(for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 21, 2014)
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 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?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.” 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? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ Matthew 20:1-16, NRSV).
Forgiveness and grace can cause trouble. Especially when they are as liberally distributed as this kingdom parable suggests.
Jesus’ story is designed, from the very beginning, not to tell how things work in the marketplace as much as to tell us how things work in God’s economy. This is not about our systems, but God’s kingdom. The two are very different.
One is merely fair. And one is truly generous.
Jesus imagines a master in need of labourers. Setting out early in the morning he finds willing volunteers. Wages are negotiated and workers are sent. They spend the day serving in the vineyard.
This is not so, however, for all. Some start at ‘nine o’clock’. Others at mid-day. More are invited at ‘three o’clock’. Still others – absurdly – are hired at ‘five o’clock’. Some work an hour. Some a day.
So when the master gives his orders: ‘Pay the workers! But begin with those hired last…’ he is trying to make a point. Somehow the order is important to this landowner.
But what is he trying to say? Does the order remove the shame of those who worked so little? It is these who are paid and sent home straight away. Perhaps the landowner believes the claim that they waited from early in the morning before someone hired them. Is he moved by their being gone all day and returning with one hours pay? Perhaps waiting all day and agreeing to an hour’s work indicates a level of desperation.
A denarius was considered enough to feed and house a family for a single day. It was not generous. Perhaps it is something like a base wage. In paying each worker the ‘usual daily wage’ this landowner is making sure each worker can put food on the table. There won’t be leftovers for any tonight.
But is the landowner not setting the first-hired up for disappointment?
Perhaps. But the landowner does not think so…
In fact, he seems genuinely surprised by the reaction of those paid last. They have what they agreed to and even now offer no reason that they should receive more. Their argument: they should receive less.
Truly generosity can source jealousy. But what else could it source? Admiration? Empathy? Humility? An awareness of the need of another?
If so, how much more if that generosity is as extravagant – and over-the-top – as the kingdom Jesus represents?