"It's not fair!"
15th Sunday after Trinity Matthew 20: 1-16
‘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.’
May these written words lead us to the living word Jesus Christ. Amen
What, in a word or two, is the parable of the labourers in the vineyard about?
Two things in particular jumped out at me as I read and re-read this parable. So, to answer my own question: Firstly this is about fairness and secondly about equality. Jesus knew that for some people life doesn’t seem fair, and that the disciples were puzzling over the last verse of the previous chapter. ‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first.’ So he told a parable to explain it.
The example would have been familiar to them. An employer in their time and even in some places today hires labourers by the day rather than full-time employment. The vineyard owner hires men to help him at four different times during the 12 hour work day. Now this is a little strange, especially the hiring of men at the 11th hour.
The first workers are promised the usual daily wage. The terms of payment for the subsequent labourers that he hired are a bit vague. They are told they will receive “whatever is right.”
When payment time comes at the end of the day, those working the longest probably begin to wonder what they will be paid? “Whatever is right!” in their mind, was surely going to be more than what those latecomers will receive. So when they saw that they received the same amount they were upset. I am sure we can relate to that feeling on face value it didn’t seem fair.
But if we take a step back they had all accepted the terms of employment, it was the owner’s money and his right to pay the workers according to his own sense of fairness.
Where is Jesus going with this parable? He is of course talking about fairness in the kingdom of God which in this case is the vineyard, and God is the owner. It seems this parable raises many questions. Chief among them, “what is fair?” Let us spend a few moments looking at fairness today in light of God’s work in Christ, and hopefully gain a deeper understanding of just how fair our God is.
Fairness is a concept we Brits are familiar with. From an early age, we learn what fairness is all about. Soon after the words ‘no, me and mine’ children learn that handy phrase, ‘it’s not fair.’ Which begs the question – where do small children get this sense of fairness. It seems to be built into our DNA that the world should be a fair place. But we know that often it is not, and that we have the right to protest if we think things are not fair. This can be anything from the size of a piece of cake to how much we are paid at work. When we come up against things that are deemed unfair we find ourselves echoing our own parents who told us ‘Who ever said life was fair?’ Yet we have an expectation that it should be, and when someone cheats and gets away with it we feel indignant. Slighted. It’s not fair!
“I’ve been in this job for years, and that young upstart gets the promotion while I’m passed over? It’s not fair.”
“I’m a good parent. I really love my children. How come everyone else has perfect children, and mine have all the problems? It’s not fair!”
“I have lived a good, clean life. Not smoking and I have tried to eat well. Now the doctor says I have lung cancer. But Freda has smoked 40 a day for 40 years, and is just fine. It’s not fair.”
I am sure there are numerous examples of unfairness could we think of. In the end, our sense of fairness is most keen when we feel we are the victims of an injustice. Or when we feel someone is treated more favourably than we are for no good reason.
The thought process is usually something like this:
I am good. I deserve good things.
I am not receiving good things.
Something must be wrong.
This needs fixing.
But is this the way we should be thinking?
Perhaps we would be better asking:
I am good. I deserve good things – and I am given them in abundance but we miss so many of them because we are not looking in the right place.
Something must be wrong. Yes, but it is with us, and our attitude and not with God.
Who is going to fix it? God already has and God he is supremely fair.
He does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities. There are no grades of sin in his eyes – and his forgiveness is given in equal measures to all. We pray on a regular basis; forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. The temptation is to look at others we feel are committing sin and want God to punish them. We might even expect that a fair and just God would mete out due punishment to those people, and if he doesn’t, it’s not fair.
Was the servant who came last to the field the one complaining about receiving an entire day’s wage? No. It is the other servants who felt they deserved more – they spoke up. Perhaps one lesson in this story is the great danger in comparing ourselves to others. When we do we risk losing sight of our own faults and failings. As somebody wisely said, if we point a finger at another there are three fingers pointing back to us.
In this parable Jesus urges us to see ourselves with humility, as the final servant. We should all say with Paul, “I am chief of sinners”. For, in all fairness, none of us deserves the blessings God gives.
Then there is the concept of equality. In the parable the last are literally first in that they are paid first. And the first, who have laboured longest, must also wait the longest to get theirs. But notice as well that the first who are now last do not receive less, they receive the same, as the labourers themselves say, "you have made them equal to us."
This scandalous element of the parable is taken up in the other Gospels and in Revelation; this reversal of expectation of our sense of justice and equality. Whoever wants to be first must be last, and servant of all (Mark 9:35); so much for human ideas of greatness. Who is worthy to climb the holy hill, and enter the gate of God's kingdom, often quoted in the Psalms.
Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last (Luke 13:30). It is Jesus, who is the first and the last – the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 1:17), the one who tells us that we need not fear; for in the one who is both first and last, the first and the last are brought together when we are called to lay down the burdens of our days and find our home with God.
The scandal of this parable is that we are all equal recipients of God's forgiveness and blessings. The scandal of our faith is that we can be covetous and jealous when God's gifts of forgiveness and grace are given to others in equal measure. As it was for the disciples, this is a hard teaching to grasp. It is good for us to take a long hard look at our attitudes and responses to those around us always coming back to the starting point where we thank God for his forgiveness in Jesus, for always giving us a clean start, for always treating us with justice and mercy.