I was recently reading the parable of the landowner and the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16). This is the story in which a landowner hires workers in the early morning, then more at midday, then again more at midafternoon, and finally a group near the end of the day. The punch line is that he pays them then in reverse order, but each gets a full day’s wage. At first, those hired at daybreak assume that the landowner is going to pay them more than they agreed because of his decision to pay those who worked only an hour or two a full day’s wage. Instead, he pays everyone equally.
It’s a story of generosity. Those hired first did not feel they had been the beneficiaries of the landowner’s generosity. Those hired last certainly did.
This has traditionally been interpreted in my Evangelical heritage in terms of those who have walked with God all their lives receiving the same salvation benefits as those who decide to come to God at the last minute of their lives (sort of a “thief on the cross” faith). There may be truth to either of these ideas. But it can’t have meant quite that when Jesus told the story. There it may have referred to Jews who were already beneficiaries of the covenant (and had been for centuries), which Gentiles would be the Johnny-come-latelies who received the full benefit of the covenant without any history or heritage among God’s people until then.
Here are the words the landowner speaks in response to the complaints of the earliest hires:
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Mt 20:13-16 NIV)
The landowner (who, in the parable, stands for God the Father) responds to their complaint in what feels like contractual language. They had agreed to work the day at a particular wage. At the end of the day, they were paid that wage. Nothing unfair had occurred contractually. The landowner’s decision to be generous with the last hires of the day did not in anyway injure those who got paid just what they had agreed to for a day’s work. I can’t help but feel for these day-long workers. I would have felt much as they did about the landowner’s decision.
I too easily missed the point that I am actually a beneficiary of the remarkable generosity of the Father. I have been the last-minute worker paid far beyond what I have earned. There is no amount of work that I could possibly do to earn the level of grace, kindness, abundance and generosity of the Father towards me over my 35 adult years. I have received so much more than I could ever have earned.
It leads me to think that I need a discipline that refreshes my trust in the Father’s generosity. My instinct is still to assume God is a penny-pinching bean counter rather than as an extravagant Lord. So many “lords” are in such a position because they have been very, very tight with their resources and have, as a result, been able to amass much wealth. My Father in heaven has limitless wealth and does not choose to hoard, but to share with measureless generosity.
So I read the words of the landowner to the early workers again, trying to listen with all of this about the Father’s generosity in mind again. I’m struck by Jesus’ comment that this story is another illustration of what he means by “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” It’s almost as though the Father has a bias for doing things in such a way that will not reward all our great efforts so that we come to the conclusion that we’ve earned his favor. The reason so many of my deepest experiences of grace have come in solitude, silence or outside of seasons of much fruitful work is that these are the moments when I am reminded of just how gratuitous the Father’s grace really is. I need these reminders.
- Where have you recently been tempted to say “Not fair” about a situation in your life?
- How might this story give you opportunity to reconsider your perspective?