The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Matthew is the only one who tells this story. There aren’t enough demons in it for Mark; Luke, the tax collector, could never wrap his head around the message; and if anyone ever figures out what John is saying every moment that he says it please never tell me my heart thrills for mystery.
* * * * *
This Parable of the Vineyard Workers invites us to imagine being paid the same wage for one hour’s worth of work as someone working eight hours. (It also invites us to really pay attention to contracts.) Matthew’s radical message, delivered by Jesus, is that the reward is the same for the person who has made a life-long profession of love for God as it is for the person who has only made an hour’s worth of profession. It is radical communism. And it’s upsetting.
(Pastor Jill brought the parable up to modern times, relating about an early job experience where, as a young professional with no family and no calls on her time, she was able to work long hours. She learned, however, that a colleague performing the same job function as Pastor Jill, who was also a single mother, with two kids who needed ferrying to school and then to whatever kids do after school, was paid the same amount for fewer hours. And what never occurred to Pastor Jill, or even to the people who promoted her for her performed extra work, is that unaccounted labor a single parent has to provide. All labor should be compensated.)
I think the parable wants us to get comfortable with the fact that Jesus spends most of his limited time on earth concerned — and getting others to be as concerned — with how we love our neighbor, rather than with, “Am I getting into heaven? Have I done enough? Is there a chance I could be found wanting?”
You cannot be found wanting. Heaven is already guaranteed. If we wipe all that accounting off the recknoning board, we’re left wondering, “Then why do any good works? Why should I care about what happens to anyone else within my sphere of even limited influence?” And you do it because not doing good (never mind if you are good) will cause you suffering. You can say, “Mike.” You don’t have to believe what I believe. “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” But you should do goodness and give lovingkindness because it is good for your soul. Because not only is it decreasing your own suffering, it is decreasing the suffering of another human being. Because Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as he has loved us.
* * * * *
The utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer argues that $30k a year is actually sufficient for anyone to live on; we just happen to be in a paradigm where millionaires control a lot of our well-being. Everything over $30k should be donated to social service networks and given directly to the poor.
This is a terrifying prospect for many to grasp. It puts us all at the same risk for needing assistance from time to time. But why is that seen as a weakness? Why isn’t our need a gift for those who have? Why are we unwilling to be humble and accept grace and charity? Why do we only feel as if we can give if we have extra, when what is expected is that we’ll give because it is needed. Think of any canned food drive you’ve ever participated in and consider what you donated. It was likely food you yourself weren’t all that crazy about eating. Was that an act of charity? They’ve likely been hungry longer than you’ve been hungry. How will you work out this moral calculus?
* * * * *
There’s a poem, attributed to Rumi, who is the Abraham Lincoln of Sufi mystics in that too many things get tagged with his name when he may or may not have actually said it. (He’s like Jesus and Paul in that way, too.)
whoerver you are
lover of leaving
it doesn’t matter!
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come yet again.
That’s what the Parable of the Vineyard Workers is teaching us: even if we have broken our vows a thousand times, we are as worthy and deserving of God’s love the thousand-and-first time as we were at the beginning. Even yet again.