Todays Parable: Matthew 20:1-16
I have two daughters who are three years apart in age. During the school year, we take some time on the weekends to do weekly chores. My eldest daughter has more chores than my youngest and I have more to do than she does, but all of us have to finish our work before we get to relax with a movie or take off on an adventure. My eldest child has more than once said to me, “That’s not fair, I have so much more to do than her! How comes she gets off so easy?” I remind her that when she was smaller she had less to do too, and if each of us does what we can, according to our ability, then we all get to have fun when the work is over. This appears to be similar to the lesson in the parable today. Division of work for the same reward kind of makes sense in this context, even if it seems unfair at first. For my girls and I, the little one seems to have it the easiest, and the eldest, me, seems to have the hardest – the last shall be first and the first shall be last and all that, and at the end of the day we all get to go to the zoo!
It seems simple enough to grasp doesn’t it? This is how the parable is often interpreted –As a lesson about the fair division of labour and economic justice. Unfortunately, when we interpret it this way it means that we have tried to make the kingdom of heaven make sense according to our ideas around what is fair and just. As we often do, we have attempted make sense of the mystery of God by forgetting that although we may be made in the image of God —God is not like us!
The parable begins,“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.” This parable is about the kingdom of heaven, it is not about the way things work in our world. If it was then the message might be easier to understand – it’s kind of like the lesson I taught my kids about their chores.
If we have learned anything about parables in these past two weeks it is that they are not meant to be easy. If the parable is about socioeconomic justice then it is about what we earn for what we do…period. Unlike the story about my kids and their varying capacity for work, this parable doesn’t tell us what the quality of the work was or who did a good job etc. It just lets us know that they were all paid the same wage regardless of what time they were hired.
Too often we infer things about the kingdom of heaven according to our narrow understanding of how things ought to work. We live under the absurd assumption that the person who works the hardest and does the best job deserves the greatest pay. This is clearly not the way things really are in the world, but we still claim that when that doesn’t happen the system is not “fair”. But inequity is exactly what capitalism relies on. The people making the most money are not the people doing the most work or working the longest hours. We know this. The people that make the most money are the ones that own the companies that employ the folks that do all of the labour. There is great injustice in our system and it is ingrained in us. According to statistics Canada, women make 87 cents to every dollar a man makes in this country. And that is just one example: Migrant workers make significantly less and international factory workers make almost nothing! When we read a parable like this one, we make sense of it through this very clouded context.
When we assume that the Householder in this story is God, we either see God as a generous boss – making sure that everyone gets paid the daily wage regardless of the time they worked – so that it is “fair” for everyone. This means that the guy that complained is just a greedy whiner. Or maybe we see God’s actions as unfair as the system we live in, but maybe just not as unfair because all still make a living wage – just some don’t have to work as hard. In the real world we’d probably file a grievance with the union about that, but in this story we might justify it by thinking “well at least it works out in God’s kingdom.” Yet, a sense of injustice will still lingers in our psyche because the model of work equals reward is so much a part of who we are.
Here’s the thing about thinking about parables and the kingdom of heaven though– we ought to be watching for where the story turns everything upside down and changes the way we have always looked at things. Look to the riddle at the end for example, “so the last will be first and the first will be last.” Sure, the workers at the end of the day got their wage first, and those at the first of the day got theirs last, but did that really matter if they all got the same thing? It seems like a very clever thing to say, and that line is often quoted, but it is just stating the obvious really.
So, what if this is not a story about socioeconomic justice at all? As I mentioned, if we try to make sense of it that way then it means that its all about what we earn and we better just get used to the idea that no matter how hard you work for God we will all earn the same reward. God will either be fair and just to those who are good and faithful servants all their lives or God will be really generous to those who didn’t seem to work as hard to get to the kingdom of heaven. But, I don’t think that the lesson in this parable is about our world where what we earn depends on what we do. This parable is about the kingdom of heaven, so I think that this is a lesson about Grace.
With that in mind, the good news is that God’s Grace is not earned. The kingdom of heaven is not a reward for a life well lived. That might be a hard pill to swallow if we are only think in terms of what is fair and just – I might subconsciously believe that “I work hard, I do good things… so I deserve this or that…” But, in that light – I don’t do good things for the sake of being good – I do them with the expectation that good will come to me. We know that that is not how life really works even here on earth. If that was the case then nothing bad would ever happen to good people and we all know that that is not true. That is how we want things to work, but they just don’t. Human life on earth is not “fair”, but I thank God that the kingdom of heaven is not about what you or I think is “fair”!
God’s grace, by it’s very definition has nothing to do with fairness. Think about it like this – what if acceptance into the kingdom of heaven was only for those who always lived a life committed to loving and serving God? What does that mean for those of us that turn to God later in life or feel that we are unworthy because of the things we’ve done until now? What about folks that don’t receive God into their hearts until they become sick or are near death? Does God deny them access to the kingdom of heaven? Does God deny them Grace? No, because God’s grace is unmerited and freely given simply because we are loved beyond a measure that we can ever comprehend.
I saw this cute cartoon (above) when I was researching this parable. There were two sheep standing talking and one says,
“This parable bugs me! That first guy gets totally ripped off”
The second sheep responds, “Well, if you think about all the people Jesus called before you and I, we are coming into this a little late in the game too don’t you think?”
The first sheep goes, “I LOVE this parable”.
Thank God our worthiness is not determined by any human standard of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’. If that were actually the case then nobody would ever be deserving of the kingdom of heaven because none of us would be judged good enough! Jesus taught us that in God there is no judgement. There is only unconditional love and mercy for all. To receive it we must accept God’s invitation. According to this parable, anyone that answers the call to “go into the vineyard” receives God’s Grace. That grace is not just reserved for those who show up early in the day or from the beginning and work all their lives as good and faithful servants. God’s grace is freely given to anyone open to hearing and accepting the invitation to leave the life they’re living and enter into a new way of being that follows the way of Jesus.
Jesus came into the world to shake us up from seeing the world with our often-narrow view of what is fair and invites to see the world and ourselves as God does. God see us all as beloved, all as worthy, and all as deserving of love and acceptance. I believe that is how God’s kingdom will come and God’s Will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, like we prayed just a moment ago.
In the end, this parable may not be about socioeconomic justice, but when we live in a way that we see every human being as being worthy of love and acceptance then we can no longer turn our backs when we see things in this world that demonstrate apathy and exclusion. The work of justice on earth flows from Grace. For those of us that believe, the kingdom of God is possible now. The Grace of God is here. Christ is continually inviting us to go into this world to serve and love one another, as God would have us do. As you go from here today, I ask you to think about what that means to you to be invited to “go into the vineyard”? … Do you expect a reward at the end of all this living? Or do you trust that God’s grace will be freely given not earned?
May you go from here trusting that you are worthy of God’s love and acceptance just as you are. When we trust in God’s unconditional love and acceptance, then we have learned to be that to one another.
May it be so… Amen.