Summary: In dispensing eternal life, God is just as gracious to the death-bed convert as he is one born and reared in the faith. Jesus’ parable of the Vineyard Workers shows us why.
An Unfair God?
Somewhere in the Charlie Brown cartoon canon, there is an episode where Lucy and Charlie are walking home from school. Lucy has a report card in her hand and she is clearly not pleased. She turns to Charlie, and, complains: "It isn’t fair Charlie Brown, it just isn’t fair! I studied for a whole week for my final math test and Sally only studied for two hours the night before the test and she got an A, but I only got a C. It just isn’t fair!"
There were no Charlie Brown cartoons in first century Palestine, of course. But the parable in today’s gospel lesson in Matthew 20 lesson makes the same point that Charles Schulz was making when he drew that particular episode of Charlie Brown. Indeed, Jesus makes several additional points in his parable, points which often upset long-time Christians, points which even can scandalize non-Christians who suppose Jesus Christ is supposed to be the kind of God who would comply scrupulously with the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, particularly the sections dealing with wages.
Before applying the parable to our own lives, let me make some comments on details in the parable which will help us to see the point Jesus was making.
The setting of the parable is one that his disciples would easily have understood. For one thing, they would have recognized the vineyard in the parable as yet one more occasion in Jesus’ teaching when he was making a point about the nation Israel. Israel portrayed as a vineyard, and God as the vine keeper – this is very standard and well-known imagery from the Prophets of Israel.
Jesus’ disciples would also have been quite familiar with the labor market in those days. In fact, the labor market today for unskilled workers functions pretty much as Jesus describes it here – those who wish to work gather at a designated spot, and those who want to hire them come to the same place. There are negotiations between employer and employees, and the men who are hired are sent off to do the work, at the wages agreed upon.
In this case, the wage was a generous one. A denarius was the daily wage of a Roman soldier, and Roman soldiers were definitely NOT in the same category as unskilled agricultural workers. So, the landowner in the parable would be recognized by the disciples as offering a very generous wage for the work he desired.
Another detail that needs commentary here is the landowners repeated visits to the labor pool. Jesus says he comes back at 9:00 o’clock, noon, and 3:00 o’clock. In each case, he sent more workers to his vineyard, but in each case he simply says that he will pay them what is right. The fact that the workers go into the vineyard on these terms might suggest two things. It could indicate that the workers are really desperate for employment. Or, it could also indicate that the owner of the vineyard has a reputation for generosity. After all, hadn’t he already hired laborers at 6:00 A.M. for wages that were clearly above scale for that kind of work?
And, then, we come to the really odd thing: the landowner comes back to the market at 5:00 o’clock, and sends even more men to the vineyard, at a time when there is only an hour of work left in the workday! I think we can be confident that THESE workers are indeed desperate, if they’re still in the labor pool so late in the day. And, guess what? That high-paying landowner is the one who sends them off to his vineyard. What a stroke of good fortune that is! It’s only an hour’s worth of work, but they’re probably very hopeful that they’ll get far more now than they were expecting. Most of them had probably already given up hope of finding any kind of employment.
The biggest surprise, however, comes when it’s time to pay the wages. We know from first century accounts of labor management that the ordinary way to pay workers was first-come, first-paid. This landowner – already shown to be more than a little odd – pays off his workers in reverse order. The last workers are paid first, and the first workers are paid last. This reverse order of payment lets the first workers see what the last workers are paid, and to their astonishment, they see that the one-hour laborers are paid a denarius – the amount of pay for an entire day’s labor. Of course, the wheels begin to whir in their heads as they suppose they’re going to be paid a lot, lot more than they were expecting.
But, as the paymaster moves steadily toward them, they see that the 3:00 o’clock workers get the same wage: a denarius. And the half-day workers – the ones hired at noon – they, too, get a denarius. And, finally, it’s their turn, and they get a denarius. And they’re really frosted by now, and complain.