Before we get too deep into today’s Word, we have to acknowledge something important about today’s passage: The genre. Parables have a very particular definition; A succinct and didactic story with one or more characters that illustrates a moral or spiritual lesson told by Jesus in the Gospels. But at the end of the day parables are like many other stories. They have characters we can remember and relate to, they give us a way to understand Jesus’ teachings other than just “Do this, don’t do that”. Jesus was a smart teacher. He lived in an oral culture where most of his followers could not read or write. While he left a legacy to us, he wanted to speak particularly into the time and place he was living and teaching. He knew if he engaged his followers dynamically rather than just with lists of rules he would be able to give them something they could hold onto. Jesus was a Jewish man after all and he was familiar with the power a story had over his people, but he was also familiar with how much they had lost over time. They had taken the gift of the law that God had given them and used it to create caste-like systems with so many black and white rules most people were kept out instead of invited in. So Jesus, seeing this, told stories that didn’t make sense sometimes, that flipped their perceptions of who they were. His parables were often paradoxical and Jesus made it clear that these stories weren’t just for Jews.
With that in mind, let us listen to the Word of the Lord:
Matthew 20: 1-16 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
This is a tough one to think about isn’t it? It is for me. Regardless of how hard or long or difficult a person’s journey is, they are offered the same bread and wine at the table as the person who stepped up yesterday? They also get the same offer of salvation? Their sin, which may be so much more egregious than mine, is able to be repented and then they are treated with the same promise of love? You mean to tell me, that these sinful lazy people who showed up at the end of the day after I have been sweating and stinking and pushing and growing more exhausted by the minute are going to get the same thing as I do?
In case you couldn’t tell this passage is a pill that is difficult for me to swallow. It takes everything I understand about fairness and hard work and tells me that it doesn’t matter, that the same wages are offered to everyone no matter what they have done. I have always been perhaps overly concerned with fairness, doling out the exact same amount of tea to all my stuffed animals, splitting the sandwich with my sister and it being cut exactly down the middle, if you get two cookies than I do too. I believe deeply in rules and what it means to follow them. I was the kid who wanted to play the game the right way, who liked to follow the rules because they made the most sense. And for a long time my world worked that way. If I told a teacher at school about an unfair situation they would rectify it. If my little sister took something of mine I could tell my mom and she would fix it. Stories had happy endings because the world is fair. For awhile, when unfairness was presented, I thought that if I took action someone was going to listen and that it could be fixed through protest or getting the ear of the right person. I deeply believed that if people could just see the inequality they would clearly come around and do the right thing. For a long time I had an unfailing belief in adults that once their attention was drawn to a situation of disparity and they saw my point of view they would be able to help with the work of fixing it.
The other part of this is that I believed that my perception was the one that mattered. My interpretation of fairness is what counted in my mind and in the world. I was certain that I could convince anyone of my position and feeling. But like every kid who feels they have a grip on reality eventually that perception came crashing down like a poorly anchored building in an earthquake. I, like everyone else, eventually learned that unfairness persists despite what we believe is most accurate or what we deserve. Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie has a fantastic TED talk about this called The Danger of a Single Story. In it, she tells of how when she was a child her family had a House Boy called Fide, who her mother told her was very poor and the family would give him their old clothes. When Chimamanda would not finish her dinner she would tell her things like “Look at you, not finishing your dinner while Fide’s family has nothing.”
So one day, when Chimamanda went to his village and was shown a beautiful woven basket made by his brother she was startled. She had never thought it possible that anyone in his family could produce something so beautiful because the only story that she had ever known is that they were poor and her understanding of poverty did not include this ability. She goes on to tell another story of how her college roommate in the U.S. assumed that she didn’t know how to use a stove and was amazed by Chimamanda’s English skills because she was from Africa. The picture that her roommate had been shown her whole life of Africa was one story.
Even Chimamanda herself has come under fire for only seeing one story and for Saying things that are problematic. It’s a human inclination I think, to view all of us as coming from one story, to stereotype and assume and insist upon our own perceptions of fairness.
But, just imagine.
Imagine that you are a worker waking up each day hoping for work to feed your family. At 6am you are chosen, you breathe in a deep a sigh of relief because you and likely your family will eat tonight. The work is long and hard and you will be exhausted, but you are happy because you at the end of the day will not go hungry. You are both willing to work but you also experienced a bit of luck.
Now imagine you are not chosen early. Throughout the day you become increasingly anxious, terrified that you will have no food and your family might not eat tonight. You wander throughout the marketplace seeking anyone who might hire you. Your fear is palpable and throughout the day just gets worse and you become increasingly desperate. The landowner comes back and each time you can see relief on the faces of people as they are chosen. Even a few hours of work is better than nothing. Finally he comes back again and collects you. It’s an hour’s work, maybe, but it’s better than nothing. Something incredible happens, however, and at the end of the day you get the same wages as everyone else. You have enough to feed yourself or your family and maybe enough left over for the next day too. It is a gift you are grateful for. A kindness on behalf of your employer.
Now imagine you are the worker who has toiled all day. You are stressed and exhausted. Your body aches in a million places. You see this Vineyard owner paying everyone the same and of course you are incensed. I surely am. Why should these lazy people who only worked an hour receive the same wage? Why should that woman in the grocery story get free money from the government to buy food that I pay for in my taxes when I have worked all day my entire life? What right does that person have to demand $15 an hour for slinging burgers when I have so many degrees and barely make more than that? What do you mean we should pay someone for an internship? I suffered through hours and hours of unpaid work and we are giving them experience after all! Why should I have to pay for the healthcare of that father with cancer who can’t work, I don’t know him, and he should have saved money for something like this. Better yet, why should I be required to pay for care of that person detoxing from alcohol or the medicine used to revive that person over-dosing on the street, I certainly didn’t choose to do drugs. Don’t you know that “those people” and their culture invite it on themselves? Don’t you know that black on black crime is the real issue? I mean, it’s a choice for them to be like that so what gives them a right to marriage? Everyone in this country has the same opportunity, slavery is a thing of the past, so why are “those people” disrespecting our flag and our anthem?
The Danger of a Single Story. When we only work to see things from our own perspective, we make the decisions of who deserves what. We turn poverty into a moral failing, we encase ourselves in an enclave of who is clean and deserves to come in and who doesn’t. And Jesus gives us a story about a landowner. He uses a story about a man with privilege to illustrate us it’s not just about who we invite to the table to eat with us, it’s also about how we treat people not just fairly, but well. And He doesn’t use an example of religious community, Jesus uses an example of economics and of labor. He doesn’t even mention the faith of the people involved. This story is about welcoming the stranger and generosity. It’s about fighting that thing within us that tells us our perspective is always correct. It’s about containing our jealousy. While many scholars interpret this solely Jesus being the landowner and the wages as salvation and us as the vineyard workers, I think that we are meant to see ourselves in the landowner as well. Jesus use of this economic metaphor suggests an obligation to not just about offering kindness and acceptance and help inside the walls of the church community but offering it outside, through our businesses and in our jobs, and in how we treat our workers and others in our personal orbit. It’s small things, like offering the kindness of a full days wage for an hour of work, or helping the mom with crying tired toddlers carry the groceries to her car rather than judging her, or stepping in when we see acts of racism, to big things like how we spend our money and how we run our businesses and treat other community members whether they labor the whole day or not at all with kindness and compassion.
I am one of those people who suffered for a long time from jealousy and still do occasionally. Not long ago and sometimes even now, I see those around me buying homes and taking jobs and buying cars and getting things I didn’t feel like they deserved. I saw all this and felt like I was struggling to figure it all out pushing back against the howling winds of self-doubt. Through my perspective I understood them to be undeserving. Why didn’t I have these things when I worked just as hard if not harder? Why couldn’t I catch a break when she did? Why should I use my hard earned money to make sure someone else can put food on their table? Why are the rules different for my sister/neighbor/coworker than they are for me? Why can’t I decide what is fair here?
13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”