Such a stranglehold does this story have on our consciousness, that not only are most of our great religions essentially steroidal expansions of it out into eternity such that, even in death, you can’t get away from it, but even the world’s biggest religion, which is supposed to exist for the sole purpose of contradicting this story, has thoroughly absorbed it to the point that very few people inside or outside of it ever presume that it would be about anything else.
But Jesus actually has something different to say. He brings a new story into the world.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)
If your first reaction to this story is 'Wow, that’s not fair', it’s probably a good indication that you have some spiritual work to do, getting unstuck from the old story. It’s ok. All of us do.
Whether this is your first time hearing this parable or you’ve heard it a thousand times, ask yourself this: Why was your first response not, 'Wow, that’s generous'?
The parable assumes that the “usual daily wage,” a denarii, is a totally fair and livable compensation for a first century day laborer. As in our own time, day laborers would stand out in a public square that everyone unofficially knew about and get hired on the spot based on little more than how strong or vigorous they looked. This meant that life could get really difficult for those who were old or sick or had some kind of injury.
I know, you think I’ve just given you an out. You’re thinking, 'Yes, but I have no problem with the sick or the elderly ones getting taken care of. It’s the lazy ones that I have a problem with'. First of all, you ended your sentence on a preposition, which is lazy grammar. Secondly, you’re objection isn’t original. This is typically the most common mental defense when we’re trying desperately to reconcile Jesus’ words with an undying devotion to the old story.
That’s fine, you can keep living in that old story if that’s really what excites you. Just note that you’re concerned with something which Jesus clearly isn’t. He eschews every opportunity to name even a single distinguishing trait between these workers other than that some worked a full day and some hardly worked at all. In fact, if anything is implied about them, it’s that the latter may very well have been lazy. In verse 2, it says that the landowner just hired “the workers.” Does this mean every worker who was standing there at the time? If so, where were the others who were hired later? Could they not be bothered to get out of bed on time?
Whether or not a worker in this parable gets compensated is clearly and explicitly NOT based on whether they were competent, productive, energetic, or any other factor pertaining them individually. Jesus unambiguously specifies that compensation is based on the landowner’s (the God figure’s) generosity.
'I know, I know', you’re thinking, 'But this is all a metaphor for spiritual compensation, not cold, hard dollars and cents'. Aaannnnd, you've just stumbled onto our second most common mental defense. We like to spiritualize the haphazard and senseless grace that Jesus always talks about, usually pushing it to the afterlife, because that’s out of our jurisdiction. If we didn’t push it off like that, then these teachings would become very intrusive to the ways in which we’ve structured our world: our prosecution of drug sentences, our healthcare system, our minimum wage to name a few.
But if Jesus is always making everything about ethereal spiritual truths, it’s weird how he pretty much never clues us in that that’s what he’s doing, don’t you think? Talking about grace using the subject of daily wages would be a weird way of indicating that daily wages are actually an area that grace shouldn’t bother. Sure, this parable might be about more than daily wages, but it’s certainly not about less.
What’s funny is how incredibly un-offensive is this story about a generous person being generous. And yet, we’re offended. Why? Maybe we’re offended by the new story because it’s actually the old one that is offensive, and we’re unwilling to admit it. If Jesus were just a shock jock, there are a thousand bad things he could say that would offend the sensibilities of our well-ordered society. But what’s so twisted here is that it’s the good things he’s saying that offend us. We are offended by the Good News that God has plenty to go around. There is an overflowing abundance, a bottomless well of grace, from which God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” alike, and that just doesn’t seem right to us.
If your initial reaction to this parable is that it is bad news for hard workers and not that it’s good news for laggards, Jesus has a new story for you.
You’re free to disagree and say that God could not possibly be this willy-nilly and wasteful, helping those who clearly have not helped themselves. Just be aware that you are disagreeing with Jesus.
Good luck with that. Fortunately, I have a strong feeling that, with this particular landowner, you’ll still get your daily wages regardless.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.