“It’s not fair!” How many of you, who are parents, aunts and uncles, anyone who has had anything to do with children, have heard these words. Our goal is to explain to the child why something can't be done. That may help, or it may not.
God doesn’t play fair, at least by our standards. As we look at today’s difficult, startling parable, we may respond like the early workers, like children. Maybe we are those called later in the day, who embraced faith later in life.
There are two main parts of this parable: the hiring of the workers and then the paying of the workers. From the beginning, just the way the parable plays out lets us know that something is up.
For one thing, it would be unusual for a landowner himself to go hire workers. Why didn’t he send someone else? Throughout the day, he goes four times to hire workers. Palestinian workers in Palestine go to specific places to wait to work for Israeli bosses to pick them up from the labor pool.
The landowner goes early at about 6 am. Then he goes at 9, noon and finally 5 pm. This too tells us that we are dealing with unusual practices. Who would hire workers with only one hour left in the workday? Just one note about his meeting with the last group at 5 pm. Our translation says, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” It makes them sound lazy, like they were just wasting time. A better translation of “standing idle” is literally “without work.” Now that’s different! It has a better connotation of “wanting work, but not able to find it” (Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories By Jesus).
Next we get to paying the workers. And here it really looks like God is not being fair. Everyone was paid the same, exactly what the landowner promised: the “usual daily wage” or “whatever is right.” So far, so good. However, Jesus could have avoided any controversy if he told the parable differently. If those hired first were paid first, there would be no problem.
What is the parable really about? On the surface, it appears to be about wealth, but the underlying issue is about status in the reign of heaven. It seems to be about wages, but something else must be going on. I love the ending of the parable. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (V. 15).
God doesn’t play fair. Author Mary Gordon, in her book Reading Jesus, answers God’s question with painful honesty…Yes, “I am envious because you are generous. I am envious because my work has not been rewarded. I am envious because someone has gotten away with something. Envy has eaten out my heart.”
I appreciate Gordon’s candor, because really, if this parable doesn’t offend us at least a little, then we’re not paying attention. After all, we know what fairness is, and we know how it’s supposed to play out. Equal pay for equal work is fair. Equal pay for unequal work is NOT fair. Having our sincere efforts noticed and praised is fair. Having them ignored is NOT fair. Rewarding hard work and ambition is fair. Excusing sloth and sloppiness is NOT fair (Patrick J. Wilson, Feasting On the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2).
The vineyard is symbolic of God’s reign in scripture. The first group entered and worked in the vineyard longer than those who came late. They had the blessing of being in God’s vineyard longer than all the others.
What about those who came later, especially the ones who only worked an hour? Their pay must have blown them away. That’s the thing about God. God’s generosity is beyond anything we can imagine. That’s what bothered Jonah so much in our first lesson. He knew God would be gracious and would forgive the people of Nineveh. That would make him look foolish after preaching that God would destroy them.
God is not interested in favoring the best, the biggest, the brightest — those with the elite educations, astonishing professional achievements and the fanciest houses and cars. God favors the disadvantaged. The first have to wait at the back of the line to get paid. The back of the line offers perspective (Wilson).
God can do what God wants to with what belongs to him. Do we envy God’s generosity to others? Let’s look at life through this parable and its final words, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (v. 15).
Have you ever felt so dejected and down in the dumps when looking at what others have accomplished or what they have? What am I, chopped liver? In all situations, let our generous Lord lift you up, hold you and lead you. Then we can be a light for others. In this parable, Jesus illustrates that we are his so that we may leave our lives in God’s hands because they are not our own. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).