Jesus spoke many comforting, now popular words: “Blessed are the poor…”; “Let the little children come to me….”; “He who hath no sin, let him cast the first stone…”; “Today you will be with me in paradise…”; “Love one another…” These are words we like. They inspire and make us feel good.
How many of us like his story about the landowner,
from Matthew 20:1-16?
What is this story about? Since Jesus begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…”, it’s safe to say this story is about the kingdom, God’s kingdom. By association, it is about the king himself, here portrayed as a landowner. Right away, this landowner stands out as peculiar: his concern for profit seems marginal. His bottom line is unconventional. He is obsessed with gathering, employing, and paying, as many workers as possible. He violates worldly wisdom regarding efficiency, merit pay, and seniority. Furthermore, he pays the workers in a backward, vexing manner. As we consider how odd this landowner is, how unrealistic his behavior, we realize there is something familiar about him. Remember the character of the master from the parable of the Unmerciful Servant? He was similarly outstanding in his extreme generosity, completely canceling a servant’s massive debt. Another example is the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son/Forgiving Father, who also behaves in an abnormally forgiving and generous manner. According to Jesus, God is extraordinarily, even scandalously, generous and forgiving.
Scandal is the appropriate term, for when God behaves this way, observe people’s response! While some are blessed, others are greatly upset. The early workers grumble about how unfairly the landowner treats them. They resent his same-wages-for-all policy. These Johnny-come-lately drifters do not deserve equal pay! While it is sometimes nice to be gracious and generous, this is insulting! We have seen this attitude elsewhere, this scorn for God’s grace. Remember the end of the story about Jonah? Jonah criticizes God for being such “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” This prophet did all he could to avoid preaching repentance to the wicked people of Nineveh, craving their destruction. God’s patience and generosity disappointed and angered him. Remember, also, how the father of the prodigal son is begrudged by his older, responsible son, who is resentful of the father’s unconditional love and acceptance of his screwed up younger brother.
Naturally speaking, these people of the bible should be upset with God. As an Israelite, Jonah may have feared, perhaps even suffered, at the hands of people from Nineveh. At the very least, he was likely an upstanding Jew, a careful follower of the Law, in contrast to these violent barbarians. God’s love should be reserved for people like him. In the Prodigal Son story, the older brother/son had every reason to be upset; his father had depended on him to be the responsible one after his younger brother rebelled and squandered a small fortune. Are not the responsible, righteous people of this world entitled to greater reward than lowlifes who have done nothing to earn God’s favor? God could be cast as an enabler of the weak and morally lax. By blessing both as if they are the same, he devalues the work of the faithful. What about the vineyard workers’ rights, those who bore the bulk of the burden through the heat of the day?
“Right” is an interesting word in this story. When the landowner hired his second round of workers, he said, “I will pay you whatever is right.” Later responding to the protest of an early worker, the landowner says, “I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” In Jesus’ story, what is right is determined by the landowner, as opposed to tradition, economic convention, or anything else. Over the spiteful worker’s feelings of entitlement, the landowner reminds him that the vineyard and the opportunity to work there belong to the landowner, and he has decided to be exceptionally generous. He reminds the man that their agreement about the days wages have been honored. The man’s real problem is not that his rights have been violated; rather, he is jealous of the landowner’s generosity. Though he saw himself as first, he is paid last; though he saw himself as more, he is shown to be less. At the end of the story, Jesus’ prophetic words, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last,” reveal the reversal some will experience at the coming of God’s kingdom.
Does this story speak to us? Yes. It speaks to our confusion, when our walk with God has been supplanted by a loveless, joyless set of rituals and moral battles, bearing a burden of obedience through the “heat of the day.” Working for God is something we HAVE TO do; having worked for so long, we feel entitled to special treatment and status. Faith has been usurped by zeal for achievement in a spiritual meritocracy or search for status. We resent the church’s extension of God’s generous hospitality; we are cold to “eleventh hour” newcomers who have not proven themselves. We are jealous of God’s grace. When we no longer enjoy the Good News, that joining God’s kingdom work is something we GET TO do, because he has called, liberated, and forgiven us, this parable has a way of stirring, even stinging, us awake. If we have fully received and experienced God’s generous grace beyond measure, can we honestly be jealous to see him bestow it on others, as he sees fit? Are we the first who will be last? Let us enjoy fellowship with God, and with each other, whether early or late-comers to the vineyard.