By Ed Little
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 20:1-16
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Jesus’ parables often have a “bite” to them; but the story of the laborers in the vineyard is particularly challenging. Life, after all, is supposed to be fair; but God, Jesus tells us, isn’t — at least by our standards.
This parable has been variously used and misused over the centuries. Some have seen in it an endorsement of laissez-faire capitalism (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”), others of socialism (wealth distributed equally among the workers). But Jesus’ focus is on God’s economy, not ours; on God’s generosity, not our limited understanding of fairness. The early birds, after all, had worked all day, the latecomers but one hour. We can sympathize with the early birds’ complaint that they had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat,” that the landowner was manifestly unfair. By all rights, those workers should have received a higher wage. But the landowner rebukes them, and by implication rebukes us: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
God, Jesus says, welcomes into his kingdom early birds and latecomers; new converts and life-long disciples; Constantine baptized on his deathbed and Timothy who “from childhood . . . [had] known the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15). Our God is so eager to draw us into the kingdom that he sets aside our notions of fairness and will stop at nothing, absolutely nothing, to open his heart to us. The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard reveals a God who overturns our accepted wisdom and sets aside our expectations, and in so doing draws us wondrously to himself.
The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II was bishop of Northern Indiana for 16 years after serving parishes in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Joaquin. He is the author of three books; most recently: The Heart of a Leader: St. Paul as Mentor, Model, and Encourager (2020).
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Today we pray for:
Church in the Province of the West Indies
The Most Rev. Howard Gregory, Primate and Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands
Church of the Good Shepherd, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee