17 Pentecost, Proper 20 – September 24, 2023
Matthew 20:1-16

         Be honest. When you heard our gospel reading just now, did your heart leap for joy? Were you excited when you heard that the workers who’d toiled and slaved all day long in the hot sun were going to get the same day’s wages as those who’d worked only one hour? Probably not, huh?

This is not a favorite parable. It goes against one of our most cherished values, that of just reward for hard work. The more you work and the more productive you are, the more you ought to get paid. I don’t know many who would disagree with that. And this is the complaint of those who worked all day: “You have made them equal to us.”

The parable provokes one of the most primitive cries of childhood, when one sibling gets a better shake than another, the one who feels cheated screams: “But that’s not fair!” And so it goes: Some seem to get more than they deserve while others get less. It’s just not right. It’s just not fair.

So what is this parable trying to tell us? What is the lesson here?

Listen to the parable once more: A landowner hired workers early in the morning and promised to pay them what amounted to minimum wage – one denarius. This was considered the basic subsistence for a man to feed his family for one day. The landowner then went back at nine o’clock, at noon, at three o’clock and at five o’clock and hired more workers. He told them simply that he’d pay them what was right. So far, so good. In our minds, we’ve already got it figured out – they’re going to get a pro rata share of one denarius. According to our standards, that would be fair.

At the end of the day the landowner had all the workers line up starting with those who came at five o’clock. Lo and behold, he paid them a denarius, a full day’s wage.  Still, no problem. If he paid one denarius for one hour’s work, then he must be going to pay one denarius per hour. That’d be generous, but fair. This is where the parable takes an unexpected turn, for as the workers filed by to receive their wages, he paid them all the same – one denarius each, no matter how long they worked.
“Hey, that’s not fair!” they complained. The landowner was not playing by their rules. Never mind that they got precisely what they were promised; the fact that the others got the same was a pill too big to swallow. The landowner replied, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous? Take your pay and go home.”

In case we’re tempted to relegate the economics of this story to first century Palestine, let’s consider its implications again.  Why did some laborers end up unemployed until 5pm?  The parable is actually very clear: because no one would hire them. Perhaps they weren’t as literate, educated, or skilled as their competition.  Perhaps they had children to care for at home.  Maybe they had transportation difficulties.  Maybe they were disabled, or didn’t have green cards, or suffered discrimination.  Whatever the case may be, the landowner doesn’t ask these laborers to defend themselves.  He just makes sure that every worker ends the day with the dignity and security of a living wage — the capacity to go home that night and feed the family.

In the parable, God’s justice is that everyone got to work, and everyone was given the essential earnings to feed the family. The inequity of their varying hours of work was offset by the inequity of their varying strengths and abilities. And this is God’s justice, not that we get what we deserve, but that we get what we need.

The problem with the workers who complained the loudest is that they failed to recognize their relationship to each other. Or, to put it another way, the offense of God’s justice is softened when the “all day” workers and the “eleventh hour” workers stop seeing each other as “us and them” and start seeing each other as “we”.

There’s a play by Timothy Thompson based on this parable in which he depicts two brothers vying for work. John is strong and capable; Philip is just as willing but has lost a hand in an accident. When the landowner comes, John is taken in the first wave of workers, and as he labors in the field, he looks up the lane for some sign of Philip. Other workers are brought to the field, but Philip is not among them. John is grateful to have the work, but feels empty knowing that Philip is just as needful as he. Finally, the last group of workers arrive, and Philip is among them. John is relieved to know that Philip will get to work at least one hour. But, as the drama unfolds, and those who came last get paid a full days’ wages, John rejoices, knowing that Philip – his brother – will have the money necessary to feed his family. When it comes his turn to stand before the landowner and receive his pay, instead of complaining as the others, John throws out his hand and says with tears in his eyes, “Thank you, my lord, for what you’ve done for us today!”

God’s justice arises out of a sense of community in which we see the “eleventh hour” workers as our brothers and sisters whose needs are every bit as important as our own. Next time we get bent out of shape when someone else gets more than he/she deserves, ask yourself, “What does this say about my relationship to this person? Would I feel the same if this were my brother or sister or father or mother?”

Perhaps when it’s all said and done, we’ll always feel a little squeamish about the inequities of life – the unfairness of it all – and perhaps we’ll continue to harbor a little resentment toward those who seem to get a free ride. Let’s just say it’s because we’re human, not God. Even so, let’s trust God to be just in spite of our humanness, so that when the day comes when we’re caught short, as one day it surely will, there will be grace for us as well.

The story is told of a man who died and went to heaven. St. Peter met him at the pearly gates and asked to examine his qualifications. “We have a point system,” St. Peter said, “and only those with enough points are allowed to enter.” “Points?” the man asked, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” St. Peter explained, “It’s simple. We determine how many points you have by the life you’ve led. We require a hundred points to get in. Tell me about your life, and I’ll add up your points.”

The man thought for a moment and said, “Well, let’s see. I was a faithful member of my church for over forty-seven years. I served as a deacon and an elder, and I taught Sunday School.” St. Peter said, “Very good. You get one point.” The man said to himself, “Oh, my!…Well, let’s see, I was a good husband and a good father. I gave a tithe to the church, and I contributed to all sorts of charities. I helped with various civic projects, and I served on several committees. Does that count for anything?” “St. Peter said, “Indeed it does. You get another point.”

The man’s face sank, and he said, “I can see now, I’ll never make it. The only way I’d ever get into this place is by the grace of God.”

St. Peter smiled and said, “And that, my friend, is worth ninety-eight points. Welcome!” Amen.