The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard:
'For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went.
'When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock, he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers 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. Now 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.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
The beauty of challenging myself to write a weekly post on the lectionary was that if I really wanted to avoid a passage I could choose to focus on another of that week’s readings. If I was stumped by the Gospel, I could focus on the Epistle. If the Epistle didn’t make any sense to me, I could meditate on the Old Testament reading or the Psalm. This week’s Gospel reading, the Parable of the Workers, is a passage that I initially wanted to avoid. It’s messy and I have heard it interpreted in so many different ways.
One common interpretation is that it doesn’t matter when you ‘get saved’ as long as you ‘are saved.’ Whether you’ve been a Christian since you were a child or you make a confession of faith on your deathbed, you get to enjoy the same ‘benefits' as every other citizen of Heaven.
In more liberal or ‘progressive' circles, I’ve heard an interpretation that looks at it from a social justice perspective and seeks to disconnect a person’s ‘usefulness’ from their livelihood. The worker who was employed late had been standing there 'all day’; he had been seeking work. The landowner pays him a living wage because it provides for the worker and his family despite the fact that he was only able to find an hour’s work. It may be costly to the landowner but it is better for the community. (On another day, the worker who grumbled might find himself idle until the evening and be very glad of a full day’s wage that he doesn’t 'deserve’!)
In more conservative corners of the blogosphere, I’ve read this passage being used as part of an argument against the concept of minimum wage but I can’t remember the exegetical gymnastics that were required for them to land there.
Other writers understand the parable allegorically and point us to God’s Kingdom being opened to the Gentiles who arrive ‘late in the day.’
While all these interpretations can lead to interesting discussion, reading this passage from a devotional perspective exposes an ugly truth in me:
The greatest danger to me living a life of thankfulness to God and enjoyment of him is comparing my life to those around me.
The workers who grumble were initially happy until they looked over their shoulder and found that someone was getting a better deal. Suddenly, all that they have and all that they have achieved is diminished by the presence of another’s abundance. Nothing has changed in their work or life or pocket. It just looks less by comparison.
This is one of my struggles. I look at my neighbour and say, ‘God! That’s not fair! I want/need/deserve that!!’
Fair. What an interesting concept.
If fairness had anything to do with it, God wouldn’t be calling me to his vineyard. He wouldn’t be forgiving me. He wouldn’t be using me. He wouldn’t be providing for me. Grace is unfair and that’s what makes it so moving and beautiful.
It’s what makes God so moving and beautiful.
Fairness is what I appeal to when I am the one mistreated.
I want God to be merciful with me but ‘fair’ with others.
Give me grace, Lord, but give them what they deserve.
Competition and comparison are grace-killers. When I compete and compare what I am actually saying is ‘Lord, I need abundantly more than everyone else to be happy, to know joy, to find peace.’ It is not enough to be blessed … I must be the most blessed, the most talented … God’s ‘favourite’, if you will.
I am reminded of the conversation between Peter and Jesus after Peter’s reinstatement at the end of the book of John. Jesus cooks breakfast and he and Peter mend their relationship. Jesus talks to Peter about how he will live and die in the future but Peter has only one question:
‘What about John? What will happen to him?’
Jesus replies, ‘What is it to you? You follow me!’
It is none of my business what God is doing in someone else’s life. I don’t know the fullness of their story. I don’t know the extent of their light or their darkness and I don't know the fullness of their blessings and struggles.
My job is to follow him and my joy is found in following him.