Nothing offends us more than to have a coworker receive the same wage for less work. Quite honestly, it’s not fair.
Yet in Matthew Chapter 20, Jesus tells such a story. This is a story of a landowner who goes to the marketplace at six in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He negotiates with them for a denarius, a generous day’s wage, then sends them off to work. At nine in the morning, this landowner returns to the marketplace to find others desiring labor. To this group, he merely promises to pay, “whatever is right.” He returns at noon and at three in the afternoon, hiring more workers. At five o’clock he returns one more time to find still more workers. These too he hires.
At the end of the day, the landowner orders his foreman to assemble the workers, beginning with those who were hired last. To these one-hour workers, he pays a denarius, a full day’s wage. Seeing this, the group hired first assumes they’ll be paid more. Yet when they receive their pay, they too receive a denarius.
Grumbling, they approach the landowner. “We have borne the burden and heat of the day, yet you have made this last group equal to us.”
The landowner rebukes them. They didn’t complain because he had been unfair. Indeed, he fulfilled to them everything he promised. They complained because he was generous.
End of story.
We cannot help but sympathize with the first group of laborers. They indeed worked all day and bore the greater burdens. Shouldn’t their pay reflect the extra work?
Yet the group hired last also has concerns. Consider this possibility.
A man has a wife and several small children, and it’s imperative that he finds work. After all in that economy, if he doesn’t work nobody will eat. So at six in the morning, he searches for work but finds none. He inquires at nearby fields. He checks in the town’s marketplace several times. He searches neighboring farms. He chases false rumors. He inquires concerning possibilities. He asks and seeks everywhere. Everybody turns him away.
By noon he has that sick feeling in his stomach. He can’t secure work. He keeps searching, but by three o’clock he has sunk into despair. The day has slipped away, wasted. He’s been a failure. The only reason he’s in the marketplace at five o’clock, standing there with no reasonable hope of employment, is that he can’t bear to go home, knowing what he’ll face, having let down those he loves, those who depend on him. He can’t face the shame.
Yet at five his fortune changes.
He meets the master.
The master asks, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” It’s almost as if outside the vineyard is idleness. Certainly for the unemployed, being outside is awful. But idle?
“Nobody has hired us.”
“Go to my vineyard.”
So this man (and other workers) rushes off to the vineyard. Anything, even a cheap copper coin (what’s fair), is better than nothing. Though it won’t feed the family, it will at least mitigate the shame.
Then comes six o’clock, the end of the day, and everybody lines up. Imagine his reaction when he receives a full day’s wage, a silver denarius. At first he’ll be stunned. Then he’ll race home, squeeze his wife, toss the kids in the air with squeals and laughter, and with great joy he’ll tell them about his day, this glorious day. Together the family will rejoice and praise the name of this unbelievable and generous master.
Meanwhile, the first group of workers will be complaining when they arrive home. After all, it wasn’t fair.
Same vineyard. Same master. Same wage. Yet two different reactions.
The immediate context for this parable begins in Chapter 19 when Peter announces how he has given up everything to follow Christ. In effect, he asks, “What will I receive?” or “What’s in it for me?”
Jesus responds with this story.
So what’s the point?
Let’s ask Peter if he really wants to receive a wage. Does he want to stand before Almighty God and announce what he has done for Him? Lost and sinful Peter, part of fallen humanity, saved only by the grace of God, asking this holy God for what’s fair? Seriously?
And consider this. What if there’s a second day of harvest? Where will the grumbling workers be? Probably at the vineyard at six. After all they need to work too, so they'll be there, working and grumbling.
But where will those be who were hired last? They’ll be at the vineyard long before six in the morning, eager to get in and begin working. Why? Because they’ve been changed. They've been touched by the grace of the master. They will not idly stand outside the vineyard in unemployed horror, nor have any desire to work elsewhere. They will work for the master and with great joy, for after all, that’s the heart’s response to grace.
Perhaps we should tell Peter not to stand before God and boast of what he’s done. Don’t ask for a wage, Peter, that’s not what you want. That’s not what any of us want. For we will receive our wage, and a fair one, but we too will walk away grumbling.
You see the kingdom of heaven is unlike the kingdoms of this world. The kingdoms of this world operate by the principle of the wage, a day’s pay for a day’s work. In fact in our fallen world, it is essential that they operate this way; those who don’t work don’t eat. But the kingdom of heaven works by a different principle, an astonishing and incomprehensible principle. That principle is grace, and grace changes the heart.
One final thought. Place yourself in the story. The day is over, work is done, dusk is settling, and the workers line up to receive their wage. Now look past the foreman through the descending gloom at the face of the master. There, by the power of story, you’ll see the face of God.