September 18, 2011

It’s Unfair

Passage: Matt. 20:10

Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.

A woman once wrote a letter to a Labour Relations consultant, complaining that she had been unfairly treated by her employer.  Evidently, she’d arrived one day, at her job at 8:45 in the morning, instead of the required 8 a.m.  As a result, a half day had been deducted from her pay.

“I’ve a work agreement, not a contract.” She complained.  “This has happened several times before and I don’t think it’s fair.”

In response the consultant replied:  “It’s illegal to dock your pay as punishment, but you should only be docked the 45 minutes that you were late.  Call your local Department of Labour and tell them, because it’s a violation of the Fair Labour Standards Act, and you should file a claim for the extra time docked.  They owe you for the extra time they deducted.  They can only dock you the time you are actually late.”

Fairness in the workplace is something with which most of us agree.  Employees should be paid fairly in accordance with the work they do.  But then we come upon this parable that Jesus told about the men hired to work in a vineyard, and our first response is, ‘What He is suggesting is unfair!’

Why would Jesus, of all people, support an unjust treatment of workers such as that suggested in this parable?

To find out, let’s review the facts.  We’re told in the parable that the owner of a vineyard went into town very early one morning to hire labourers to work in his vineyard.  With those he hired, he contracted to pay a typical day’s wage.

Later that day, around 9 o’clock, he returned again to the marketplace and seeing men standing idle, he hired them also.  This time all he promised was to pay them whatever was right.  Later still, around noon, then at 3 and finally at 5 p.m., he did the same thing, each time hiring the men with the agreement simply to pay them what was right.

Finally at the end of the work day, when it was time to pay the workers, each man received exactly the same wage!   But that’s unfair, isn’t it?

We could call this parable, a parable of surprises, because there are a number of things in the story which are quite frankly usual.  So let’s take a few minutes to consider these unexpected aspects of the parable, in the hopes that we’ll better understand the message Jesus was conveying.

The first surprise is that it’s the owner of the vineyard who is doing the hiring of these workers. You might expect that of a very small operation, but the parable reveals that this owner has a foreman working for him, because at the end of the day it’s that foreman who pays the workers.  No self-respecting landowner, wealthy enough to have a foreman on his staff, would stoop to carrying out such a menial task as hiring his own workers.  And he most certainly wouldn’t go back into town repeatedly through the heat of the day, seeking more workers.  That would be the foreman’s job.

So why would Jesus have the landowner carrying out this task in His parable?

The only possible answer is that Jesus intended to stress just how much the owner cares about people.  He doesn’t want to see any willing workers standing idle with no opportunity for employment.

We should also observe that there is no indication in the parable that the owner wasn’t able to hire all the workers he needed at the beginning of the day.  Surely if he was an intelligent landowner, he would have known exactly how many workers he needed, and hired accordingly.

Yet, the parable tells us that the owner returned repeatedly to the marketplace, to hired additional labourers.  Surely it couldn’t have been that he was desperate to get more help.  The only logical explanation is that the owner cared so much for individuals, that he was reluctant to see any willing workers, left unemployed.

Because we know that this parable is speaking about conditions with the Kingdom of Heaven, this tells us that God is one who truly cares about individual human beings, and is willing to come time and time again, to offer us entry into his kingdom.  All that is required is our willingness to work for Him.

The second surprise has to do with the remuneration the workers received.  Only the ones hired first, were told exactly what the wage would be.  This were to receive one denarius; the pay which a soldier or a labourer of that day, could expect in return for a day’s service.

One denarius was considered a fair wage; it wasn’t overpayment, but simply what a worker needed in order to be able to provide food and shelter for himself and his family.  And that’s the point of the parable.  It’s also the reason the other workers received the same remuneration.  They all needed that much in order to sustain themselves and their families.  Had the owner paid any of them less, they would very likely have gone hungry.

So the meaning of the parable is obvious.  God is gracious and loving, and surprisingly generous.  He’s a God who gives us everything we need, and not simply what we’ve earned by the sweat of our brow.  In fact, as Jesus told His followers on other occasions, no one could possibly be good enough to earn the blessings which our generous God provides for us at the end of our lives.

The next surprise is the order in which the payments are made at the end of the day.  You’d expect that those who’d worked the longest would be the first to receive their pay.  But that’s not what we’re told here.  It’s the ones hired just an hour before the end of the workday, who get their denarius first.

The message here is subtle.  The generosity of the owner was meant to be seen by all the workers.  Jesus delivered a similar message from the cross, when He told the criminal hanging beside Him, that He would see him in eternity that very day.  That criminal had led a life that obviously wasn’t worthy such a reward, but because of the faith he demonstrated in the last hour of his life, Jesus welcomed him into eternity.

This is good news for all of us, because it assures us that God is always ready and willing to forgive us, and to welcome us into His Kingdom.  However, if we use this information as an excuse for continually rebelling against God throughout our lifetimes, we’re making a big mistake.  Jesus makes it very clear that those standing in the marketplace were actively seeking work.  They hadn’t been trying to avoid work earlier in the day.  They were honest seekers.  And so must we be, if we want to be accepted into God’s heavenly kingdom.

So there we have it.  A very familiar parable about the Kingdom of heaven, with three, surprises:
1) The owner is the one doing the hiring;
2) All the workers receive the same wage; and
3) Those who are last hired are the first to be paid.

But there’s still more.  To fully understand Jesus’ message in this parable, we need to look the timing of the parable, for the timing is very significant.

Immediately before telling this parable, a young man had approached Jesus with a question:  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?  (Matt. 19:16)   This was a man who had spent his entire life, adhering to the commandments of the Jewish faith.  He was your clean-cut, respectful, model Jew.  But he was also very rich.

When Jesus told Him that if he truly wanted to receive eternal life, he first had to distribute his wealth to the needy; the man was shocked and very upset.  He valued his possessions.  They were what gave him status in the community, and made him one to whom others looked up.  And he simply wasn’t prepared to let his wealth go.  So sadly, that young man turned his back on Jesus and walked away.

Seeing him go, Jesus said to His disciples:  “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  (Matt. 19:23)

These words stunned the disciples.  They saw a good man; one who was recognized in the community as a man of faith, being rejected from God’s Kingdom.  So what hope then was there for them?

It was Peter who voiced their shared concern, saying:  “Then who can be saved?”  (Matt. 19:25)   Peter was genuinely anxious.  He knew that he, along with the other disciples, had left their jobs, their homes and families, everything in order to follow Jesus, but was that enough?  Seeing this religious man walk away left them feeling dejected and afraid.  Maybe even their sacrifice was insufficient to please God.

You see, Peter (and the others) still thought you have to earn God’s grace; that it was through personal effort and commitment that we finally win a place in God’s Kingdom.  But they were wrong.

It wasn’t to be many weeks after the telling of this parable, that Peter, frightened by the arrest and trial of Jesus, would deny having any relationship with His Lord.  He would deny Him, not once or twice, but three times.

When the rooster crowed, Peter would become suddenly aware of what he had done, just as Jesus had predicted.  And I’m sure at that very moment, Peter remembered this parable, and was truly thankful that salvation isn’t a reward for loyal service, but rather a gift; a gift from the one who willing lay down His life on a cross, not just for Peter, but for the whole human race; for everyone who is willing to accept God’s love and forgiveness.

So let’s summarize the message of this parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard?

I think the message is this: the world and all human history is the vineyard of the parable.  We are the ones standing in the market place looking for something to do with our lives.  But we’re not the ones who are standing there early in the morning.  Those people have been hired centuries ago.

A great deal of time has passed since the first workers were chosen.  I’m not sure what the time it is now.  It may be noon, or more likely 3 or 5.  It may even be at the very end of the day.  No one knows when the world, or even our own lives, will come to an end.  All we know is that one day, Christ will return in glory, and gather to Himself, all those who have accepted Him as their Saviour and Lord.

But one thing we do know.  The loving God who created this world and whose power and presence has sustained it throughout the ages is still working, and still seeking the willing.  And time and time again, He comes searching for those who are ready and willing to respond to His call; those who will roll up their sleeves and get busy with the work of the Kingdom here on earth.  He’s looking for those who aren’t afraid to stand up and be counted as His disciples; for those willing to spread the Good News of Christ to others; and to show love and care to those in need.

We’re called to be the workers of the Kingdom; but we should never deceive ourselves into thinking that it will be the value of our efforts, no matter how wonderful they may be, - that will earn us our reward at the end of the day.  Those who do great things, and who work long and hard, will receive exactly the same reward as those of us who come late to the vineyard.

When we work an eight-hour day and receive a fair remuneration for our time; that’s our wage.  When we compete with other opponents and receive a trophy for our efforts, that’s our prize.  And when we receive appropriate recognition for long service or high achievement that also is our reward.

But even those incapable of earning a full day’s wage or winning a prize, or doing something remarkable in the competitive environment of our world, will receive the same ultimate reward; even if such a one comes to God at the end of the day; for that is how our God operates.  And that’s the meaning of the grace of God.