Reflection: Just deserts or just love?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
20th of September 2020

Matthew 20:1-16

The trouble with being a regular attender at church, hearing the gospels read every Sunday, is that we get used to them. They become familiar and so, unlike Jesus’ first hearers, we are seldom shocked by what he says. That is not the case with today’s parable from the Gospel according to Matthew. No matter how often I hear it, it surprises and worries me. It seems unfair, and I am someone who very much wants the world to be fair.

In today’s Bible reading Jesus tells of a landowner who wanted to hire some workers. He first went out to hire at the break of day and ‘after agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them out into his vineyard’. The landowner then returned to the marketplace four more times as the day wore on: at nine, at noon, at three, and, finally, at five – just an hour before the end of the working day. When the day ended, the landowner lined up the workers and paid them, beginning with the last to be hired, who received for their hour of work an entire day’s pay. The first ones hired also received a full day’s wage – just as they had bargained for and just as they had been promised. But, not surprisingly, the first workers were upset. They argued that it was not fair that the last comers should be paid the same amount as them, who had ‘borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’. It did not seem fair to them, and it does not seem fair to me. The saying that ends the parable, ‘So the last will be first and the first will be last’ doesn’t help, because unless Jesus is referring specifically to the order in which the workers are paid, the first aren’t last and the last aren’t first. Instead, everyone is the same – no matter how long they worked for, everyone receives that same day’s wage. What is going on?

This parable is only told by Matthew, and Bible translations often give it the title of ‘The Labourers in the Vineyard’. Maybe, just as the parable in Gospel according to Luke should really be called ‘The Prodigal Father’ rather than ‘The Prodigal Son,’ this parable should be called the ‘The Good Employer’ or ‘The Merciful Employer’. The parable we know as ‘The Prodigal Son’ is another ‘unfair’ one in which Jesus’ first hearers were more likely to identify with the well-behaved elder brother than the profligate younger one. In the same way, this may be a parable that Jesus was telling those who considered themselves to be the hard-working first-comers; the religiously observant, the scribes and Pharisees, who looked at the sinners and tax-collectors who gathered around Jesus and were welcomed to the kingdom of heaven and said, ‘It’s not fair’. We know that they complained about Jesus eating and drinking with sinners, and Jesus had to remind them that he came to call not the righteous but sinners. (Matthew 9:10-13) This parable might have originally been for them. When Matthew came to write it down, he did so in the context of a community made up of both those who had tended the vineyard from the early morning, Jews who had always kept the Torah and lived virtuous lives, and Gentile Christians, those who without doing any work were suddenly full members of the community, invited to go into the vineyard at the very end of the day. They probably needed to hear it, too.

Twice in the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus quotes from the Prophet Hosea, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’. (Matthew 9:13, 12;7) What we are seeing in this parable is God’s mercy. The landowner is not rewarding some workers more than others. The landowner is giving the first and the last the same. He is giving to everybody according to their needs, not according to their deserts. This is what the first workers complain of, ‘you have made them equal to us’. As the landowner explains to them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?’ This is justice – offering to the first-hired the daily wage that they have earned. But the landowner also shows mercy – offering the last-hired exactly the same daily wage, what they need to live.

As the landowner points out, he has every right to do what he wants with his own. ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ In the Greek, that last phrase is literally, ‘Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ It takes us back to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus taught, ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness’. To look on another with envious eyes is to fill ourselves with darkness. (Matthew 6:22-23) The landowner is telling the first workers the same thing we heard the Apostle Paul tell the Romans last week: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.’ (Romans 14:4) Who are we to do decide what another should receive? That is up to the Lord, who gives everything.

Jesus tells us that this is what the kingdom of God is like. It is a world that is hugely different from ours. It is characterized by the landowner’s generosity and mercy, which parallels that of a father who runs to welcome his lost son, and a king who invites guests from the streets for his wedding banquet. The landowner claims the right to pay his workers based on compassion. In this parable Jesus tells us that God is not working with a rights and rewards scale, and then making exceptions. God is simply acting out of love, because compassion and mercy are at the heart of God’s being. If we persist in thinking of God in terms of rights and responsibilities, or our relationship with God in terms of what we have earned, we miss the point of the gospel. God’s love is offered to all with absolute generosity. As Jesus told the Pharisees, what God wants is mercy, not sacrifice.

One of the aspects of 21st century Christianity that troubles me most is the popularity of the prosperity gospel, the idea that God wants us to be rich. People who hold it see the prosperity of the rich as a sign of God’s favour, and the poverty of the poor as a sign of God’s rejection or punishment. Strangely enough, prosperity theology can be attractive for the world’s poor because it gives them a sense of control. If God is punishing them for their sins, then they simply need to stop sinning and they will no longer be punished. It reassures than that they are not the victim of random forces; their rescue is in their own hands. But here in Australia, of course, the prosperity gospel is more usually held by those who are rich in the world’s goods and want to justify their wealth. Today’s parable shows us that the kingdom of heaven is not a place where the deserving are rewarded and the undeserving punished. It is not a place in which some are wealthy, and some are poor. Instead, the kingdom of heaven is a place where all are made equal and all have enough. There is little that is ‘gospel’ about the prosperity gospel.

We do need to be careful when reading today’s parable not to use it to justify inertia here on earth. One of the commentators I read this week writes that there is the potential for abuse when teaching this parable, using it ‘to uphold an unjust status quo in which oppressed persons are admonished to wait patiently for their reward, while those in power maintain their “first” status’.[1] While I dislike the prosperity gospel, I dislike even more the theology demonstrated in the original words of the hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’:

The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
and ordered their estate.

This parable should not be used to justify unfairness in contemporary labour practices!

But today’s parable does remind us that when our only measure is fairness, when our preoccupation is our just deserts, we can lose touch with God’s grace and graciousness. We forget the God who has extended generosity and forgiveness to us, the landowner who came to hire us when we were simply standing around. Through this parable, Jesus invites those who were called first, the scribes, the Pharisees, to comprehend the world into which they have been welcomed and so to join him in welcoming the last ones – the sick, the poor, the women, the latecomers, the unimportant – instead of comparing and complaining.

In these last months of the liturgical year, as we hear from Jesus’ final teachings in the Gospel according to Matthew, we are approaching a series of parables about the last judgement, in which there will be much ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. Fortunately for us, God is not just the righteous judge, the one who gives us what we deserve. God is, even more, the compassionate friend, the one who offers us love. Why would we want fairness when instead we are blessed with God’s generosity? Today’s parable tells us that God is not primarily fair. God is primarily compassionate. God is love. Thank God for that! Amen.


[1] Kathryn D. Blanchard in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 96.

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