Day 173: Matthew 20:1-16
The Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a man who went out early in the morning to hire some men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them the regular wage, a silver coin a day, and sent them to work in his vineyard. He went out again to the marketplace at nine o’clock and saw some men standing there doing nothing, so he told them, ‘You also go and work in the vineyard, and I will pay you a fair wage.’ So they went. Then at twelve o’clock and again at three o’clock he did the same thing. It was nearly five o’clock when he went to the marketplace and saw some other men still standing there. ‘Why are you wasting the whole day here doing nothing?’ he asked them. ‘No one hired us,’ they answered. ‘Well, then, you go and work in the vineyard,’ he told them. “When evening came, the owner told his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those who were hired last and ending with those who were hired first.’
The men who had begun to work at five o’clock were paid a silver coin each. So when the men who were the first to be hired came to be paid, they thought they would get more; but they too were given a silver coin each. They took their money and started grumbling against the employer. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun—yet you paid them the same as you paid us!’
‘Listen, friend,’ the owner answered one of them, ‘I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin. Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?
So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last.
Yesterday (Day 172) Peter asked Jesus what kind of reward the disciples will receive for giving up their normal lives to follow Jesus. First, Jesus responds by saying that when he is given his own place of honor in “the New Age,” the disciples will also be recognized and rewarded. He says that they will sit with him on thrones and rule the twelve tribes of Israel. Sounds like a pretty good reward, although the timeline is a little fuzzy because he never defines when that “New Age” will start. He also says that they will be given eternal life, which seems a little more tangible. Finally, he offers that perfectly enigmatic, often quoted statement that, “But many who now are first will be last, and many who now are last will be first.” He says that people should expect a reversal of fortune at some time in the future.
Then, he follows up today with a parable intended to clarify that “first will be last/last will be first” principle. In this case workers are hired throughout the day, but at the end of the day they are all paid the same. When the workers who were hired early complain about the injustice of the wage distribution, the employer says that he can do whatever he wants because he has a right to be generous.
It’s generally interpreted that God is the employer and the people of the earth are the workers. I surmise that the Pharisees and other religious leaders who have dedicated their entire lives to serving God are the laborers who were hired first. I also assume the disciples and followers of Jesus are those who were hired later. The parable says that all will receive the same reward. Jesus also says that the religious leaders probably aren’t going to understand this equitable approach because they don’t understand very much about God.
This parable is a really beautiful description of the graciousness of God. He lavishes his rewards on the first, the last, and everyone in between. It tells us that God isn’t a harsh and critical judge who stingily metes out rewards based on our performance. No, in this parable everyone gets the same wage regardless of their productivity. God’s blessings are not at all like hourly wages. God’s rewards are unearned, so they are bestowed equally on all. They are a manifestation of love and kindness. God is more like your doting grandparent than a demanding employer.
It is also a parable about the stinginess of the human heart that people would object to God’s graciousness with anything other than awe and admiration. Why should we care about the rewards that God gives to others? We should be grateful for what we are given and celebrate the fact that all are provided for. Our hearts, unlike God’s, are small and stingy and judgmental. God’s heart is big and he is lavish and generous.
Yes, this is a pretty shocking parable for those who don’t have a generous heart. God doesn’t hold back his blessings to make us strong and self-sufficient. He wants us to be utterly dependent on him. The parable reminds me that God’s ways are not the ways of the world and they really have very little to do with American values and the Midwestern work ethic. In this parable, working harder won’t result in a greater reward. Leaving others behind won’t get you ahead. Competing with others won’t improve your situation – it will only result in frustration and disillusionment.
The last are first, the first are last, the top is the bottom and the bottom is the top. Some might call that revolution. Turning things upside down and right side up. And while it seems pretty clear that Jesus had an egalitarian, socialist approach to things, here we have evidence that God himself is the one who gave him all those crazy ideas.
What’s described in this parable is the way it works under communism. Everyone is paid the same and all are provided for regardless of their performance. OK, while I’m not saying God is a communist, I am saying he would be a pretty lousy capitalist. You can’t make money by running a loose ship, giving away the store, and taking away all of your employees’ incentives. It’s very hard to make money when all you care about is love.
What does this scripture say to you?