This week, Faith in Real Life took on a direct challenge to our human notions of fairness. How could it possibly be right to pay the same wages to a group of workers who worked only half the hours (or less)? As Vernon Gramling writes, this parable “exposes our human expectations and quickly punctures them.” But if we can leave our sense of identity safe in God’s keeping, and remember that we are saved by grace alone, we find our way through.
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 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.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 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? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
I have always liked this parable because it directly challenges ordinary human concepts of fairness and deserving. It exposes our human expectations and quickly punctures them. It is very disturbing. It has been fairly easy for me to see what the kingdom of God isn’t. God does not operate by our rules and we will have to deal with our first negative reactions to that reality before we can look at what the parable says about the kingdom of God. Only recently have I begun to see beyond what this parable says about what the kingdom of God isn’t—and that is very important— to see what it says about what the kingdom of God is.
So first the disturbing part of the parable. Most of us will readily agree that the world is not fair but we still manage to get quite indignant when we get personal proof of that ‘unfairness’. Why should someone who only works a couple of hours receive the same amount as someone who worked all day? We expect our work to be rewarded commensurate to the time and energy invested. If we work hard, we should be paid accordingly. We deserve what we receive. Those who do not work hard are the product of their choices and deserve their status as well. But this Protestant work ethic works only on a very limited basis. If we look beyond our very limited personal lives, the world is profoundly ‘unfair’ —but it is unfair in quite the opposite way. There are people all over the world (and there are people in Atlanta) who work harder than we do and who are smarter than we are—but who are paid one tenth of what we receive.
Comparisons that assign worth are deadly. They lead to despair. We rarely see differences as descriptive. Almost always we use them to measure our standing—one against the other. Smarter is better; wealthy is better; attractive is better. And for some of us religious humility and kindness is better. Secularly, all of us fit somewhere on these grand ranking scales. Even if you are near the top—one of the cool kids in school; part of the top ten percent in income; an elder in the church, an outstanding athlete, even a nobel laureate, the day will come when you will be surpassed. The day will come when you are no longer as sharp—and you will lose your ranking. So then who are you? Conversely, if you see yourself in the lower half of whatever ranking scale you use, you will feel badly about yourself. You will never be enough; you will never measure up. Either way, near the top or near the bottom, comparisons that assign value and worth will lead to despair.
God does not want that for us. God does not want us to live in despair. He does not want us to feel better or worse about our place in his kingdom because of what we do. That’s what he doesn’t want. What he does want is another story.
In the larger context of scripture, this parable fits between two different stories dealing with who is included in the Kingdom of God. It follows the account of the Rich Young Ruler (“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”) and precedes the mother of the sons of Zebedee request to Jesus to give her sons places of honor (“Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”) Both questions reveal the human understanding of reward for good and/or obedient service. Jesus’ answer to these questions, as well as our parable suggest that God’s kingdom is something quite different.
We do not work in God’s kingdom to be rewarded. We work in God’s kingdom because that is where we find life in our dependence on God. This is a huge reversal. Membership in God’s kingdom is God’s choice. It is offered to all. Day laborers in the first century (as well as our own century) needed to work in order to eat. Every day was a new day of anxiety. Would someone hire them or would they go hungry? That is living on a very thin edge. In that context, the first ones hired were freed of that anxiety—at least for that day. The last would be standing hungry and uncertain. What we call first and last shifts dramatically from that perspective. God is sovereign. God provides. God wants us to have what we need. It is our human ranking of ourselves and others that prevents us from being grateful.
It is not dependent upon us or our ‘works’. The ‘reward’ is the same because God’s love is constant. In this parable God gives everyone what they need to live.
There is a toast in the movie Wonder Woman, that says “May you have all that you need. May you have all that you want. But never all that you deserve.” We have to separate ourselves from the idea that God’s love is dependent upon anything we do. Working in God’s Kingdom does not bring reward. Working in God’s kingdom is the reward—and sometimes that work is very hard.
Our God is a generous God. The opportunity to do his work is the blessing. Living a life of love is often hard and difficult work. Ask Jesus. His response to the son’s of Zebedee’s mother was, ‘Do you know what you’re asking?’ It is no easy task to treat others as children of God—especially when they despise and reject you. It is no easy task to listen attentively to people we agree with, much less people whom we disagree with. It is no easy task to connect with people who are suffering. Work in God’s kingdom means relying upon God, it means imitating Christ, it means emptying ourselves on behalf of others. These things are made possible because God calls us and sustains us. And these things are labors of love. They will bring you an abundant life.
A labor of love is very different from hard labor. Do not confuse the two.
Trust God’s love and providence. Do the work of love. It is where you will find life. Let it be so.