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Matthew 20:1-16

September 15, 2014

Whenever I read this parable to a group of teenagers, they react angrily to its injustice.  Good!  That means the parable is still able to shock as it is supposed to.  Let’s be honest:  If this were a real-life scenario, and we were the workers hired at the beginning of the day, we too would be quite upset that we did not get paid more than those who worked for only one hour.  The parable is a blatant example of injustice–especially for those of us brought up with the assumptions of a competitive economic system (capitalism) in which more production is supposed to result in more pay.

But is the landowner actually being unjust?  Two factors undermine the charge of injustice:  First, those who worked all day get paid exactly what they had agreed to be paid.  The landowner has not swindled them or deceived them.  They were paid what they were promised.  Second, those who were hired later in the day are not at fault for working only a few hours.  They were not lazy.  Rather, they were not hired early in the morning (presumably) because they did not look as strong and healthy.  The landowner naturally would have hired the most productive-looking people first.  Only later, when he realized he didn’t have enough hired help to get the work done, did he hire the older, sicker, perhaps crippled workers whom no one had wanted to hire.  The landowner decides to pay everyone the same amount–a normal full day’s pay–because everyone needs that much money to survive, and because it is not the fault of the one-hour workers that no one wanted to hire them earlier.

So Jesus’ parable is suggesting a new kind of justice:  kingdom of heaven justice.  Instead of justice meaning that you get as much reward as the hours you worked, you get as much reward as your value in God’s eyes and what you need.  Everyone receives the same because everyone is of equal value to God, and everyone has the same need.

The landowner, I believe, is meant to be a metaphor for God.  Not all commentators think this is correct.  Some think the landowner is an example of social injustice in Jesus’ day, which Jesus is criticizing; but I think these commentators are missing the point.  The landowner somewhat represents God, but not exactly.  The gist of the parable I think gets boiled down in one line by the landowner:  “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  This often gets translated as, “Are you envious because I am generous.”  But the landowner is not actually being generous.  A denarius was minimum wage.  I think the point is:  Are we going to respond to God’s equal goodness/grace by being resentfully envious toward those who are “less deserving” yet receiving the same grace?

The parable ends with the line, “So the last will be first and the first will be last.”  This is not actually the point of the parable; the parable does not contain a reversal of fortunes.  Rather, this line indicates that the parable will surprise us.

This same line is used just before this parable, at the end of the previous discussion (19:30), and the parable begins with the word “for.”  So this parable is supposed to be understood in light of the previous discussion.  What is the previous discussion?  It is about Jesus calling on a rich man to give all his riches to the poor and follow him, and then Peter asking Jesus, “What then will we have” since we have left everything to follow you?  In light of this previous discussion, Matthew is suggesting with this parable that those who give up everything to follow Jesus will receive abundant reward–but also equal reward.  It does not matter whether you became a disciple early or late.  It does not matter if your ancestors were Jews who have followed the law for centuries, or if you’re a Gentile who has no background in following the laws of God.  God loves all people the same and gives the same grace and reward to all who respond to God’s invitation.

I have often heard people say something like, “For doing that good deed, God will put an extra star in your crown in heaven.”  Although no one takes this literally, it does reflect an assumption that God rewards us according to the level of our righteous productivity.  But this is simply not how God operates.  Not only does God give the same grace to the evil and the good in this world (Matthew 5:45), but God will give the same grace to all those who enter God’s kingdom (the perfect world that is coming and breaking into this world).

At the heart of the gospel is a proposition that it is always difficult for us to accept:  in God’s eyes, we all have the same value; and God loves us all equally.  Human equality is an idea that has continued to unfold over the centuries, and it has always been resisted.  An American civil war was fought over its assumptions and implications.  Today we are still wrestling with the implications of equality; and I’m sure we will be discovering new implications in the decades and centuries ahead.

Blame Jesus.  He started it all.

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