This weekend, across America, people are taking time off from work to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Most businesses offer Labor Day as a paid holiday for their employees. But there are plenty of places like restaurants and retail that if you don’t work you don’t get paid. No one understands better than day laborers in our communities who survive on whatever job they can get for the day.
A few years back a friend hired me and a couple of day laborers to demo a bathroom for a remodel. I showed up early, got to work, and wasted no time busting down walls and tearing up floors. It was a hard, backbreaking job for anyone, especially someone like me who spent most of my time sitting in an air conditioned office.
Once the last of our mess was swept up and thrown into the dumpster, my friend lined us up and gave us our pay. We each received a one hundred dollar bill. To them that was fair pay for a fair days work. But I was used to making more than that per hour, this was simply pocket change. I remember thinking about how anyone could live on such a little amount. And now I am in ministry I know exactly how...you don’t.
Whenever I read the parable about the laborers in the vineyard I think of those two guys I worked with that day. The story is found in Matthew 20:1-16.
In this parable I see a lot of similarities to our world today. For example, the workday begins early. Those who needed a job for the day got up before the sun and gathered in a specific place to wait for someone to employ them. In my neighborhood, the painters gather in front of the paint store, plumbers stand near the plumbing supply shop, and you can always find plenty of willing hands in the Home Depot parking lot. Every morning they gather hoping to be picked so they can get the money they need to pay their bills and support a family.
Another similarity is that the employer set the wage. And each worker agreed that it’s fair before they entered the vineyard to work. Negotiating salary and benefits would come much later. And still to a very select few. In this story the workers are just happy to have work.
Jesus doesn’t tells why, but over the course of a day more workers are needed. So the manager goes out four more times, with each worker agreeing to the same terms. At the end of the day, the men line up to get paid, just like I did after that demo job. Every laborer, no matter how long they worked, received the same amount in their paycheck, which seems odd to the workers, but for different reasons. Jesus said this is what the Kingdom of God is like. And it pisses some people off.
A literal interpretation of this story would most likely raise the hackles on any business-minded person because it tosses out every notion we’ve learned about fair compensation. In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey asks, “Who in their right mind would offer the same reward to those who have earned it and to those who have not?” The answer is simple. God would. God views fairness differently. And thank God for that.
Naturally, those who were hired first grumble, they feel as if they should get more. It’s easy for us to sympathize with their complaints, isn’t it? Something in our gut says this is just simply not fair. It’s not the American way! But how soon we forget God’s ways are often different from ours. We may think it unjust that one who worked a full day in the hot blazing sun should receive the same pay as those who barely had time to break a sweat. But God doesn’t see it that way. And thank God for that.
It does seem unfair… until you stand in the shoes of those who where hired last. Jesus makes a big deal about this point. When the vineyard manager looked at the guys standing around late in the evening, did he think they were lazy bums? Was he judging them when he asked, ‘Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?’
No, he was sympathetic to their plight that no one hired them and now they have to figure out a way to get food on their table. Imagine what it’s like to watch others get picked while you get passed over. The fear and pressure of making ends meet can be overwhelming. I know first hand what it can do to a person’s psyche.
When Jesus tells us parables about the Kingdom of God, he is showing us a world that is different. A world where starting with a disadvantage, like language, skin color, education, citizenship, or getting hired at the last minute, won’t set you back. Because God is faithful and generous. Our timing or even our incompetence does not stop God from loving us any more or any less. In God’s Kingdom, things like grace, love, mercy, forgiveness can never be calculated on a timesheet. They aren’t held over our head as a bonus or reward based on merit. Each one is a gift, freely given to all who are willing to enter the vineyard.
Sadly not everyone sees it that way. You might think you’re more deserving because you’ve done more to help your community, or given more to support your church. These are great things, and you should continue doing them. Only do so without judging those are aren’t as good and righteous as you, or cannot afford to give as generously as you can. Jesus reminds us that we need to be more sympathetic to those who are at a disadvantage, and teach by example for those who might be new to this living Christ in the world thing.
Look, we are all trying to find our own way in and around the vineyard. Some of us are just lucky enough to have been given a head start. But God is gracious and loving to all who wish to enter, anytime and all the time.
This is God’s Kingdom not ours. God is the owner and can do whatever the heck God wants to do. And instead of getting mad we should count our blessings knowing “God dispenses gifts, not wages.” God isn’t concerned about what we deserve; God merely gives us what we need; “even if it means paying some people twelve times more than what they deserved.”
Five times the manager goes out to gather people. I imagine if he went out a sixth or a seventh time, the end of the story wouldn't change. Whether you’ve been faithful and devoted your whole life, or you’re just coming to terms with Christ as your Lord, your paycheck is as good as anyone else’s. At the end of the day, Christ died for all. And we all benefit because of it.
God loves and welcomes all into the vineyard. And we should thank God for that. We should be grateful that our God is a loving and giving God who sucks at math.
While I was teaching a class on the Gospel of Matthew, and on this particular parable, someone joked that “God is a lousy bookkeeper because he adds infinity to every paycheck he hands out.” Think about that…God adding infinity to your life. Infinite grace. Infinite love. Infinite forgiveness. Imagine all the power, wisdom, joy and peace that you can handle – doled out to you every single day.
Imagine how good it that makes you feel when no one else will give you the time of day? That’s how those workers felt when they are finally hired. They are paid first, not because they need it more but because they are able to receive it with joy and gratitude – not with envy or pettiness.
God is a generous employer. God gives us what we need, not what we deserve. And thank God for that. Because there’s still work to be done. God is still looking for us and gathering us and hiring us to work. But are you willing to step into the vineyard?
Are you willing to get your hands dirty in the Kingdom of God? Are you willing to show grace to someone even if they do not deserve it? Or love someone as God has loved you? Are you willing forgive one another’s debts and trespasses, just as God forgave yours? Or lend a hand to someone who is at a disadvantage without expecting anything in return from them?
Jesus called us to continue his ministry, to help others see their worth in God’s eyes. Spreading love, sharing grace, sewing justice so we can live in peace. This is our job. Each one of us has been hired to work in a specific role at a specific time. For some it’s early in their life and career, and for others much later in the game.
It doesn’t matter. There’s still plenty of work to be done. More planting, more growing and more harvesting the fruits of God’s glory until Christ comes again.
But each one of us must be willing to enter the vineyard and endure to the end of the workday, however long that might be.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 92-97.
McNeely, Darris. The Parable of the Workers - A Fair Wage From a Fair Employer. (March 15, 2013) https://www.ucg.org/good-news/lessons-from-the-parables-the-parable-of-the-workers-a-fair-wage-from-a-fair-employer. (culled on August 30, 2019)
Yancy, Phillip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) pp. 61-63.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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