(Artwork: Icon, “Laborers in the Vineyard”)
Of all the passages of Scripture that I have preached or taught over the course of my thirty-one years of ministry, no passage has inspired more energized questions—or outright anger—from people than this weekend’s lectionary Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16.
In the passage, Jesus tells a story about an entrepreneurial landowner, hiring laborers for a day’s work in his vineyard. Some of the laborers work a full day, morning until evening. Other laborers receive their job offers later in the day and work a shorter period of time in the vineyard—some half a day, others only for an hour or two.
Then the story gets strange.
When evening falls, and the landowner distributes to the laborers their wages, he gives to all of the laborers the same amount. The laborers had spent different periods of time in the vineyard–some a full day, others a part day–but the landowner offers the same remuneration to each.
As one might imagine, the laborers who had worked the full day are outraged, since “they thought they would receive more.” They grumble to the landowner, laud their efforts over those of their coworkers, and lament what they perceive to be the unfairness of the situation.
The landowner, in response to their complaints, plays the “my vineyard, my rules” card. “Look,” he says, “relax! You have received the wage you were promised. But I have chosen to give to the later workers the same amount.” Then the landowner asks two questions that dramatically shift the focus of the conversation from economics to metaphysics: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or, are you envious or resentful because I am generous?”
With that the story ends.
“Here,” Jesus essentially says, “the reign of God that I am inaugurating is like this story. It is a new reality in which the distribution of grace is governed by a transformed economics in which even the last to arrive find the same generosity as those who arrived first.”
Over the years, I have often been stunned at how angry this story has made some church folk.
“I don’t blame the workers for being furious, ‘cause I’m kind of ticked off too!”
“Why would Jesus tell a story that champions what sounds like a twisted form of socialism?!”
“How can a story about unfairness help us to understand what the kingdom of heaven is like?!”
One person even compared the end-of-day laborers to those who live horrible lives and then experience a deathbed conversion to Jesus. “It just doesn’t seem right for people who come late to Jesus to receive the same provision (or salvation) as those who have been working at it for a much longer time. Please tell me God is a more practical landowner than that!”
Jesus’ story, you see, is an assault on our capitalistic sensibilities and our well-cultivated theology of earning. The very content of the story flies in the face of our long-held conviction that anything of true value must be justified by one’s efforts and accomplishments before it can be legitimately received.
Still, Jesus begins the story with words that will not go away: “For the kingdom of heaven is like this…”
And therein lies the point. If this were only a story about economics, we would be left only with an unrealistic landowner and a disgruntled workforce. When we pause to remember that this is a story about God’s kingdom, however, it becomes a glimpse of the wildly impractical and wholly unmerited grace upon which all of us depend—a decidedly uncapitalistic grace that is abundantly offered to both early-arrivers and latecomers; to longtime disciples and last-minute “thieves on the cross;” to those who have walked with Jesus from childhood and those who have clumsily stumbled both toward him and away from him, whispering his name all the while without even comprehending its significance.
The story makes us angry because we tend to want to manage and control the kingdom of which the story speaks in the same manner in which we try to manage and control everything else in our lives—with a rigid understanding of who it is that “deserves” certain blessings and outcomes. How often, for example, do we lose ourselves in a distorted spiritual economics, becoming so fixated on who “deserves” our love and compassion (and who does not) that we end up losing the impulse to love altogether? Or the impulse to forgive? Or the impulse to serve?
Jesus’ story reminds us that God stubbornly refuses to impose so equational a rubric on a “vineyard” that only God is qualified to steward. And God’s non-conformity to practicality in this regard should inspire nothing less than a loud “hallelujah” in our souls, since not one of us (not even the brazen soul that is convinced that s/he “deserves” it) merits the provision of God’s grace that God so generously offers to us.
If the story makes you a bit angry, you are in good company. Remember, though, that your quarrel is not with the story itself. Rather, your quarrel is with the scandalous methodology of a God who, in Jesus, has established a vineyard where workers find unmerited abundance rather than fair compensation; where distorted hierarchies give way to a widespread recognition of a shared dependency upon the generosity of the landowner; and where distribution is governed by a revolutionary economy of grace that the landowner chooses to offer lavishly.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like this…”