Sunday, September 18, 2011

Reflections on the Parable – “The Workers in the Vineyard” – Matthew 20:1-16

Read the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard here: Matthew 20:1-16
It's Not Fair!
Over the course of our focus on the Parables of Jesus there have been two very important themes that have emerged: 1. God loves God’s creation – extravagantly, madly, passionately and showers upon the beloved creation this love and grace in outrageous abundance.  God’s goes to extravagant and illogical extremes in showing love, grace and forgiveness to all of God’s creation – that would be us, you and me.  And the 2nd theme is related and comes forth from this: we are called to be in community and to reflect this crazy extravagant love and grace and forgiveness in the way we relate and treat and interact with others!
This is not so easy for us and Jesus acknowledges this fact in the parables while at the same time shocking and challenging us to move beyond our inclination to be focused only on ourselves and our tendency to judge and our desire for selfish fairness.  It is this latter issue that is the focus of the parable for today: The Workers in the Vineyard.  The landowner hires day workers throughout the day but in the end, when it is time to pay the workers all of them get the same pay regardless of how long they have worked.  Now it is important to note a very important point: The employer pays all of the workers exactly what he promised.  He is not trying to cheat them.  They all agreed to work for a set amount, but at the end of the day the workers who worked the longest felt it was unfair that those who were hired last got paid the same.  The issue is envy and their sense of fairness, which has been offended.
If we are honest we have to admit that we probably are sympathetic to the position of the workers.  If we were in their place we might very probably feel the same.  It’s not fair that they all got paid the same!  But we also need to look a little more closely at this.  There are three points that I feel this parable raises about the issue of fairness and how we tend to experience and apply it. 
First – if we are not careful, our sense of fairness can easily turn into works righteousness.  You only get what you earn; you only get what you deserve; if you don’t put in the time and the work then you don’t deserve to receive _______ (you can fill in the blank).  This is a popular attitude in our society.  And to some extent our economy is based on this.  But it runs into problems when people find themselves unable to work and contribute for reasons that are out of their control (ageing, illness, unemployment, etc.).  So do we hold to our fairness doctrine that says – if you don’t work then you don’t eat regardless?  It also runs into problems when we apply the same paradigm upon our relationship with God.  This then turns the grace and love of God into a commodity that must be earned.  This is completely rejected by Jesus and condemned by the parables that Jesus tells.  God’s love and grace are freely and extravagantly given to us all.
2nd – If we are really honest we have to admit that our sense of fairness is really very egocentric.  We evaluate issues of fairness in terms of what I feel is fair, or what is fair for me!  As David Lose writes, “We tend to measure fairness in terms of our own wants, needs, hopes, expectations, often with little -- or at least secondary -- regard for the wants and needs of others.”  Way too much of our political discourse is focused to appeal to our self-interest at the expense of the community.  This parable calls that into question.  The landowner’s generosity is extravagant and, in fact, it is to be celebrated as it means that all of the worker’s can now feed their families.  How hard is it for us to be able to see that this position or this law or that government program, which might take a little from us individually may offer a lifeline and healing to someone else.  This parable calls for us to seriously consider this.
Third, and last is the issue of envy.  Envy, the green-eyed monster, blinds us, it burdens us, enrages us, divides us and separates us from each other and from God.  Envy can lead to resentment and bitterness that sometimes can last a lifetime.  Envy separates us from the community and from God and sends us off into our lonely corners of self-pity and resentment where we can create for ourselves (and sometimes for those around us) an experience of hell on earth if we are not careful.  This parable calls on us to look at how we apply our sense of fairness and how it leads us to separation and a continued experience of resentment and bitterness.
The bottom line:  God is not fair.  A sense of fairness is a human trait.  God, by contrast is extravagantly and illogically loving and gracious.  God showers us with love and forgiveness and acceptance and grace.  God’s love for us is not dependent upon any sense of what is fair.  And to that we can only respond: Thanks Be To God!


  1. Again thank you. I really think this parable is my favorite because for years I did not "get" its meaning. It gives such a clear example of God's "extravagant and illogical" nature. I had to reread Blake's poem "The Tiger" where he struggles with God's nature. So I think this Musings will be printed to save.

  2. Replies
    1. I don't know. This was a long time ago. But I found it online Google by doing a search for the parable.

    2. Kazahkstan Painter, Nelly Bube(1949-) painted this work. You may find this painting at Vanderbilt Univ. digital library....