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Begrudging God’s Generosity

5 Pentecost

In virtually every parish you can find at least one parishioner — typically a lifelong, faithful, dedicated, and hardworking church member — who freely admits to finding today’s Gospel deeply scandalous and disturbing. This person openly identifies with and endorses the complaint made by the laborers hired at the beginning of the day, who “grumbled at the householder, and said, ‘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.’”

First reading and psalm: Exod. 16:2-15Ps. 105:1-6, 37-45Phil. 1:21-30Matt. 20:1-16
Alternate: Jonah 3:10-4:11Psalm 145:1-8

Among such parishioners, those of a more introspective bent will recognize and acknowledge the parallel with their own attitudes to other, more recently arrived, church members: “I’ve served this parish all my life without recognition or reward, and here the rector is lavishing attention on these latecomers! It’s not fair!” (As a rule of thumb, parishioners who find today’s Gospel offensive tend also to identify with the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32, and with Martha in Luke 10:38-42.)

The preacher will do well to be aware of and take seriously the existence of such attitudes in the congregation. The first point to make is that Jesus does not tell the parable as an illustration of good labor-relations practices. Nor is he holding up the householder as an exemplar of distributive justice. Rather, the key to understanding the parable comes at the end, when the householder asks, “Do you begrudge my generosity?”

Consider the situation of the laborers offering their services for hire. The householder agrees to pay a denarius to those hired first, at the beginning of the day. By the standards of the time, a denarius is a just wage for a day’s labor. By following through on his agreement to pay this wage to the laborers hired first, the householder has fulfilled the requirements of strict commutative justice, as he emphatically points out: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. ”

But then, at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours (counting from sunrise), the householder sees other laborers in the marketplace. When he asks why they stand idle, they reply that no one has hired them — it is not that they do not want to work. So the householder sends these additional laborers into the vineyard with the vague promise to pay them “whatever is right” at the end of the day.

Here it is easy to overlook two crucial points. First, in a subsistence economy, the laborers in the marketplace and their families will likely have nothing to eat that day if no one hires them. Their ability to work will make the difference between being fed and going hungry. Second, to feed themselves and their families, nothing less than a denarius will do. The day’s wage of a laborer in the Roman Empire was the minimum required for the bare necessities of life.

The laborers standing idle in the marketplace are the victims of systemic injustice. By reason of whatever combination of circumstances, they have been denied their right to earn a living wage for the day. By giving them each a denarius, the householder is compensating them for this injustice. But he does so from motives of mercy and compassion rather than strict justice. He gives them what they need, rather than what he owes them. In the end, then, the parable is about mercy and grace, which supersede justice in the kingdom of God.

Look It Up
Compare the complaints of the laborers hired at the beginning of the day with those of the older son in Luke 15:25-32 and of Martha in Luke 10:38-42. How is the complaint answered in each case?

Think About It
In what ways are we tempted to begrudge God’s generosity to others? How might we best learn to resist such temptations?

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