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Bible for Thinkers

Liberals love the Bible, too. We just look at it differently. This is a place to discuss the Bible where you don't have to check your brain at the door. There are many ways to see it, and many ways to have it come to life.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Laborers in the Vineyard

Matthew 20:1-16 has Jesus telling his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven. For a lot of people this passage is upsetting for the same reasons that the workers in the parable are upset--it doesn't seem fair. The owner of a vineyard has a lot of work to do. So, early in the morning he makes for the local temp agency and hires some workers. It's not enough, so he goes back again to get more people in the middle of the day. It's still not enough, so he goes back again very late in the day and gets still more.

None of that causes anyone any problems. But, as usual, it's money that causes the trouble. The vineyard owner pays everyone the same. Of course he told everyone up front what they would make, and they agreed to it, but when they see what they are getting relative to everybody else, the ones who worked all day are miffed that those who worked just an hour or two were paid just as much. Further, it seems that the vineyard owner was inviting trouble, since he gave out the pay starting with the last workers. It seems he wanted everyone to see what he was doing.

This particular parable comes right after the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Jesus ends the discussion about that man, who values money more than the Kingdom, with the statement, "But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first (Matt. 19:30). This parable ends with the exact same thought in 20:16. We can assume, therefore, that they are related.

In both stories, money causes the issue. In the first, the Rich Young Ruler cannot give up his possessions in order to follow Jesus. In the second, we see that it isn't only the rich that have money issues. Here, day laborers are also all caught up in who is making what. They agree to a certain wage, but are no longer content with it when they start comparing their income to others.

The vineyard owner makes two points to the disgruntled workers: 1. "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? and 2. "Or are you envious because I am generous?" (Matt. 20:15) Both are excellent points. In the first, our discomfort with this parable shows that we don't really believe the money belongs to the owner of the vineyard. Our mindset says that when we work, we are entitled to a wage and that we are entitled to make more than those who work less. We consider the wage ours once the work is done.

That might be very good business sense, but it is not the sense of the Kingdom of God. When we look at labor through God's eyes, we understand that everything is a gift. Even if the pay had been distributed according to the amount of work each had done, every worker would still own exactly the same Everything belongs to God, and God simply allocates resources as necessary for the work of God's kingdom. The common wage for all reflects the spiritual reality that none of them owns anything anyway.

It also reflects the spirit of the Kingdom which values the work above any reward. If the workers are only in the vineyard to make a buck, then it seems unfair. But what if they actually loved the work? Suppose they enjoyed harvesting grapes, pruning vines, helping living things to grow? If they loved the work, then it doesn't matter what the reward is...the work is its own reward, and those who have had the opportunity to do it all day are happier than those who only got to do it for an hour or two.

It begs the question of why we do God's work. Are those of us who were born into a faithful home and have tried to do God's will all of our lives just in it for the fire insurance? For the heavenly mansions and gold streets? Are we going to be upset because we had to do a lifetime of Christian charity when someone else lived a debauched life and snuck in with a deathbed conversion? If so, that doesn't say much about the condition of our hearts.

And that is what the vineyard owner is getting at with his second point: are you upset that I am generous? Most of us are upset with the thought of a generous God. We want God to be generous with us and stingy with everybody else. Hold him accountable, please, but I would like mercy. Again, it is not a pretty picture of the heart.

This parable makes us take a long, hard look at ourselves and why we are really interested in the Kingdom of Heaven in the first place. When God comes by and calls us to work in the Kingdom, are we thinking, "Great! All the benefits of heaven will soon be mine."? Or are we thinking, "I can't believe this amazing gift! I get to work for God's kingdom."? If we think the former way, this parable seems to be telling us that even in heaven we won't be happy. We'll just sit around being mad that God is giving mercy to someone we think doesn't deserve it.