The Workers in the Vineyard17th Sunday after Pentecost
I don’t know about you, but when I first read this passage of scripture, my first thought was “that doesn’t seem fair.” What about you? Why wouldn’t those who have toiled all day in the hot sun from sun up to sun down, deserve to be paid more than those who only worked for the last hour? I suspect that in today’s world, if the vineyard workers belonged to a union, they would be protesting and going on strike, demanding more pay than the others, with the slogan of “equal pay for equal work”.
And, as a lawyer, I would analyze the situation and theorize that on the one hand, it certainly does not seem fair, but on the other hand, a deal is a deal! After all, the ones hired early in the morning had agreed to a fair wage of a denarius for a full day’s work. They got what they had bargained for, so what are they complaining about?
It seems that their complaint would not be that they were cheated, because that was the agreed upon wage, but rather their complaint is that others were given the same pay for less work. It does not seem fair at first blush, but in contract law, they do not have a legal basis to complain. They just resented the fact that others got a better deal than they did and they protested to the vineyard owner that they should get more than they had originally bargained for.
But to understand this parable somewhat better, we need to understand the background of the living conditions at the time that Jesus was telling this parable. According to William Barclay, (the renowned Scottish preacher and theologian who was the author of many books), this situation was well-known to the people in Jesus’ day.
The grapes ripened in late September and then soon after the rains came. If the grapes were not harvested before the rains, the crop was ruined. That is why it sometimes became a frantic race against time. Any and all workers who were available were desperately needed, even if they could only work for one hour.
I understand that a denarius or drachma was a normal day’s wage for a working man. They lived each day based on the wages they could get to feed their families. The men in the market place were not just idlers, they were there to hire out their services in the hope of being selected to earn a day’s wage. The market place was the equivalent of the labour exchange. According to Barclay, a man came there first thing in the morning carrying his tools, and waited until someone hired him. Some of them stood and waited all day even until 5pm which shows just how desperate they were to get hired. As hired labourers they were the lowest class of workers and life was always precarious. They were always at the mercy of a chance of employment – living on a semi-starvation line. Again, according to William Barclay, the hours mentioned in the parable were the normal Jewish hours. The Jewish day began at sunrise 6am, the 3rd hour would be 9am, the sixth hour is noon, and the eleventh hour is 5pm. So, we may ask: what was Jesus purpose in telling this parable? One suggestion is that it was a warning to the disciples that although they have had the great privilege of coming into the Christian Church very early, that they must not claim a special honour and special place just because they accepted that Jesus was the son of God before others that followed. They had to learn that all people, no matter when they come, are equally precious to God.
That warning applies to us as well. There may be people who think that because they have been members of a particular church for a long time that the church practically belongs to them and that they can dictate its policies. Such people may resent what seems to them the intrusion of new blood or the rise of a new generation with different plans and different ways. In the Christian church, seniority does not imply special privileges or preference in God’s eyes.
There is no such thing as first and second-class Christians. The same warning applied to the Jews. They knew they were the chosen people and that is why they looked down on the Gentiles. Often they despised them and hoped for their downfall. That attitude threatened to be carried forward in the Christian Church after Paul preached that all are equal, Jew and Gentile alike.
It may well be that we who have been Christians for a long time have much to learn from those younger churches or churchgoers who are latecomers to the fellowship of the faith.
Barclay goes on to suggest that “it does not matter when a person enters the Kingdom, late or soon, in the first flush of youth, in the strength of the midday, or when the shadows are lengthening, he is equally dear to God”.
I realize that not everyone becomes a Christian in the same way. Some can recall the exact time place and event when they gave their lives to Christ (a conversion experience). Others realize that it occurred over a lengthy period of time of reading the bible and going to church and coming to the realization slowly that they believe (the intellectual process); still others became Christians through acts of service; yet others have always thought they were Christians because of the example of their parents and grandparents and they have been faithful in worship all their lives. Regardless of how you come to be a Christian, you cannot do so without making a conscious personal decision to accept Christ and confess your sins and ask Him to come into your life. You do not become a Christian without making that choice for yourself. And that choice may come at different times of our lives – some early on, others at the eleventh hour. In Revelations we read of the Holy City where there are twelve gates. There are gates on the East, which is the direction of the dawn, whereby a person may enter in the morning of their days; there are gates on the West which is the direction of the setting sun, where a person may enter in their older age. No matter when a person comes to Christ, he or she is equally dear to Him.
This parable also speaks of God’s infinite compassion, an element of human tenderness. One can imagine the plight of a man who is unemployed, worrying about feeding his family. If he does not get hired for any part of a day, his family will go hungry. Those unfortunate enough to not get hired until the 11th hour would in strict justice not be entitled to the same pay as those who worked all day. They should expect to be paid less if they worked fewer hours.
But that is where the master of the vineyard showed his compassion. He knew that a denarius was no great daily wage. He knew that if a worker went home with less there would be a worried wife and hungry children. Therefore he went beyond justice and gave them more than was their due. Does that not sound like God’s compassionate grace who gave us what we do not deserve?
There are further lessons to be gleaned from this parable. The first of many is that all service ranks the same with God. It is not the amount of service given, but the love in which it is given that counts.
Secondly, all that God gives, is of grace, not that we have earned or deserved it.
What God gives, is not pay – it is a gift; not a reward, but a grace. As Philip Yancey puts it: “None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God’s requirements for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell.”
The third thing we can take from this parable is that the whole point of work is the spirit in which it is done. The labourers who were hired early struck a deal, a contract. They were only concerned to get as much money as possible out of their work. But in the case of those we were hired later, there is no word of a contract; all they wanted was the chance to work and willingly left the reward to the master.
But if the main point of this parable is that it does not matter when we become Christians – we are all equal and welcome regardless of when and how we accept Christ, there are other lessons to be learned from this parable as well.
We cannot overlook the attitude of the early workers who resented that the latecomers were paid the same as they were. In a very real sense this parable is about coveting. While “covet” may not seem the most obvious word to describe what is going on here, it does fit both the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching and the overarching emphasis in Matthew on the Law and Jesus’ representation of it in a way that transforms our thinking and doing. Coveting lies at the heart of this parable in a couple of ways.
We covet what God chooses to give to others. A parable is essentially an elaborate allegory. We are invited to see ourselves in the story, and then apply it to ourselves. The wages at stake in the parable are not actual daily wages for vineyard-laborers, but rather, forgiveness, life, and salvation for believers.
And in our relationships, one believer to another, covetousness is a problem. The point here isn’t necessarily that other folks receive blessings from God that we don’t — that they get more or better or lovelier gifts from God. The problem is that they get the same as us; and they don’t deserve it, do they? They are less worthy, or later arrivals, or just plain worse sinners. They don’t deserve the same as we get, do they? Not nothing maybe, but certainly not the same. The parable’s day laborers parallel perfectly with today’s forgiven-sinners in both our pews and pulpits.
We have a tendency, (as the parable aptly illustrates), to covet and to be resentful of what others receive from God. The owner of the vineyard asks those who have worked longest and (presumably) hardest for him, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” The point is that God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness are God’s to give away as God sees fit.
It reminds me of the story of Jonah who has run away to avoid delivering the message of forgiveness that God has sent him to proclaim. Jonah complains “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” and surely this cannot be for them? It is ironic that Jonah, who had earlier declared that “deliverance belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9), a deliverance he himself has experienced, has rejected the good news of who God is for others.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is in a sense about coveting, about our frustration with the grace of God as it applies not to us, but to others.
Finally, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is also about the first and the last. The parable itself displays a reversal of expectations — “the last will be first and the first will be last”; this is not only the summary of the parable (20:16), but a critical aspect of New Testament theology.
Notice the flow of the narrative as the workers are compensated for their labours:
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. When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. When the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.’”
The last are literally first in that they are paid first. And the first, who have laboured longest, must also wait the longest to get theirs. But notice as well that the first who are now last do not receive nothing or less, they receive the same, as the labourers themselves say, “you have made them equal to us….”
This element of the parable is also present in the other Gospels and in Revelation. This reversal of expectation, of our sense of justice, and even of our hopes, is a central piece of the New Testament. Whoever wants to be first must be last, and servant of all (Mark 9:35).
This parable stresses that we are all equal recipients of God’s gifts. The problem with our faith is that we are often covetous and jealous when God’s gifts of forgiveness and life are given to other in equal measure. We resent that God treats us all equally when we think we deserve more than others for whatever reason.
Although we know better, instinctively we still hang on to the concept that we can somehow earn salvation and that if we work harder than the next guy, or give more, or love more, or have been faithful longer, or sinned less seriously, that we deserve more of God’s grace. That to us still seems to be the fair thing.
Hopefully this parable will remind us that God welcomes all of us equally, Jew or Gentile, all who have sinned, and that we have been forgiven for all our sins when we accepted Christ as our Saviour.
Will we be mindful of that as we leave this place today and go about our lives in the next days, weeks and months? I pray that it will be so. Amen