Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16
There is no question that God cares about economic justice.
The Bible consistently witnesses to God’s concern for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, the resident alien. Scripture also has some pretty harsh words for those who trample the poor and vulnerable for their own gain.
There is no question that God cares about justice. Yet in this parable Jesus tells about the workers in the vineyard, we learn that God does not operate according to our standards of fairness. This parable contradicts so many of our assumptions about the world. In most areas of our lives, we are taught that we get what we deserve. If we follow the rules and work hard, we should get ahead. We should get the good grade, the promotion, or the raise. We should receive recognition for our years of loyal service. Those who are idle or lazy should not expect to receive the same rewards.
We can understand, then, the grumbling of the workers in the parable, the last in line to receive their wages, those who have worked a 12-hour day in the scorching sun. We understand their offense when they find that those who worked only one hour at the end of the day have been paid the same daily wage as they themselves receive. Something deep within us shouts: It’s not fair!
In the ancient world, day laborers would show up in the market place each morning hoping to be hired, hoping to exchange their time and energy for a denarius, a small silver coin that was the minimum daily income required to keep a small family fed and housed and clothed.
Employers needing workers would typically go to the market place early in the morning, around 6 am, to hire laborers for the day. But what is remarkable about the employer in this parable is that he keeps going back to the market place throughout the day — at 9 am, at noon, at 3 pm, and even at 5 pm — and when he sees others standing idle, he offers them work as well. Perhaps he has an especially large harvest of grapes to bring in. Or perhaps he simply cannot bear to see workers standing idle, knowing that they have families to feed.
At quitting time, around six in the evening, the owner tells his manager to pay the workers in the reverse order of their seniority, “beginning with the last and then going to the first.” The workers at the end of the line, those who have worked all day, are stunned to find out that they are paid exactly the same wage as all the others — one denarius.
Hearing the workers grumbling, the vineyard owner says to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:13-15).
The vineyard owner blows apart our mentality of “deserving.” It is not about what we deserve, or think we deserve, based on what we do or do not put in. The emphasis of the parable is on the generosity of the vineyard owner who pays all laborers what they need to provide for their families, no matter how many hours they have worked.
This is a parable about the kingdom of God. And God, it turns out, is not fair. God does not play by our rules. God does not give us what we deserve. And thank God for that! For if each of us got exactly what we deserved, where would we be? In fact, God lavishes grace and mercy on all of us, no matter how late we have come to the vineyard.
In the parable, each of the workers is dependent upon the landowner, for each of them rolled out of bed that morning unemployed. They owed everything to the vineyard owner who sought them out and gave them work, who gave them a livelihood and a purpose.
Likewise each of us receives our life and purpose and all that sustains it as a gift from God, not as something earned. How easily we forget that, and begin to think that somehow we deserve all that we have. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (Matthew 4:7). When we forget that all we have is a gift, we so easily become resentful of God’s generosity to others.
Certainly God cares about fairness in our human economy and market places. God calls us to work for justice, so that all can receive a livable wage and daily bread, so that all can have a roof over their heads. At the same time, God’s economy, the economy of the kingdom, goes way beyond fairness. There is nothing to be earned in God’s economy. There is only God’s generosity freely spent — on us.
Just as we receive our physical life and all that sustains it as a gift from God, so too our spiritual life. The parable of the vineyard workers is followed by Jesus telling his disciples a third time what lies ahead in Jerusalem (Matthew 20:17-19) — how he will be mocked and flogged and crucified, and on the third day be raised. There is no fairness or justice here. Certainly Jesus did not deserve this cruel suffering and death. But the Son of Man came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28), so that the abundance of God’s mercy would be poured out on us.