This Sunday, once more in Matthew’s gospel, we find ourselves in one of Jesus’ parables – or stories – this time, the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt. 20.1-6).
Jesus used stories for a lot of reasons, but perhaps most of all because they allow for imagination. We can imagine ourselves in the story – and it’s always interesting to stop and think about who in the story we really identify with.
Just for a moment, picture yourself as one of the workers from the vineyard in today’s story. Who would you have truthfully identified with? You don’t have to tell me – or anyone else. As long as you are honest with yourself!
Today’s parable is a lesson in fairness.
Or, if you prefer, unfairness.
Because in this story, the landowner is in fact very unfair indeed – if you judge him by the standard of getting what a person deserves or earns. He pays the workers who have laboured for a whole day the exact same wage as the ones who have worked only an hour.
So what’s with that??
Well, lots of things.
The workers who were engaged at the start of the day had a contract which they felt was fair, and that’s what they got. Their contract was honoured, and they received their due.
The ones engaged last also received a full daily wage. So they were treated with extreme generosity -did they truly earn what they received?
And it emphasises the position of power of the landowner. He can do exactly as he pleases. After all, he owns the vineyard and he’s paying the wages.
The landowner is clearly a compassionate man, who gives people a chance to contribute in whatever way they can. Otherwise why would he keep going out into the marketplace to hire more workers? He could just as easily have stuck with the workers he hired at the start of the day and done the same again the following day. But he doesn’t. He keeps on going out to find people, to offer them a chance to be part of the labour.
At the end, he chooses to pay the people who began work last, first of all.
He knows they have families to feed. That they needed the work. And it seems out of compassion and that knowledge – I think we can safely assume that they had other mouths to feed – he pays them a full day’s wages.
There is perhaps an argument here about paying a living wage, rather than simply the minimum that we can get away with. Acknowledging that the person doing the work has needs and obligations of their own, and without enough to live on, it is not just that worker who will suffer. It will be their family as well.
It is acknowledging that the worker is not merely a “worker” but a full person, who is far more than a pair of hands doing the labour they have been contracted to do.
It’s not just about getting what we deserve or earn, but rather about compassionately acknowledging genuine needs – and meeting those needs.
And then, gradually, the landowner gets to those who have worked in the vineyard all day. And he pays them the same full daily wage.
And they are angry!
So that begs the question: Why?
What is it about human nature that might have made them angry at this? They knew their contract. They knew what a day’s wages was. Why would they be angry at getting their contracted wages?
Think it runs a bit like this:
My contract says I get £X for a full day’s work.
Those people did only an hour’s work. But they got £X.
So logically if they get that, then the landowner is very generous, and therefore he will give me much more than £X, because I worked harder.
They expect more than they need, because they see the generosity and compassion towards those who are newcomers, who in fact have the same needs as the ones who worked all day.
Interestingly, would they have been angry and felt slighted if they had been paid first and thus not necessarily known that the other workers got the same as them?
And on one level, does any of this matter?
I would say yes, because it tells us about ourselves. About human nature – the good and the bad. In the end, that’s why Jesus told this story.
Because when you’re trying to get people to see themselves as they truly are, it’s no good simply lecturing them. If you want to really make people listen and think (instead of switching off and ignoring), you have to tell the truth but tell it slant – as Emily Dickinson famously said.
Where am I in this story? Where are you?
And what does it tell us about the nature of God?
Where we find ourselves in this story is our own business, and for us to acknowledge and work on.
But with regards to God, I’d like to suggest that it indicates that God is compassionate, is generous beyond any deserving or earning; and that God is NOT “fair” in a legalistic sense. Because he does NOT give us what we have earned or deserve. Rather he treats us with a loving compassion, and does so equally for us all.
And I’d like to finish with one final thought.
This whole story is about workers and their reward.
It’s easy to focus on the reward bit.
But let’s not forget – they all worked. They were all expected to join in, to take their part. To get involved.
Just as God gets involved.
It’s not about sitting on the sidelines, just watching and waiting for something to happen.
We have to get involved in this world, and in the work of our own lives – becoming the best person each one of us can be.
Knowing that, whether we are first or last, great or small, we all are valued and loved equally by God.
With blessings and peace,