My favorite part of the New Testament is Jesus’ telling parables. I believe this could be true for you as well. Because much of the time, the parables provide us characters and stories that we love. For example, the parable of good Samaritan is loved by people. The good Samaritan challenges us for sure, but it also leaves us with a nice warm feeling. However, no one says today’s parable about the workers in the vineyard is their favourite. It does not leave us with a nice warm feeling at. No character really wins our hearts, and there is no sense of justice or fairness in what the workers were paid.
Let’s go to the context first that will help us to understand today’s parable. At the end of Matthew Chapter 19, Peter said to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will be for us?” (Matthew 19:27). Peter suggested that perhaps the disciples should get more because they are the first group of people to follow Jesus. And then Jesus told Peter and the rest of the disciples this parable, which is a warning to them that the first will be the last and the last will be the first. This parable about the kingdom of heaven really messes Peter up, and messes us up. Because in our society we appreciate a strong work ethic. Just look at how our political candidates present themselves these days; discussions over medical insurance, minimum wages, and economic stimulus are all about what is fair.
So, what does Jesus want to tell us in this parable?
Now before we go to the scripture, we look at the historical background of Jesus’ time. I believe that most mandarin-speaking people should be familiar with the Chinese word “⻨客”, which describes a casual labourer who helps the landowner with harvesting wheat in the areas of northern China. These people are very poor; they have no land, and they have to sell their physical strength to feed their families. During the harvest season, they stand in the marketplace to wait for the landowner to hire them. It is very similar to what we heard from today’s parable that the landowner went to that marketplace not to buy anything but to hire seasonal workers to harvest grapes. These workers were unemployed men and seasonal workers looking to be hired for the day. Although the seasonal farm workers in Jesus’ time were not slaves, their living conditions were even more miserable than those of slaves because seasonal workers had no job security.
The story goes like this: Early in the morning, a landowner hires people to work in his vineyard for the standard daily wage. He hires additional people at 9:am, at 3pm, and even 5pm. Those hired last have only around an hour’s work ahead of them when the sun sets. The landowner does not mention any sum of money to the first, second and third groups but indicates only “I will pay you whatever is right.” (Matthew 20:4), which is the promise paid by the landowner. He does the same with those who are hired at the latest hour, too. This last group can hardly expect money – only an hour minimum wage.
Let me ask you a question: “What kind of people are the last to find a job in the marketplace?” Nothing suggests that those labourers in the parable are lazy. Most likely, they are unwanted. In Jesus’ time, these workers would be the weak and disabled. Maybe the elderly, too.
When the sun sets, the landowner first pays the full standard daily wages to those who work only one hour. The parable does not tell us how the one-hour workers respond. Maybe when they went back home to tell their families how great the landowner was. However, the full-day workers who are the last came to the front of the line and received the same amount as the one hour workers, precisely what they were promised. The full-day workers are resentful and grumble, “It is not fair!” Like the workers who were hired and had worked from early in the morning, we too might say that the employer is not being fair; the landowner should pay each group according to how long they have worked.
Most of us will ask questions,” Why did the landowner create a problem? Why the landowner not pay equal for equal work in order to make all the workers satisfied? We would say that the actions of the landowner are all kinds of crazy. It makes no sense, at least from an economic perspective. Yet, the point of Jesus’ parable “I will pay you whatever is right.” Which means “I will pay you whatever is just.”
This story is not about equal work and equal pay. This story is about generosity. This parable is about grace. In the kingdom of Heaven, God’s gracious decision is to include us into his kingdom that does not operate on principles of merit. Grace cannot be calculated or estimated, and it definitely does not work when we try to compare ourselves with others. It does not work if we start to think we or anyone else is worthy of it, that is Peter’s thought. God is moved toward
those who feel undervalued and who have not been chosen. God wants people in his vineyard. This vineyard shows no signs that anyone is more special or treasured than any others. No one is to be privileged over other people.
How can congregations respond? West Point Grey United Church is a faith community, made up of the people who have diverse background. Some of them are lifelong Christians, some of them have just been baptized. The elders with gifts of experience and helpful wisdom, new energy brought by young people, whether they have been in church since childhood or whether they have just been in the community for a little while, are all welcome and valued. We are all beloved children of God. We have learned to accept all people as they are, rejoicing in their differences; this is the way we build community based on God’s grace. Thanks be to God for this gift of wisdom about building just relationship in our community. Amen.