The parables of Jesus have a way of pulling off the veil and revealing what we really love and care about. They often challenge our deeply held beliefs. This is especially true of Jesus’ “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” in Matthew 20: 1-16.
Jesus tells the story of a landowner who goes out at 6 AM to hire workers for his vineyard. The landowner agrees to hire them for the equivalent of a common day’s wage. He then proceeds to hire more workers at 9 AM, noon, 3 PM, and finally 5 PM. None of these other workers hired later in the day are offered a specific amount of compensation for their work. Instead, the landowner simply tells them “whatever is right I will give you.”
At the end of the work day, he pays all of the workers the same wage. Even those who were hired last and worked only one hour were paid the same amount as those who toiled in the field for 12 hours. Those who were hired first are indignant, having expected to receive more for having worked longer. Their response is, “These last have spent one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
This offends our sense of justice as well. We read this and, instinctively, our reaction is “it’s not fair!” We expect rewards that are proportionate to the amount of work done. But this is a parable about kingdom of God, which does not operate on basis of fairness. The kingdom of God operates on love, and – in a certain sense – love is its own form of injustice. Love and mercy is the basis of Biblical justice which is often at odds with our own sense of justice.
As Tim Keller puts it, Biblical justice is “concern for the most vulnerable, poor, and marginalized members of our society and making long term personal sacrifices in order to serve their interests, needs, and cause.”
Consider the people in the parable who were still without work near the end of the day. The landowner went out and found them standing around and asked, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” And they responded, “Because no one has hired us.”
Think of the landowner hiring these people at the eleventh hour. Did he really need their labor when the day was nearly over? Did it make economic sense to hire the least desirable workers for one hour and then pay them a full day’s wage? By all indications, he didn’t need their work. That’s why he responds by asking the grumbling workers, “do you begrudge my generosity?”
Think of the types of people whom no one else wanted to hire. It’s very likely they were the widows and orphans, the elderly and the disabled. These are people who lived in a subsistence culture who depended on daily work for food. They were powerless to provide for themselves and contingent on employers to give them the opportunity to earn a wage. Without the landowner’s undeserved generosity, these people would have been a day closer to starvation.
In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was naked and you clothed me… Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” What is scary about this is Jesus’ explanation of the fate of those who did not provide for the least of these. Jesus explained that the king will say them, “Depart from me you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
There’s a crucial lesson in all of this. We think of concern for the poor and the marginalized as “charity” or voluntary provision of help, often in the form of financial gifts. By contrast, scripture teaches that generosity is an act of justice. That’s why the landowner says he will give to the laborers whatever is right (or just). Likewise, Ezekiel 18:5-7 teaches that a man who does what is just and right commits no robbery, gives bread to the hungry, and clothes the naked.
A lack of concern and generosity toward the underprivileged classes is not mere stinginess. It is equated with robbery. Those who are not generous are promoting injustice. And that’s why we see such seemingly harsh language from Jesus in response to apathy in the face of need.
According to Jesus, all of the laws and commandments of scripture hang on the greatest commandments to love God and love neighbor. Therefore, “thou shalt not steal” is not a narrow prohibition pertaining to a certain type of behavior. It is about not robbing God, the owner of everything, and not acting as though everything is ours to do what we want with it.
The fact is none of the laborers deserved to be in the landowners’ vineyard. All are there by grace.
We believe the lies of our culture that we deserve what we have. That we are responsible for our own fate. But is that really true? What role did we play in determining the home we grew up in and the education we received at a young age? Are we responsible for all of our natural talents and abilities? Is it to our own credit that we were born into a particular time and place abounding in freedom and prosperity rather than poverty and oppression?
The truth is we do want and value God’s grace. We hunger for his unmerited mercy and love. But we rarely desire that same grace for other people; especially if it infringes on our own sense of fairness and justice. In those cases, we’re more like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son who fumes at the thought of the father lavishing grace and love on his undeserving younger brother.
That same sense of unfairness is what propelled the prophet Jonah to resist God’s grace when he was instructed to witness to the city of Nineveh. When the people of Nineveh responded favorably to Jonah’s message and moved toward God, Jonah was embittered and angry. Why? Because Nineveh was a pagan nation that would one day conquer and destroy Israel. From that standpoint, we can sympathize with Jonah’s response. Mercy is good until it interferes with our sense of justice.
Later on in the book of Matthew, we read of the gravest injustice of all time. The sinless, blameless Son of God is mocked, spit upon, lashed, and beaten. As he is being sentenced and tried, one thing that is particularly striking is what he doesn’t say. Jesus doesn’t even defend himself; he doesn’t refute all of the false accusations. He doesn’t say what we all – from a very young age – are so often prone to say: “it’s not fair.” If ever anyone – in the history of the world – was justified to complain about unfairness, it was Jesus during his trial and crucifixion.
As Sally Lloyd-Jones so eloquently states in The Jesus Storybook Bible, it was not the nails that kept Jesus on the cross, but rather his love for us. In a kingdom that is founded on that kind of unmerited, unconditional, sacrificial love, our narrow self-interests and personal ambition are bound to be offended. But to the extent that we grasp our own need for God’s unmerited love, we will become conduits of his grace.
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