Since Americans are celebrating “Labor Day” the first Monday of September– a federal holiday established in 1894 to highlight the economic achievements of American workers– it’s a perfect time to look at Jesus’ parable about the Laborers in the Vineyard. It’s told in both Matt. 20:1-16 and Mark 10:17-31.
This is a head-scratcher if approached in a typical way of what’s a fair wage, given that several groups of workers are hired at different times on the same day. But at the end of the day, the parable explains they’re paid the same wage, including those who arrived quite late and did only a small amount of work compared to those hired first.
I can only imagine what the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ Union would have to say about this!
How easily we identify with those first workers who weren’t paid ‘equitably’. “What’s up with that”, we ask? Perhaps the parable confronts the whole notion of ‘earning’ God’s love vs. simply receiving it. Like the sun that pours its light without bias on every mountain, flower and garden, so the Gospel’s message of God’s enduring, inclusive and ever-present love pours out for everyone — newcomer and latecomer combined.
Perhaps the parable is a lesson about resentment and how to eradicate it from our thought about others. Matt. 20.vs. 9-12 speaks to this. Those early workers didn’t initially begrudge the wages later workers received. They just thought they’d receive more.
When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ (NRSV)
It’s not like the first group of workers were cheated. They were paid according to their negotiated contract. Isn’t that ‘just’?
But the late workers were paid by grace – by the lovely, unexpected showering of God’s generous love (seen through the actions of the landowner).
The early church of Matthew might have thought of the parable in light of Jews and Gentiles, the former being those who arrived ‘early’ and the latter, those who came to the Good News later.
Today the parable might make us ask: “Am I truly happy for those who seem to have quick responses to prayer over their problems when I’ve been praying for resolution to mine for a very long time? Or am I grateful for those who seem to make speedy spiritual progress when I’m in more of a plodding mode, even though I’ve been working at this a lot longer then they have! What’s ‘fair’ about that?”
So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
Is it Jesus’ way of teaching us that there is no bargaining with the ‘Lord’, God? That the ‘rules’ God plays by are love and grace for everyone, regardless. That this Kingdom of heaven at hand has different protocols than human fairness, and that we need to start thinking out from those divine statues.
Once again Jesus teaches that following mere cultural values and practices aren’t enough when it comes to being Christ-like, following Christ Jesus’ example.
Happy Labor Day, all you vineyard workers!