“Eleventh Hour Workers”
September 20, 2020
Matthew 20: 1–16
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So, they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 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?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.” 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? Take what belongs to you and go; 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?” So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
I am a twin. My brother and I are fraternal twins, so you would never spot him and think you are seeing me. But when we were kids you would have marked us as twins. We were dressed to match. We had the same model bikes and skis.
Growing up with a brother as your twin offers benefits that single birth people miss out on. But it also provides, what I think is a graduate level course in justice. Twin boys can spot injustice better than the hawk can spot the tiny mole in the long grass alongside the highway. If one twin gets something the other does not, the justice meter built into a twin sounds off. If one gets a bigger serving of dessert than the other, or if one has to do less lawn mowing than the other, the parents are sure to be called to account for the injustice. I do not recall injustice happening very often in my childhood which indicates my parents should have received a Nobel prize for parenting. However, this parable before us today brings back memories.
The “Parable of the Day Laborers” is one of the strangest and hardest and, I think, most important of all the parables Jesus tells. To be honest, at first glance it causes my justice meter to wail.
Before I get to that, let’s review and pull apart key details of the story. It begins and revolves around two kinds of people. The first is a landowner or, more specifically, the owner of a vineyard. As is true today, so also in the first century, if you own a vineyard, you are probably doing well in life. The other people are the day laborers who live at the other end of the economic ladder. Day laborers are people who do not have a regular job but go into the town each morning hoping they will find work so they can feed their family. They are not beggars, they are not destitute, but they pretty much live right on the edge between subsistence and poverty.
As the parable starts, we meet the laborers looking for work. The owner of a vineyard has lots of grapes to pick, so he hires them all. They agree upon a fair wage for a full day of work. Off to the grapes they go, happy as larks to have work. To this point my justice meter is silent.
It must have been a big vineyard because as the day progresses the owner hires additional workers four more times. The last group of workers is hired at 5pm, which is kind of a head-scratcher, because there is only one hour left in the twelve-hour workday. But he hires them too and sends them into the vineyard. The owner agrees to pay them “what is right.”
At 6 pm the owner tells his manager to settle accounts, and the workers who came last and worked only one hour are paid first. When they are paid, they are likely astounded that they received a full day’s wage. That’s right. They have worked just one hour — about 8 ½ % of the workday, but they get a 100% of a full day’s wage. Which means they are likely not just surprised, but probably overjoyed. Those who worked twelve hours and just saw the dudes who only worked one hour get a full day’s wage have a different view. While they received the agreed upon full day wages, in comparison to the johnny come latelies, these all-day workers now believe these should be paid more. It does not seem fair. I mean, they worked for twelve hours, enduring the scorch of the sun all day. They deserve more if the one-hour workers are going to get paid the full-day wage.
How is your justice meter moving now? I mentioned earlier that I think this parable is one of the strangest, hardest, and most important of Jesus’ parables. It is strange because it actively invites us to identify with the characters that come out on the short end of the stick. I mean, we understand why the all-day workers are angry. We would be, too. And yet when they complain the vineyard owner pretty much puts them in their place: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. I am paying you exactly what we agreed to. If I want to pay someone else more, what is that to you?” He then goes a little further, questioning their motives, even their character: “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Sure. Fine. He is right. But here’s the thing: no matter what the landowner says, no matter that I know, technically he is right, I’m still bothered. Are you?
In this story Jesus provides a wry glimpse at the difference between God’s designs and human desires. Jesus, as he often does in the parables, opens a tiny portal of light into God and the kingdom of heaven.
The landowner’s generosity is shared with the last-hired workers for a reason known only to him. He does not explain or apologize for the accounting system that lavishes the same wage on everyone hired, regardless of the amount of time logged on the job. The only response the landowner has to the disgruntled all-day workers is “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
Is God not allowed to be generous as God desires? Well, yes, we want to say. But it is easy to spot those that we think do not deserve or have not earned what God gives.
This parable unsettles our sense of fairness. And it reveals something humbling about God’s way of handling us and something very troubling about our nature.
Growing up a twin, I realize now that as much as my parents were fair, God is not that way. While I learned long ago that “hard work pays off” and “you get back what you give” — Jesus messes with my thinking as he tells this parable. Jesus can be extremely annoying. His message can be disturbing. What is this: paying the 11th hour workers as much as full timers? What is this: the last will be first, the first will be last? If Jesus is telling us the truth about God and the kingdom of heaven, then all our expectations of God get messed up.
For here’s the truth: God is not fair and we are all 11th hour workers. In God’s economics, you and I and every person on this earth are 11th hour workers. We are all receiving wages/benefits that we did not earn — that we do not deserve. We all enjoy benefits we do nothing to bring about.
I was recently reading about a practice some artists use to intentionally introduce a “flaw” into their work to honor God. There is an irony in this practice though. We cannot produce perfection. Nothing we can do, or say, or think, can come even remotely close to the perfection that is God. It is perfectly true that we are all receivers. Not givers, first. But receivers. And all we receive is grace. All we can hope for is the merciful generosity of a God who gives the 11th hour workers a full day’s wage.
Mercy, beyond our logic and capacity, is at the heart and soul of God. We see it all the time in Jesus and most poignantly on the cross. In Jesus’ own “eleventh hour” it was mercy that reigned. But there is something in that scene that riles us if we do not see ourselves as 11th hour workers in the eyes of God. As Jesus hung on the cross beside him were two convicted thieves. One blew him off. But the other admitted he was getting what he deserved. He knew his execution was just.
In this guy’s eleventh hour, he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). And what did Jesus say to this criminal? Was He fair and just? Did He enact justice in the ways we so often seen in this world? To that “eleventh hour” guy Jesus said: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Not fair is it? In my way of thinking, no. Then I hear the landowner’s words in this parable: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So, the last will be first…”
Are those words good news for us as 11th hour workers? The Bible is full of eleventh-hour people who deserved nothing yet received God’s mercy. May it be that the living of our faith, today and every day might extend God’s mercy to all the other 11rh hour workers with whom we share this world.