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.’ 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.’
The parable of the workers in the vineyard is a hard story to swallow. I once knew a man who absolutely hated this parable. He had been a life-long member of a little Methodist church, attending church every week and volunteering regularly. The thought that some Johnny-come-lately who had rarely darkened the door of the church would receive the same reward as someone who was a church stalwart, just didn’t seem fair. This parable seems to reward laziness and downplay the value of hard work.
However, before we dismiss it out of hand, perhaps we should dig a little deeper.
The Plight of the 1-Hour Workers
In Jesus’ time, day laborers earned only enough money to feed themselves and their families for one day. Every day the laborers gathered in the village square around 5:30 a.m. and waited to be hired. If you missed a day, your family went hungry.
So were the men who only worked one hour slackers? Not at all. They didn’t show up at the end of the day looking for a handout. Like everyone else they had been there since 5:30 a.m. When all the landlords came into town looking for labor, they didn’t get chosen. But they didn’t go home; they waited the whole day. However, each time the land lord hired another group of men, their spirits sank a little lower.
Now if I had been there at 3:00 p.m., I might have been tempted to hang it up and go home. But they wanted to bring something—anything—home. If they couldn’t buy the 6 loaves and vegetables that they usually fed their family, they would settle for one loaf and a little olive oil. And so they continued to wait.
When the landlord showed up at 5:00 p.m. they weren’t exactly jubilant, because with one of hour of work they weren’t really going to be able to provide for their family. Nevertheless, they went to work and gave it their all, perhaps hoping to impress the boss so they he would hire them tomorrow, first thing.
These last minute laborers weren’t slackers; they had a great work ethic. They hung in there even when it looked hopeless. The only thing they lacked was an opportunity, and when that opportunity presented itself, they made the most of it .
Perhaps instead of calling them slackers, we should cut them some slack and show them some sympathy.
The Plight of the 12-Hour Workers
However, we can also be sympathetic with the 12-hour workers. The way they were treated was unfair. If we dig a little deeper we will discover the land-lord is not exactly as generous and benevolent as he would like us to believe.
To begin with the landlord has ulterior motives for paying the last hired first. Truthfully he’s in it for his own reputation. Jesus once said in the Sermon on the Mount.
Whenever you do a good deed, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others (Matthew 6:2)
By paying the last first, the landlord is sounding his own trumpet. He could have quietly paid these workers after everyone else had received their wages, but no, he wanted to create a big scene that would showcase his “generosity” throughout the surrounding countryside.
Second, the land lord is not really generous and compassionate. If he were, he could have found a way to bless all of his workers. He could have given them some kind of bonus—a couple of bottles of wine or a cluster of figs—to thank them for their hard work.
Third, the landlord is deliberately showing off his power and the laborers’ impotence. He deliberately provoked them to show that he had the upper hand. And when they protest, he rubs their nose in it. He says, “Hey, I paid you what the contract called for. Besides it’s MY money and I can do with it what I want. Friend, I’ve done you no wrong.” Now whenever the boss sidles up beside you, puts his arm around your shoulder and calls you, “Friend,” you can be absolutely certain that he isn’t your friend.
Professor Saunders of Columbia Theological Seminary says, “we should hear the word ‘friend’ pronounced with a sneer.” It’s the sneer of someone who knows he holds all the power and the protestor can’t do anything about it.” He can’t quit and he can’t punch the land lord in the nose. He needs the job to feed his family.
Saunders concludes by saying, “The landowner’s apparent graciousness and justice are, in fact, viciousness in disguise—a pretty package with a bomb in it. He has been ‘generous,’ but only with some and in a way that means to incite envy.” He pits one group of poor people against another in order to remind everyone that he can do whatever he wants.
Parables as Magnifying Glasses and Mirrors
By now you’re probably thinking, this is nasty parable! And you’re right. Why would Jesus tell such an awful story?
Let’s be clear on one thing, Jesus did not tell this parable to show us what God is like. God is not like the land lord who is essentially a petty tyrant who enjoys toying with his workers’ feelings. The land lord does not represent God.
Nor did Jesus tell us this story to make us feel good. Jesus deliberately told this story to make us uncomfortable. So if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable right now, the story is doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s designed to make you upset so that you can recognize something in your own life.
Some of Jesus’ parables are magnifying glasses that help us to understand God better, and some of them are mirrors that help us to understand ourselves better. This parable is a mirror story. It invites us to look into our own hearts and see things that we would rather ignore. We identify not with the one-hour laborers, but the 12-hour laborers. Their cry of “It’s unfair!” is our cry. Through this parable we come face to face with two deadly sins: entitlement and envy.
Entitlement and Envy
Entitlement is the sin that says God owes me something. Envy is the sin that says God is treating someone else better than me.
In chapter 19 right before Jesus tells this parable, Peter has been toying with the idea that God owes him something. Jesus had a conversation with a rich young ruler about how to gain eternal life. Jesus final word to him was that he needed to sell everything, give it to the poor and come follow Jesus. That was too much for the rich man and he left discouraged. Right afterwards, Peter says, “Hey, Jesus, look. We’ve left everything behind! What’s going to be our reward?”
That question, “what’s going to be our reward?” is the sin of entitlement. It’s thinking that we’re doing God a big favor and that God should reward us. The truth is we can’t do God a favor; he did us a favor (or should I say grace) by saving us. We can’t put God into our debt, and if we try to, we are bound to be disappointed.
Entitlement always leads to envy. If we think that God owes us something, then we will always be comparing ourselves to someone else to make sure that we didn’t get shortchanged. We will be unable to rejoice when something good happens to someone else. Instead, we will say to ourselves, “Where’s mine? Why didn’t I get the same thing?”
In our parable, the 12-hour laborer’s had a just complaint against the land owner, but they let that complaint turn into envy. They didn’t think about the families of the men who worked for only one hour. They didn’t sympathize with those men who had fretted all day about how they would feed their families. They would have been quite happy if the land lord had paid them a full day wages and only paid the last workers a few pennies. Then everything would have been “fair” even if their friends’ children went hungry that night.
Jesus told this parable to Peter because Peter was starting to walk down the path of entitlement. He wanted Peter, and the rest of us, to identify with the 12-hour laborers so that we could see that even if we have a “just” grievance, it inevitably leads to envy and discontent. There is no place for envy in the kingdom of God. The Apostle Paul tells us that we are to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We are to weep when people are not fed and rejoice when God provides for them. We are to rejoice when someone enters the kingdom at the last minute and finds grace at the hands of the Lord.
At the very end of the story, the landlord (even though he is a piece of work) utters a profound truth. He says to his laborers, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Literally this passage says, “Is your eye evil, because I am good?”
Do you see red when God does something good for someone else? Are you so focused on yourself, that you have to see everything in terms of whether it is fair to you? May God deliver us from an envious eye so that we can rejoice in God’s goodness to all people.
Adapted from a sermon preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton, Clifton NJ
© March 17, 2019 by Rev. Michael A. Weber. For permission to reprint please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org