There are very few passages I’ve taught that have generated quite as much heat as The Parable of the Day Laborers in Matthew’s gospel:
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went.
5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’
7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ 9 When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. 10 When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.
11 When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’
13 But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”
(Mat 20:1-16 NASB; 1995 update)
The first time I ever taught this passage, I was filling in for a friend who usually led the worship service on Sunday afternoons at a senior citizens’ high rise. Rather than having a regular service, as the few participants expected, because I was dismayed by the very small turnout, I turned the worship service into a discussion session over this passage.
I had selected the passage merely because I had just finished one of my first major projects fresh out of the MBA program. I had spent several months with our then accounting firm, Delloitte Haskins and Sells, conducting a salary survey for the type of positions we had in the non-profit organization I worked for. There were very large income disparities among staff who had very similar skill sets and experience, as often happens when an organization has a mix of staff with longer- and shorter-tenure in the organization. Salary increases for employees who have been around for awhile rarely keep up with labor market rates. Newer staff, then, get hired with larger salaries though they are relatively less experienced. The project focused entirely on fairness in wages, and led to some very heated exchanges with the middle managers of the organization. My entanglement with that project made me think of this parable precisely because everyone of us responds to it by thinking, “That’s not fair!” In the real world, who would ever think it fair to pay workers who had worked for twelve full hours the same as those who had just worked one? If an employer ever did such a thing, he certainly would have kept it hidden, rather than broadcast it to everyone. I’ve seen too many employees become resentful when they are granted access to salary data.
I had barely started telling the story of our salary survey in order to get my small audience focused on fairness, when a lady in her ’80s turned absolutely livid, and most of the audience agreed with her. It turned out that a man who had lived a dissipated, degenerate, drunken life had died the night before. But, someone claimed that he had undergone a genuine deathbed conversion. After years of experience I now know that there are funeral-preachers-for-hire who always make such a claim. So I do not know what to think now, and I certainly didn’t back then. With the help of one very gracious little old lady, who obviously knew her God, I was able to gain barely enough control to make my main point: the logic of God’s grace does not turn on fairness. In some ways, it is unfair.
To really understand this, we must analyze the land owner’s answer into it’s three component parts. First, he answers one of the complainants, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go.” The landowner argues that those who worked all day had no right to complain because he had an agreement with them, and he fulfilled that agreement. When we pass before the judgement seat of Christ, for God the Father has delegated judgement to the Son, He will be able to point to an agreement God has with every one of us simply by virtue of our status as creatures and His as Creator. According to Romans 1, there is sufficient evidence of the being and nature of God to constrain us 1) to worship Him as He has revealed Himself to us, 2) to be continuously grateful to Him, and 3) to obey Him in detail. The Old Testament and Jesus are united in summarizing this as the requirement that we love God with all our soul, strength, and mind, that is, with the entirety of our being. The tenth commandment, “You shall not covet,” demonstrates that this requirement does not stop at the edge of our behavior–for example, frequent daily prayers, calendar observations, or fasts–but penetrates into the heart. God has the right to make demands of our thoughts, emotions, and desires, and only He has that right. So, at the minimum, God will deal with humanity according to this Creator/creature agreement, they will receive their merited wage.
Second, the landowner asserts his own right to do whatever he wants with what is his, “But I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?” The obvious answer to this rhetorical question is “Yes!” Of course the landowner has this right. The landowner could have become very defensive in the face of a situation that would seem to most as so obviously unfair, instead he turns the thinking around so that he, and his rights, become the focus of attention. Surely, when we see the landowner as God, we recognize that such God-centered, rather than creature-centered, thinking is right.
When we talk to non-Christians about their need for salvation–salvation from their merited wage–we are almost immediately pointed to hypocrites within the church and incredibly self-sacrificial acts of kindness by those who repudiate the church, Christ, or, even, God. They are absolutely right of course. We ought to grant them that as simple empirical fact. To try to explain away the sins of Christians by arguing that such people may have been much worse had they not submitted to Jesus Christ is futile. Instead, we need to think the thoughts of the landowner, asserting his rights. I have yet to hear a better analogy than the old one about the pirate ship, which I think I first read in Robert Horn’s little book about justification entitled, Go Free! Pirates can demonstrate many genuine human virtues toward each other such as loyalty, courage, generosity, comradeship. It would be silly to argue that when viewed in themselves these are not virtues. However, when such virtues are viewed from the perspective of Her Majesty the Queen, they become something else entirely; such “virtues” only serve to perpetuate the pirates’ rebellion against the Queen. These virtues turn into rebellion! So, too, this parable teaches us to look at human thoughts, words, and deeds not relative to each other but relative to God. Do such acts arise out of a whole-hearted devotion to God or as an assertion of human autonomy, as the philosopher Kant argued?
Most importantly, however, we must inwardly agree, with entire submission, that God has the right to do whatever He wants with what is His. That includes us. If He is the Creator and we are creatures then He owns us. That moves us on to the next point.
Third, the landowner, in the form of a very pointed question asserts his right to generosity, “Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” The landowner’s question contains an accusation: “You are envious of my generosity.” The parable, therefore, serves as a test of the degree to which we have had our minds transformed by the logic of grace. Do we read this parable still reacting to the unfairness of the landowner’s treatment of the workers who labored in the hot sun for a full twelve hours, or, like that little old lady in the senior citizens’ high rise who rescued me, do we admire the generosity of the landowner to those day laborers who otherwise would have gone home with just one hour’s wage. God has the right to do whatever He wants with His creatures. He could treat all of us according to the requirements of nature, but He doesn’t! Instead, He has chosen to be gracious and merciful to some, to those who believe in His beloved Son, the LORD Jesus Christ.
Is that not fair? He would turn to you and ask, “Is your eye envious because I am generous?” To answer that question correctly, “No!” is to have the mind shaped by a different way of thinking: the logic of grace.