ourselves based on productivity—find this mentality extending to the way we operate in our lives of faith. So we excel in showing up for worship. We pledge a lot of money (not that I’m knocking that!). We serve on two or three—or four—committees. We get elected to the church board. We cook for turkey suppers and Meals on Wheels. We teach Sunday School … well, okay, not many of us do that! But still—so many of us—we do and we do and we do.
It’s almost as if we never heard the word of grace—that everything we could possibly need “done” has already been accomplished through the life and death and rising of our Lord Jesus Christ. Anything that we are called to do, we do as grateful servants—as day labourers in the kingdom.
God loves us with a love that made us, that knows us, that redeems us, that transforms us. All we have to do is receive it. We cannot earn it. We do not need to ask for it. We are given all we need—no more, no less. All we bring is empty hands ready to receive grace that is enough for today—until that eternal day when we sit at the heavenly banquet table, where there is a place set for each of us. Wow! That is good news! Thanks be to God for it. Amen.