Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
“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 the third hour 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 the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6 About the eleventh hour 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 the eleventh hour 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.”
We’ve been jumping back and forth between readings from the Gospel According to Matthew and Paul’s Letter to the Romans over the past week or two. And today we’re looking at a reading from Matthew that actually shares its themes with Romans. Jesus’ teaching in this passage and yesterday’s listed reading from Romans both deal with the idea of ‘entitlement.’ In yesterday’s passage from Romans, Paul challenged the idea that either religious works or membership in the chosen people can make a person “entitled to” salvation. And in this parable from Matthew, Jesus addresses the subject of entitlement from a different angle.
In the parable, a vineyard owner goes out periodically during the day to hire all the workers he can get. He hires some at sunrise, others at mid-morning, at noon, and at various times in the afternoon. (Scholars and historians say this might not have been unusual – because grapes need to be harvested very fast, it’s conceivable that a vineyard owner might keep going out throughout the day to find all the help he could get.)
Anyway, at the end of the day, the workers hired last get a denarius, which was the typical day’s wage for a blue-collar worker of the time. So of course, the guys who had worked since morning all figured they’d get more, since they had worked more hours. But they were disappointed to get only the same denarius. The workers complain, but the vineyard owner’s response is that they’d been paid a fair day’s wage, and if he wanted to over-pay the latecomers, that was his business.
It seems to me there are two important lessons to be drawn from this passage, one dealing with material things and one strictly spiritual.
On a material level, lots of people who think of themselves as Christians have a real problem with giving to the poor, because they think the poor get more than they deserve. If the vineyard owner in this story represents God – and I think we’re meant to understand that he does – then it seems to me this reading challenges our tendency to give grudgingly because those in need are not worthy of real generosity.
First of all, that’s hard to support in any concrete way. In spite of what we may tell ourselves, lots of poor people work longer hours at harder jobs than most of us. And are just as deserving of a good life as we are.
But from a theological perspective, if we serve a God who gives generously even to those who don’t deserve it, we can’t claim to be “godly” people if we parcel out our giving according to what we think others deserve.
Jesus was most likely directing this parable to the religious types of his day – which means it applies just as much to church-going folks like us, too. The scribes and Pharisees and assorted other religious types of Jesus’ day hated to see him eating dinner with tax collectors and sinners and other ‘undeserving’ people. And it seems to me that lots of Christians today are secretly irritated at the thought that God might love people we consider ‘sinful’ just as much as he loves us. It just doesn’t seem fair, since we’re been getting up early for church and all.
But the point Jesus is making here, I think, is the radical nature of God’s grace – that “unearned favor” that’s at the heart of our theology. (And at the heart of Romans, as well.) We might hate it, but the truth is that grace is not fair. People we don’t think are worthy of God’s love are getting it anyway. But there’s no escaping the point Jesus makes in his teaching: that we’re not worthy of God’s love, either. We’re only saved by grace, not by any kind of righteousness on our part.
I guess you could say that this idea of grace is a kind of ‘spiritual diagnostic tool.’ If you don’t like the idea of grace because it’s unfair, it probably shows that you’re infected with the disease we call “self-righteousness” – a sense of spiritual entitlement.
On the other hand, if you love the idea of grace, it’s probably because you’ve been vaccinated with the truth that you can’t claim to deserve the new life you’ve been given in Jesus – that it’s a gift out of God’s gracious love. And in that case, you might just be seeing yourself pretty much the way Jesus sees you. Because given how sinful we are, getting what you deserve is probably the last thing you want.
It seems to me that through this parable, Jesus is reminding us that in the end, we’re saved by God’s grace, not by our own righteousness. And once we realize that – not just nod to it, but really accept its truth – then it only makes sense to celebrate each time God extends grace to someone else in the world – as he’s already extended it to us.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the new life we have in Jesus as a gift of your grace. We thank you that you are not fair with us – you don’t give us what we really deserve. Instead, you give us a gift that’s much more valuable than anything we could ever claim to deserve. As beneficiaries of your grace, move us to extend grace to others, too. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 54 and 93; Numbers 16:36-50; and Romans 4:13-25.)