The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is one that is often difficult to swallow. There is an inherent sense of unfairness to the parable that we have difficulty dealing with. North American society and culture is one which prides itself on hard work to earn a wage. When the same wage is paid to all the workers something seems wrong and we have trouble with it. This is a passage the rubs against our modern sensibilities about work and pay equity.
Text: Matthew 20: 1-16
God’s Grace for All
How many of you have ever had a cough? Perhaps you reached for a bottle of Buckley’s cough syrup and lived out their slogan. “It tastes awful and it works.”
Welcome to the parable of the vineyard. Where a landowner goes out to the market seeking day labourers. He finds some and agrees to pay them a days wage. Realizing he needs more workers to bring in the harvest the landowner goes out several times during the day. Each time hiring more workers and agreeing to pay a daily wage. Finally, right at the end of the day he hires the last batch of workers who have yet to find work.
When the work day is done the labourers come back from the field. The landowner pays the individuals he hired last first and they get paid the same as everyone else. There is much grumbling about this and the landowner rebukes them saying he can do what he wants with his money. On it’s head this is a difficult to swallow parable about grace. It is also about much more than that.
I’m not sure if you have seen it but there is an image circulating on the Internet right now. It is a picture of a middle aged white man standing in front of a Lamborghini. The caption reads, My boss arrived at work in a brand-new Lamborghini. I said, “Wow, that’s an amazing car!”
He replied, “If you work hard, put all your hours in, and strive for excellence, I’ll get another one next year.”
When we read this parable we identify with the workers who were hired early in the morning. We identify with them because they are the characters in this parable who are most like us. I imagine that most of us are hard workers who haven’t looked to get ahead in life by taking a short cut.
Yet, this is a parable that is intended to provoke a reaction. The reaction it seeks is to offend the hearer about the apparent unfairness of the landowner in how the workers are paid. Worse we write God into the role of the landowner and we are left questioning God’s goodness and fairness, but perhaps we should question why we assume the landowner represents God. Yes, this is a parable about how God’s grace is equal and sufficient for everyone, but it is also much more than that. It’s a reminder of who we are in the cosmic scheme of things.
We shape our identity and self worth based on our possessions and our incomes. We are constantly comparing ourselves to our neighbours and asking why we can’t have that new car or take that expensive vacation. We want fairness and equality that serves our interest, but not if we all end up getting the same prize.
It’s like Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, in the classic “Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” You may recall that at one point Sally is writing a letter to Santa Claus and in the process generates an enormous list of toys she wants. Then at the conclusion of her North Pole-bound missive she writes, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.” When Charlie Brown sees this and despairs over his own sister’s greed, Sally indignantly responds, “All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me.” (Calvin Center for Excellence in Preaching).
I am a white male who grew up in the east end of Toronto and whether I know it or not that fact of birth has made my life easy in ways I can’t even comprehend. I am now a white male who is a minister of the church, and say what you will about church decline and influence in society, when I have something to say people generally listen.
When I was going through seminary my field education supervisor was a white female. She was often dismissed by her male colleagues and not given the credit she deserved. I know this is true because I witnessed it. There is an aspect of fairness at play in our lives and whether we like it or not life often isn’t fair. Hard work does not always pay off, sometimes the results break you. Sometimes you are passed over because of your gender, ethnicity, social class or sexual identity and sometimes because of those things you aren’t passed over. We think that being hard working, devoted Christians will make a difference.
Professor Karoline Lewis writes, “I think this is what Jesus is doing here. You think your privilege will make a difference? Will matter? Of course you do. That’s human nature. That’s human sin. You’d like to believe that’s not the case, but this is precisely why this parable has to be told — again and again” (Working Preacher).
The subversive and easily overlooked purpose of this parable is to make us realize how deep our sense of entitlement exists. Not sure if that is true, read what comes next with James and John and their mother asking Jesus if her boys will sit at his left and right hand.
Jesus is talking to and teaching the disciples. This is a very pointed message that he is sending to them, his followers and closest friends who were getting a little too comfortable. They were beginning to enjoy the privilege that came with being a disciple of Jesus. Things were becoming easy for them and they were being afforded luxuries because of this privilege. Which is what leads to the encounter with the mother of James and John.
In her sermon on this passage, Barbara Brown Taylor says that this parable is a little like the cod liver oil that mothers used to give their kids to cure what ailed them. Like the Buckley’s cough syrup I mentioned at the beginning. You know it’s good for you, you trust the one who is giving it to you, but that doesn’t make it very easy to swallow! Most of us are born into this world with a huge sense of infantile entitlement followed by, at a very early age already, a seemingly intuitive sense of fairness and unfairness.
And so when the wages are paid we are rightly put out by how unjustly the initial workers are treated. But folks, why do we identify with those hired at the crack of dawn?
Who told us we’ve been working for 12 hours? How do we know that our work doesn’t amount to one measly hour?
We are offended at how the workers are paid. That those who work longer should be rewarded. But if this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven and if the wage is a metaphor for God’s grace then we would do well to remind ourselves that God’s grace is not something you bargain with or store up.
God doesn’t make contracts that we can negotiate with, God make covenants. God doesn’t reward us, God fulfills these covenants because of God’s overwhelming grace and mercy. Because it flows out of the character of God.
British theologian NT Wright puts it like this, “People who work in church circles can easily assume that they are the special ones, God’s inner circle. In reality, God is out in the marketplace, looking for the people everybody else tried to ignore, welcoming them on the same terms, surprising them with his generous grace. The earliest church clearly needed to learn that lesson.” (N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2),
Jesus persists in telling us the truth about ourselves. Left alone we lose sight of the kingdom of heaven, but Jesus calls us back. The gospel is not neat and tidy, it is not designed to fit into our compartmentalized modern lives. The gospel is hard and it challenges us out of complacency. This passage reminds us to check our privilege at the door. Showing up to worship on Sunday morning doesn’t build up your credit in grace. God isn’t interested in picking favourites, God is interested in extending grace to everyone.
While we are here busy being offended, God is out in the market place and God is wondering why we aren’t out there as well. God is out dispensing justice and we are busy making sure we get our fair share. And this is the hidden truth about this passage that we miss due to our own insecurities about getting our due and our innate sense of justice. We let our preconceived notions about justice splinter and divide us. Our beliefs, our privilege alienate us from one another, just like the workers became alienated from one another.
Jesus was sending a very targeted message to the disciples that they shouldn’t get ahead of themselves. They should assume a posture of humility, because God’s justice, the work of the kingdom of heaven can’t happen when we end up divided and alone in the world. Amen.