with Tony W. Cartledge
Sept. 21, 2014
A Question of Fairness
Matthew 20:1-16; Matthew 20:15 — “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
I remember it all too well: When I was a boy, my neighbor Herman decided to go into the egg business, and he hired me to help assemble the wire cages that would be mounted inside the long chicken houses he was constructing. Each cage contained eight or ten compartments designed to hold three hens each, with a sloped wire floor that allowed eggs to roll onto a wire shelf while droppings fell to the ground beneath.
I gave no thought at the time to whether the system was humane to the chickens: I just wanted to make some scratch for my fledgling bank account. Building the cages correctly required patience, an attention to detail, and strength enough to hold things in place while using a special pair of pliers to wrap a metal ferrule around adjoining wires.
Herman offered to pay me something like 60 cents per cage, but after I got the hang of it, I could start early, work steadily, and build enough cages to earn seven or eight dollars in a day.
All was fine until my uncle talked Herman into hiring my cousin to do the same job, but he was less industrious, built fewer cages, and consequently made less money. He complained to my uncle, who persuaded Herman to pay both of us a flat five dollars per day, no matter how many cages we built.
When told of this new arrangement, I felt betrayed by my boss and ill-treated by my uncle, who helped his son earn more without working any harder, while robbing me of extra money I could earn by being productive.
So much for motivating your employees!
I remember taking shelter inside a large cardboard box during a thunderstorm toward the end of that day. My dad came to pick me up so I wouldn’t have to walk home in the rain, and he found me so frustrated by the unfairness of it all that my tears competed with the raindrops.
We have strong feelings about fairness, don’t we? It can frustrate us to recognize that women consistently get paid about 20 percent less than men for doing the same work, for example, or to realize that jet-setting CEOs routinely earn from 200 to more than a thousand times the amount of their average employees.
The offense we take at such inequity grows from the greed of employers, whether it was my late neighbor trying to save a few dollars per day, or a contemporary executive who brings home $10 million per year while his minimum-wage employees struggle to pay the rent.
Would we take the same offense if we were to see an apparent inequity based on an employer’s generosity instead of greed?
We would not be the first to wonder.
Men at work(vv. 1-7)
Matthew alone recounts Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard, which could just as well be called the parable of the generous landowner. The story concludes a series of conversations about rewards at the end of things. The first was an encounter between Jesus and a young man who was willing to keep any number of laws to gain eternal life, but was unwilling to part with his possessions (19:16-22). Afterward Jesus remarked how difficult it was for wealthy people to adopt the sacrificial lifestyle of kingdom followers (19:23-26), and responded to the disciples’ questions about what sort of rewards they might receive after following him faithfully (19:27-30).
With the question of finances and fairness in the air, Jesus told his followers a challenging parable that still has the power to make us squirm. The story builds on the preceding verse: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” It then concludes with the same thought, but in reverse order: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (20:16).
The parable seems to address a question Peter had raised about what reward he and the other disciples could expect: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27).
The story continues to trouble the legalist in all of us who thinks people should get only what they deserve. Legalism has always had a hard time understanding grace.
The rabbis taught that a full workday lasted from dawn until the first stars became visible, and Ps. 104:22-23 suggests that same thing. The widely accepted wage for a day laborer in Palestine was one Roman denarius per day, roughly equivalent to the Greek drachma described as payment for a day in Tobit 5:15.
The parable describes a landowner who went out early in the morning – probably about 6 a.m. – and hired laborers to work in his vineyard, contracting to pay the standard daily wage of one denarius (vv. 1-2). He returned to the marketplace about 9 a.m. and found other day laborers who had gathered to seek work. The owner hired additional hands, promising “I will pay you whatever is right” (vv. 3-4). At noon and 3 p.m. the employer returned seeking additional help, presumably making the same offer (“he did the same,” v. 5).
It must have been harvest time, with grapes begging to be picked before they spoiled on the vine, for the desperate landowner returned as late as 5 p.m. to seek more workers. Finding job hunters still available, he asked “Why are you standing here idle all day?” (v. 6). The men insisted that the problem was not laziness on their part, but a lack of opportunity: “Because no one has hired us” (v. 7).
Why had no one hired them? Had they slept late or had other business earlier in the day, or had they been waiting there all day without being chosen? (See “The Hardest Question” online for more.) Whatever the case, the vineyard owner quickly took care of the problem: “You also go into the vineyard.”
Wages, and grace(vv. 8-16)
So far, so good. The only unusual thing about the parable is the apparent urgency shown by a man who is so anxious to get his grapes off the vines and into the winepress that he’s still hiring day labor so near the end of the day.
Jesus’ parables often contained a surprise twist, and the surprise arrived as the day wound down and the landowner instructed his paymaster to distribute the men’s wages. Surprisingly, he told the men to line up in reverse order of when they were hired, with the last hired to be the first ones paid.
Any person would expect those hired last to be paid a smaller, pro-rated amount of the day’s wage: the landowner had promised to pay those hired later in the day “what is right.” When those workers surprisingly received a full denarius, those who had worked a full day naturally expected such a generous employer to pay them more, but they also received the standard scale of one denarius each (vv. 8-9).
Can you imagine the ruckus that erupted from those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”? “They grumbled against the landowner,” Jesus said (vv. 10-12).
You bet they did – and we would have grumbled, too, if we had come to the end of the day weary of bone and stinking with sweat, only to receive the same pay as someone who has sashayed in and worked a single hour. We would think it completely inequitable: note the worker’s complaint that “you have made them equal to us.”
Though the workers cried foul, the landowner insisted that justice had not been violated. The early-bird workers had agreed to the “denarius a day” scale, and that’s what they had been paid (v 13). The employer had treated them with perfect fairness – what they could not accept is that the latecomers had received more than justness: he had treated them with gracious generosity.
The parable, no doubt, would have angered legalists who expected eternal rewards in return for a lifetime of following the law. Jesus’ free acceptance and forgiveness of sinners, no matter what their past or how lately they had turned to God, turned the theology of legalism upside down. That, of course, was the point. Those who receive the kingdom and its rewards do so because God is good, not because they have earned it.
A life of faithfulness is not without reward, but Jesus calls disciples to steadfast service that is motivated by generous love, not the expectation of a payday commensurate with either experience or competence.
The issue has to do with generosity and resentment, grace and jealousy. The landowner asked: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v. 15).
We may find it hard to receive grace we did not earn, and even harder to accept God’s generosity to others whom we believe earned it less than us. Jesus’ insistence that “the last will be first and the first will be last” (v. 16) was a way of emphasizing God’s freedom and desire to extend grace to all people – even those who come late or who others might consider unworthy.
We can only imagine how the disciples responded to Jesus’ story, but the important thing is how we respond. Did we, like the all-day workers, react with resentment? It’s hard to rejoice with people who appear to be rewarded beyond what they deserve, but that’s what makes it grace – and without grace, none of us would make it out of the field. BT
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