workers in vineyard parable

Nov 1 = Come to Work (Matt 20:1-16)

Theme = Acceptance, forgiveness, empowerment

In this story Jesus claimed that “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire people.” Jesus used many parables to describe the kingdom of heaven. They involved people working common, menial jobs. The kingdom also involved a generous wealthy person. Here a man hires people to work for him. In the story he finds workers who begin early in the morning (maybe 8am). However, he must have a large amount of work because he continues to look for more workers. At 9am, 12noon, 3pm, and finally 5pm. It seems that the day must have ended at 6pm because the full day workers would have worked either 10 or 12 hours. Even more than this, some would have worked 9 hours, others 6 hours, or 3 hours, and finally a group would have only worked 1 hours. At the end of the day he paid the ones who worked longest last. Imagine their thoughts when the first group received a denarius? They must have thought, great we get 12. Imagine each group’s disappointment as each was paid the same. It seems unjust. The first worked for 1 denarius/hour while the last work for 1/12 denarius/hour. It seemed unfair, unjust, and a little dishonest.

If you have driven by the entrance ramp to I-84 along MLK/Grand you might notice a building with many individuals standing around. They are waiting for people to come and hire them to work for a day. Imagine being in a time when you were paid cash (not electronic or a check) at the end of a day’s work. In these cases the person who arrives early gets the job.

Imagine the feeling of injustice if the crew chief/boss kept making trips back to the MLK location to hire more workers. As the day went forward it seemed that more and more work needed to be done, so the foreman went to hire more people. Finally, at the end of the day, the work ended and ALL WERE PAID THE SAME AMOUNT! Imagine the anger, the injustice, the frustration that those who showed up at 6am to work might feel. Especially if those who were hired at the end of the day only worked an hour. Some made 1 denarius an hour, others 1 denarius for 3 hours, and others 1 denarius for 12 hours. Who was paid more? Who was paid less? Who worked harder and longer, and who worked the least? Notice that those who grumbled, complained that they “bore the burden of work and the heat of the day,” (v12).

In the parable Jesus leaves us clues as to what he is discussing.

First, the phrases that are repeated in Matthew carry a similar theme:

  • 19:30 Many who are first are last and last first
  • 20:8 begin with the last ones hired and go to the first
  • 20:16 the last will be first, and the first will be last
  • 20:26 who ever wants to become great must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be your slave
  • 21:31 I tell you the truth the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you
  • 21:43 Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit
  • 22:14 For many are invited but few are chosen

These verses suggest that Matthew was highlighting a theme for the reader. The theme suggests that humility, vulnerability, being the little one, and struggle are part of the kingdom’s plan for salvation. The owner somehow intentionally wanted to show those who worked all day, that God was giving preference to the least. Throughout the Bible God gave preference to the younger brother, smaller nation, and vulnerable people. Whether it was Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, or Ephraim—God chose the second or little one. Even more Yahweh claimed that Israel was chosen because they were the smallest (Deut 7:4-11). Those who may feel that they have preference because of inheritance, length of stay, or status will very quickly find that the Bible suggests they will not receive the praise they (we) expect.workers in vineyard

Second, God refers to mercy over what seems to be “right.”  The word for “right” is the term we get for justice, righteousness, and social justice. One can understand the frustration of the longer workers. It must have been hard to witness the joy on the “slackers’” (possibly what they were called) faces as they received a full day’s pay. One can also understand the disappointment on the next shifts as they received what everyone else did. It is the same frustration that I hear from people today. “Why should we care about the homeless, those on government aid, the unemployed, and disabled when it comes to affordable care?” “Those people on ‘welfare’ just continue to bleed the government finances dry…” “It’s not fair that we tax paying citizen’s support those who don’t want to work…” Or I hear, “The church should help the poor, not the government.” The problem is two-fold. First, there are just as many “tax paying” citizens who refuse to pay taxes, cheat the government, and are in debt. Why do they get preference? Second, if it was left up to the church, our country would be even worse. The government cares for the poor because God commands it, and because God needs them to do what the church has failed to do. It is sad when government institutions show mercy more than Jesus’ church.

They worked for less but God said that they worked what they agreed. In 20:2 it said that they agreed (the word we get symphony—sound together) with the owner to their pay. In addition to this the workers who came at the end were not “slackers,” no one hired them. They waited in the heat all day and stayed to the end, hoping to get a job. God offered more to the latecomers yet God said they got what he wanted them to have. They text suggested that the owner wanted them to get good pay, and that the owner was “good.”

Finally, the owner made the claim that they had “the evil eye because he was good.” The evil eye was a term in the ancient world for a curse—someone could stare at a person and claim to place a curse on them. It was an “evil look,” or “stare down.” As we know today, people who stare at us in anger make us uncomfortable. For the owner, they were “staring at him” because he was generous. The thought of people being envious, jealous, or angry because others receive mercy happens even today.

Our country is based on what seems to be fair and right—but is it always fair and right. Is the American Dream really a dream for all—or a nightmare for some? I hear people complain because of what others have, receive, or own. I listen to people gripe because those who are fake, hypocrites, or manipulate “the system,” seem to get more than us. We too cast the evil eye not on the recipients, but the giver, the government, the agency, or the church.

The parable might also apply to those of us who spent years working and received the same as those coming at the end. Do those who have been raised in a church, who have been baptized at a young age, and who did not deviate from the “path of Jesus” ever feel slighted because someone “got into heaven” when they were baptized at 70 years old? Does it seem unjust that one person sows their wild oats and enjoys the corruptions of sin while another lives faithfully, sacrificially, and regularly for God, only to receive the same reward? One can almost taste the venom from the prodigal son’s older brother, “All these years I have slaved for you, and you didn’t even give me a goat dinner,” (Luke 15).

Yet the owner, who seems to represent God, tells us some things about our walk with Jesus. First, owners can do whatever they want. They can show mercy on whomever, and judgment on whomever. It is God’s prerogative to save whoever needs saving. Second, God is fair. We get what Jesus promised—regardless of when or how we are converted. Yes the 13 year old who gives their life to Jesus and is baptized has a long trek ahead of them. It might seem frustrating that someone “gets into heaven” by changing their ways near the end of life. However, does the 13 year old feel like they slaved for decades, while the other enjoyed their life of sin? Or do they believe that their life was worth living and that the other received grace, at the end of a painful and guilt ridden life.

Third, are we envious because God is generous? Maybe this could be asked a little more pointedly—“Are we angry that God is merciful?” The Greek literally reads, “Do you have an evil eye because I am generous?” The evil eye was a negative term, meaning that someone looks judgingly or suspiciously at another person as a form of curse. Are we cursing God because of grace, mercy, and forgiveness?

I met with some representatives of the new “Minimum Wage Oregon” group the other day. I had a great conversation with them. I indicated that as a church I cannot endorse anything, because I want all people with all beliefs to feel safe. However, I could endorse something as a minister, Christian, and citizen. I have to admit that I agree with their goals—to raise Oregon’s minimum wage to $13.50/hour. Tavis Smiley calls this a Living Wage, since minimum wage is not even enough for a person to survive.

I also learned some interesting facts and have read more on the issue. First, increasing the minimum wage, according to research done at Purdue University, only increases costs 4%. This is almost less than inflation and it seems small to pay $0.30 more for my McDonalds hamburger so that someone can have a living wage. Research in New Jersey also indicated that raising minimum wages actually kept workers loyal to companies and reduced employee turnover. This was especially true with the Fast Food Industry, which comprises 50% of US employees. The research also indicated that raising minimum wage jobs increased cash flow into the economy and offered better pay and benefits for higher paying jobs.

Often I hear people complain because others “get a free handout.” I understand complaints about raising minimum wage salaries and concerns that McDonald’s employees will be paid better than others. However, think about it. What are we suggesting?

  • McDonalds seems to be the “down and out job” anyone can get. Yet shouldn’t we want any worker to provide for their families? Would we get better service and be able to expect more if people were paid more? Would it suddenly be more than a high school kids job and become a real restaurant in our minds?
  • Are all people who don’t work lazy? Are there people who want to work, but like the people in the Bible—no one will hire me?
  • Is it sometimes better to not work than take a minimum wage job and end up having to work 2 jobs to pay the bills?
  • Are we jealous for other people to be paid well, and assume that our jobs are slavery?
  • Is it possible that we, like the first set of workers, cast the evil eye on mercy because we are not satisfied with what we have agreed to receive?
  • Are we bothered because they receive grace or do we, maybe, feel underappreciated?

This reflects the unmerciful servant story we discussed earlier. Discipleship is a desire to grow to be like Jesus. If Jesus/God is caring and merciful, what are the applications to our lives? I also wonder if much of our lives are not enjoyed because we want more. Rather than wanting others to be blessed we have become uncomfortable with what we have. In the end the real issue seems to be, “Are we happy with what God agreed to give us?” “Are we enjoying our lives and content with what we have, or do we want more—like those people have?” Even more, do we really feel that those who hang out in the marketplace for 11 hours and work 1 hour have it better than us?

  1. How has God shown mercy to those around us who missed the “first shift” of work?
  2. Are there times when we feel that our sacrifice for Jesus is underappreciated? Are there times when we believe that God blesses others more than us?
  3. What has God promised you—and how are you thankful for it?
  4. How does this story motivate us to feel toward others the way God (the owner) feels toward those “hanging out in the market place?”
  5. How does this story speak to my spiritual growth, discipleship, and relationship with Jesus?