West Point Grey United Church
Sep 24, 2023

Daily wages for the labourers; what’s fair?

Matthew 20:1-16

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.