For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ Matthew 20.1-16
Listening to the ongoing debates about the impact of the Corona Virus crisis on our children and young people and particularly their prolonged absence from school has prompted many memories of my own schooldays.
One abiding memory is of all those times when for our team games or sports respective team captains would have to select their team members one by one, normally choosing their favourites, usually the best players, first. There was always that embarrassing part at the end when only a couple of people would be left which neither captain particularly wanted on their side, all the more able players having been chosen. Very often it would be the same people left each time. Their self-esteem must have taken quite a bashing. It was a humiliating process.
It’s a memory of which I was reminded when I read the parable which features in today’s Gospel reading. The New Revised Standard Version translation entitles it ‘The Labourers in the Vineyard’. Other translations refer to it as that of ‘The Compassionate Employer’. Continuing with my childhood memory theme I guess it could also be referred to as the “It’s not fair!” parable! It’s a parable, of course, in which the landowner is said to represent God.
Standing in a special corner of the village market would be labourers without steady work who would assemble each day hoping for a job. Apparently it’s an ancient custom which continues in the Middle East to this day.
In Jesus’ time such labourers got no more than a daily wage, a full day’s pay would be just enough to support them and their families for one more day. Unemployment meant starvation. Workers who no one else had hired would be left waiting around at the end of the day.
The parable speaks of the landowner, on his final trip to the market-place, asking the workers left behind why they stand there idle, raising the suggestion of laziness on their part, but the reality, as they point out, is simply that no one has hired them. There they remain, left behind without work or purpose, not chosen - rather like those poor children at school unwanted by the team captains.
Maybe the labourers had done everything in their power to find a job. Maybe there wasn’t actually enough work to go round on that particular day. Who knows? But to be left there at the end of the day must have been humiliating and anxiety provoking - how would they feed their families? At the day’s end they would have been as vulnerable and powerless as at its beginning but they would also have lost their dignity.
I wonder, why were they still there? What was the use of continuing to stand there at that time, hoping for work? Were they too frightened to return home empty handed? Or did they still dare to hope that someone would come for them?
We’re told it’s the landowner who returns at various points in the day to hire more labourers. Why?
Why, in the first instance, was he going searching for workers at all? That job would normally fall to his steward or manager. The landowners were known traditionally to be gentleman farmers hiring others to work the land and appointing foremen or stewards to manage their estates. So the story Jesus recounts is somewhat unusual, describing a landowner who was not acting in accordance with the expectations of the times. Not constrained by convention he goes out himself to where those in need of work are.
And why would he have to return more than once? Was he so disorganised? Why did he need extra workers so late in the day?
Maybe he didn’t.
What Jesus appears to be describing is a compassionate employer, who conscious of the consequences of unemployment, returns again and again to offer labour to those still left without work.
Of course, if the landowner was simply concerned with providing for the labourers and their families he could simply have given them some money and gone on his way. But it’s not handouts he gives them, it’s work, thereby giving them back their dignity and self-respect. Their needs are not simply material ones.
The story goes on. Having hired the extra labour, when the evening comes the landowner calls his steward to pay those he employed last first. Notice we’re not told that any complaint is raised by others as they, the lately employed, receive the full wage. The complaints only seem to come when those who have worked all day don’t get paid more. It seems they don’t begrudge their co-workers being paid generously until they themselves receive the same amount. It’s then that the complaints of unfairness start. (Have you ever noticed how often we can be perfectly content with what he have, until we discover that someone who we perceive as being less deserving has more? Funny how we can want fairness and equality when it serves our own interests but not if it means we all get the same reward in the end. Our deep sense of entitlement can make us so resentful.)
What is unfair about it, really? No one is underpaid. And might the complainers, those who had worked a full day in scorching heat, have been the stronger, more physically able labourers anyway, better equipped for the work in hand, and those more likely to be the first pick of foremen and stewards as well as the landowner himself?
Might the complainers have been those who tended to have less trouble regularly putting food on their tables?
Perhaps the landowner was simply paying each according to their need, regardless of how much they had actually worked for the money.
Some commentators offer the parable as a simple comparison between Justice and Love, explaining how Justice counts, measures and calculates, seeking to ensure that all people receive equal treatment and equal opportunity, in contrast to a Love which expresses itself through generosity and letting go, giving everything away and choosing to be poorer. Others, rightly I think, define justice as more than simply the equal application of law and as something which includes respect for the dignity of those in need and a deep concern for their welfare.
Having noted how unusual the landowner has acted already when it comes to the order in which payments are handed out his conduct seems even more bizarre. Surely he could have avoided complaints altogether by simply paying those who had worked all day first? Presumably they would have received their pay packets and headed home, ignorant of what their fellow workers were to receive. Why did he deliberately provoke resentment? There was no need for a scene. Instead, he chooses, as some describe it, to “educate” his workforce. In a very public and dramatic way he reminds them that those he hired last are just as worthy of his respect and generosity too.
Imagine how those who only a short time ago must have been feeling worthless and desperate must have felt then. Respected, valued - their hope and their patience in holding out until the end of the day rewarded. In the landowner’s grace they find their identity, their dignity, their self-respect and their sense of purpose restored.
The story ends somewhat abruptly. We’re not told whether the complaints continued or how the other labourers responded to the landowner’s suggestion that they might be envious.
Nor are we told how those labourers hired so late in the day responded to the landowner’s generosity.
My guess is that not only would they have felt overriding relief and joy when paid the full day’s wage, but gratitude too, to the person who had helped them in their time of need. A gratitude which I would like to think would manifest itself in an ongoing loyalty and commitment to the landowner whenever he might need or call upon them in the future.
What I see in this parable is not only a tale about undeserving grace and a reminder of how different God’s values are from our worldly ones, I see patience and hope on the part of those labourers hired at last and a challenge to my perceptions of justice and fairness. And in this strange and unusual time of ours I find myself asking, what do Justice and Fairness really look like?