Matthew 20:1-16

The Laborers in the Vineyard

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Be honest. When you heard the reading of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard just now, did your heart leap for joy? Were you thrilled when you heard that the workers who’d toiled and slaved all day long in the hot sun were going to get the same day’s wages as those who’d worked only one hour? I think not!

Let’s face it, this is not one of Jesus’ more popular parables. It’s the parable most everyone loves to hate. And for good reason! The parable runs against the grain of one of our most deeply cherished values, the value of hard work and just reward: The more you work and the more productive you are, the more you ought to get paid. I don’t know many who would disagree with that. And this is the complaint of those who worked all day: “You have made them equal to us.”

The parable provokes one of the most primitive cries of childhood, when one sibling gets a better shake than another, the one who feels cheated screams: “But that’s not fair!” And so it goes: Some seem to get more than they deserve while others get less. It’s just not right.

But before we dismiss this parable and put it back on the shelf marked, “Bible passages not to be taken seriously,” let’s consider the possibility that there’s a lesson to be learned here, that what’s going on in this parable is nothing less than a battle between human justice and God’s justice – a battle between our will and God’s will – and that, even though we say we just want to get what we deserve, what we most want and need is something far greater. And this is what I hope you’ll get out of the sermon today, that when the love of God reigns in our hearts, we’re brought into community with each other, and we experience the fullness of life, not as compensation, but as a gift of grace.

Listen to the parable once more: A landowner hired workers early in the morning and promised to pay them what amounted to minimum wage – one denarius. This was considered the basic subsistence for a man to feed his family for a day. The landowner then went back at nine o’clock, at noon, at three o’clock and at five o’clock and hired more workers. He told them simply that he’d pay them what was right.

So far, so good. In our minds, we’ve already got it figured out – they’re going to get a pro rata share of one denarius. According to our standards, that’d be fair. At the end of the day the landowner had all the workers line up starting with those who came at five o’clock. Lo and behold, he paid them a denarius, a full day’s wage.

Still, no problem. If he paid one denarius for one hour’s work, then he must be going to pay one denarius per hour. That’d be generous, but fair. This is where the parable takes an unexpected turn, for as the workers filed by to receive their wages, he paid them all the same – one denarius each, no matter how long they worked.

“Hey, that’s not fair!” they complained. The landowner was not playing by their rules.

Never mind that they got precisely what they were promised; the fact that the others got the same was a pill too big to swallow. The landowner replied, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous? Take your pay and go home.”

What was it about those workers who’d worked all day that made them so angry when the others got paid the same? The first problem was the fact that they were obviously working for the pay and not out of a sense of purpose or pleasure.

And this is a good question we’d do well to ask: “What is it that motivates you to do what you do?” Whether you’re employed full-time or serve as a volunteer, whether you work in the community or around the house, what motivates you to do what you do? If it’s money or recognition or the praise of others, be careful! Most jobs don’t pay enough to satisfy a healthy ego. If what you’re doing isn’t self-satisfying and self-fulfilling, you’re likely to harbor resentment and anger about doing it, and when someone comes along doing the same job and gets paid more, you’re likely to feel as resentful as the workers in the parable. Only as you truly enjoy what you’re doing will you be able not to look over your shoulder and compare your situation with others.

The story is told of Yogi Berra. The New York Yankees were at their peak and were negotiating contracts for the next year. A group of reporters interviewed players as they emerged from the owner’s office, and one of them asked Yogi Berra about the terms of his contract. In his characteristically, plain-spoken style, he said, “I’m gonna get to play baseball again next year for the Yankees, and would you believe it, they’re gonna pay me besides!”

That’s the spirit of gainful employment, doing what you love to do and do well and getting paid for it besides. If the workers who’d worked all day had this attitude about their work, they wouldn’t have resented those who only got to work one hour. When you’re in the right vocation and you’ve got the right spirit, then the longer you work, the better. God’s justice arises out of a gracious invitation to use your innate gifts and abilities to the glory of God and to the benefit of others. In the long run, money or recognition or praise has little to do with it.

A second problem with the disgruntled workers in the parable is that they lacked a healthy sense of gratitude. Think about it. Have you ever been out of work? Have you ever applied for a job and gotten turned down? I can tell you, it’s no fun. Can you remember how grateful you were when you got a call or a letter offering you a job? Well, what happens to that feeling of gratitude once you’re on the job for a while and the new wears off? Isn’t that when we begin to complain and find fault? Those who are grateful to be employed have little to complain about. It’s when gratitude gives way to the routine that we become disgruntled and begrudge those who seem to have it better.

Can you remember your first job, how thrilled you were to make a few bucks, to receive a paycheck, to have money of your own? I first began work in earnest when I was eleven years old. I worked as a caddy at the local golf course. I got paid $1.50 for eighteen holes. I’ll never forget that first day, coming home on my Cushman Eagle motor scooter with $1.50 in my pocket. I was on top of the world. I could hardly wait to go back the next day. Never mind the fact that I had carried a heavy golf bag for four hours. It was my money, and I was proud of it.

Well, what happens to that sense of excitement as time goes by? If you’re not careful, you’ll lose your enthusiasm and start to see your work, not a chance to be fulfilled and get ahead, but as a necessary evil to be endured. The more we’re grateful for the opportunity to serve and contribute and work, the less concerned we’re likely to be over working conditions or fringe benefits.

And something else about gratitude: It keeps you humble when you stop to consider those less fortunate. You know the old adage: “I complained because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” The same holds true for every level of work. Are you able to clean your house or mow the lawn? Are you able to buy your groceries and pay your bills? There are those who are not able to do any of these things. The more you consider how blessed you are, the more you’re able to look upon those less fortunate with compassion instead of resentment.

This brings up an interesting aspect of the parable to consider, that, perhaps, those who were hired to work at five o’clock had been left standing idle all day, not because they didn’t want to work or didn’t try to get a job, but because they were the least fit to work. In 1988-89, I served as superintendent of a rescue mission similar to Twin City Mission here in Bryan. We provided meals and lodging for the poor and homeless. Every day after breakfast the men would gather in front of the mission to hire out for the day. Folks in need of day labor would drive by and pick up the men they needed. Some mornings I’d stand out there with the men and watch the process unfold. Invariably, the younger, stronger, more aggressive men would hire out first. They’d run up to the cars and pickups in the street before they came to a full stop. The older men couldn’t compete. By mid-morning, all that was left milling around were the undesirables – those who were too old, too frail, too crippled or too mentally incompetent to hire out.

In the parable, God’s justice is that everyone got to work, and everyone was given the essential earnings to feed his family. The inequity of their varying hours of work was offset by the inequity of their varying strengths and abilities. And this is God’s justice, not that we get what we deserve, but that we get what we need.

Finally, the problem with the workers who complained the loudest is that they failed to recognize their relationship to each other. Or, to put it another way, the offense of God’s justice is softened when the “all day” workers and the “eleventh hour” workers stop seeing each other as “us and them” and start seeing each other as “we”.

There’s a play by Timothy Thompson based on this parable in which he depicts two brothers vying for work. John is strong and capable; Philip is just as willing but has lost a hand in an accident. When the landowner comes, John is taken in the first wave of workers, and as he labors in the field he looks up the lane for some sign of Philip. Other workers are brought to the field, but Philip is not among them. John is grateful to have the work, but feels empty knowing that Philip is just as needful as he. Finally, the last group of workers arrive, and Philip is among them. John is relieved to know that Philip will get to work at least one hour. But, as the drama unfolds, and those who came last get paid a full days’ wages, John rejoices, knowing that Philip – his brother – will have the money necessary to feed his family. When it comes his turn to stand before the landowner and receive his pay, instead of complaining as the others, John throws out his hand and says with tears in his eyes, “Thank you, my lord, for what you’ve done for us today!”

God’s justice arises out of a sense of community in which we see the “eleventh hour” workers as our brothers and sisters whose needs are every bit as important as our own. Next time you get bent out of shape when someone else gets more than he/she deserves, ask yourself, “What does this say about my relationship to this person? Would I feel the same if this were my brother or sister or father or mother?”

Well, I suppose when it’s all said and done, we’ll always feel a little squeamish about the inequities of life – the unfairness of it all – and perhaps we’ll continue to harbor a little resentment toward those who seem to get a free ride. Let’s just say it’s because we’re human, not God. Even so, let’s trust God to be just in spite of our humanness, so that when the day comes when we’re caught short, as one day it surely will, there’ll be grace for us as well.

The story is told of a man who died and went to heaven. St. Peter met him at the pearly gates and asked to examine his qualifications. “We have a point system,” St. Peter said, “and only those with enough points are allowed to enter.”

“Points?” the man asked, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

St. Peter explained, “It’s simple. We determine how many points you have by the life you’ve led. We require a hundred points to get in. Tell me about your life, and I’ll add up your points.”

The man thought for a moment and said, “Well, let’s see. I was a faithful member of my church for over forty-seven years. I served as a deacon and an elder, and I taught Sunday School.”

St. Peter said, “Very good. You get one point.”

The man said to himself, “Oh, my! Well, let’s see, I was a good husband and a good father. I gave a tithe to the church, and I contributed to all sorts of charities. I helped with various civic projects, and I served on several committees. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

St. Peter said, “Indeed it does. You get another point.”

The man’s face sank, and he said, “I can see now, I’ll never make it. The only way I’d ever get into this place is by the grace of God.”

St. Peter smiled and said, “And that, my friend, is worth ninety-eight points. Welcome!”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright 2004 Philip W. McLarty.  Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.