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March 5, 2023 (2nd Sunday in Lent)
“You don’t deserve that!”
There are still these day laborers around, you know; in big cities there are even temp agencies that spring up where someone can go to get a single day’s work, and early in the morning there are people stacked up in front of them waiting for something to do to earn some money for the day. These jobs generally don’t pay a whole lot, maybe minimum wage.
Before we go any further, it might be helpful to put the units of money into dollars, so we have a better understanding of what’s going on in this parable.
So let’s imagine that this landowner, being a bit more generous than usual, offers the day laborers he hires at 6 a.m., for a twelve-hour day, a bit over minimum wage. Thirteen dollars an hour, and the workers agree, and go to work. They can expect, at the end of the day, after their withholding is taken out (because it’s always taken out), maybe around $120. (That number is a wild guess, because I honestly have no idea what the formula would be to figure out how much to withhold.)
If a worker could get that much every single day, all year around, and was only supporting himself, no family, no kids, he might be able to get by with a roof over his head—maybe renting a room in a large house or living with some roommates who all have their own jobs—and something to eat every day. He probably wouldn’t have a whole lot of room for luxuries, but he could get by. But that’s a big “if,” of course, because the chances of his being able to work twelve hours a day, six days a week, all year round, are not 100%—not to mention the reality that not all the employers would have been as generous as this one.
So we have a group of workers who are picked up and taken out to the big vineyard at the edge of town, at the break of dawn. They get to work, but a couple hours in the foreman alerts the landowner that they’re probably going to need more help; so they call Labor Ready and ask for some more workers. They go pick them up and send them to work. These guys are only going to work nine hours instead of twelve, and so they can figure on about ninety dollars, give or take.
Then about noon it happens again. The workers who come in at this point will work half a day, and they can expect half as much pay as the ones who started at 6 in the morning, so maybe $60.
At 3 p.m., the ramrod sends for still more help. These guys will get around thirty bucks—better than a kick in the head, but nowhere near as good as a full day’s pay, of course.
But of course, not all the people trying to get work as day laborers are going to be single men who have few expenses, especially not in the time Jesus’ story takes place. There will be young men, old men, single men, men with spouses and kids they’re trying to support (in a time and place where their wives would not have been able to hold jobs of their own).
Even the $120 for a full day’s work isn’t going to go very far for a man with a family.
At this point we might start to wonder if this story is happening in the real world, because at 5:00, an hour before quitting time, the landowner happens to drive by Labor Ready, and he sees a few guys milling around there, still waiting to be hired. He picks them up and takes them back to the vineyard, sets them to work. They’ll get paid enough to have a small supper, but that’s about it—and they’re grateful even for that.
Then it comes time for all the workers to receive their pay, and the landowner asks the ramrod to line them up with the ones who started at 5 getting paid first, then the ones who started at 3, and so on.
If you didn’t already realize this story isn’t about the real world, you will as soon as the first man who only worked an hour opens his pay envelope and counts out his wages. Twenty…forty…sixty… “Hey! There’s $120 here!”
The news spreads like wildfire down the line: “The guys who only worked an hour are getting $120!” And everybody starts doing math in their heads to see how much they’ll get at that hourly rate.
“Hmm…$120 an hour! I worked six hours, so that’s…wow…$720!”
The ones who worked twelve hours begin thinking and dreaming about what they could do with an unexpected $1,440 paycheck. “We’ll go out and paint the town red tonight! I’ll pick up some candy for the kids and a bouquet of roses for the wife; then she and I can hire a babysitter and go out for a steak dinner. And even after that, we might actually be able to cover all our bills this month, instead of having to make decisions about which ones we can safely put off.”
Maybe the single guys dream of a new, bigger television, or start calculating how many games they might be able to get for their gaming console, or try to gather up the courage to ask that cute barista on a date.
But the dreaming comes screeching to a halt when the clerk moves on to the people hired at 3:00.
They begin to open their envelopes and count out their pay. “Hmm…$120. That’s okay; still way better than I was expecting.” But again the news spreads down the line, and the all-day workers’ brows furrow a bit as they wonder what this is going to mean for them.
By the time they work their way up to the window, it has become apparent, much to their disappointment, that they’re going to be paid only the amount for which they had agreed to work, $120. All day long they were satisfied with that, pleased that they would earn enough to keep the roof over their head and their family’s bellies filled for another day. But after seeing even the people who worked only one hour get $120, just like they got—it just isn’t fair! Those people don’t deserve that!
And they go and complain to the landowner and to the ramrod. “Why would you give them the same pay we got?!”
So Jesus tells us this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Rather than being a straight allegory—very few of Jesus’ parables are straight allegories, to be honest, even though the church has liked to interpret them that way at various times in history—this is more along the lines of parables where Jesus says, “If it could be like this with human beings, how much more so with God?” We can maybe imagine a wealthy, if slightly eccentric, vineyard owner deciding to do something like this; and we can imagine how offended we’d be if we had worked a full day and then a bunch of people who only worked an hour got paid the same as we got paid. The question is, how is this like the kingdom of heaven?
The workers who worked twelve hours believed they earned their pay, and I would imagine we’d all agree they did. And so they were offended to see people who did not earn it receiving the same wages as they did.
But look at it from the perspective of the ones who only worked an hour. They went in knowing they’d probably only get a few dollars, maybe enough to eat supper on, if they were careful, but nothing more. And then to open their pay envelopes and find a full day’s wages—imagine how grateful they’d be! For them, the landowner’s generosity is good news!
It’s a gift; they didn’t earn it, and they know it. They also know how desperate things were looking as they sat on the bench at Labor Ready watching the clock, knowing their prospects for working that day grew dimmer with every hour that went by. Even the chance to earn a few dollars at the end of the day was itself an amazing gift, these workers knew.
And in that the one-hour workers knew something that was actually true for all the laborers sent into the vineyard that day.
Think about it this way: If the landowner hadn’t gone to the marketplace at daybreak, and then several times over the course of the day, none of the laborers lined up at that pay window at quitting time may have gotten anything. In other words, in a way, everybody who received pay was dependent on the generosity of the landowner—every one of them received a gift.
The ones who worked a full day had the gift of a job for the day, and a full day’s pay at the end. The ones who sat and waited most of the day, and then finally got hired at the eleventh hour, also got the gift of a full day’s pay.
And the first ones were offended. “You have made them equal to us!” they complain.
What they failed to recognize was that they were all equal at the very beginning of the day. Every one of the workers who went into that vineyard, no matter what time they started, began the day with the same needs: they needed work, and they needed wages. And every one of the workers ended the day with their needs met.
They all worked—some longer than others, granted—and they all received a day’s pay. Everyone’s needs were met; so why were some of them offended?
“They didn’t deserve the same pay as we got!” And there it is.
The kingdom of heaven is like this. God chooses to give everyone the same gifts: the opportunity to serve, and a sufficient supply of grace. Before God we are all equal, all dependent on God’s grace for everything.
Without the landowner’s call, none of those workers would have been lined up to get paid. Without God’s grace not one of us would be admitted into God’s kingdom.
Whether we’ve been following Christ and seeking to do God’s will for our whole lives, or have made that choice at the last minute, God’s grace is still sufficient, still a gift, still amazing.