“Are you envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20:15
“Call the labourers and give them their pay”, says the landowner in Saint Matthew Chapter 20 Verse 8, and each of them received identical pay. Had the landowner been a businessman, he would not have lasted very long in business. The next day he would have gone to the market place early in the morning, and there would have been no workers; at nine o’clock, he would have returned, and there would have been no workers; at noon and at three o’clock, he would have still found no workers in the market place. At five o’clock, upon going to the market place, he would have been greeted by all the workers from the previous day, plus their friends and neighbours and workers for miles around, for word would have travelled quickly that the landowner would pay twelve hours wages for one hour of work.
Had the parable been a model for economic activity, what responses might have arisen? Many would have sought a vineyard where they might work for an hour in the evening and receive a reward equivalent to that for a full day. The sensible thing, if one was a labouring person, with a family to support, would be to work not only from five o’clock to six o’clock for the generous landowner’s payment, but also to find whatever other work might be available elsewhere during the earlier hours of the day, for being a day labourer meant never being sure from where the next day’s work might come. Economic logic would suggest that other landowners would find workers ready to work for most of the day for less pay than usual because the pay they received for those earlier hours would be in addition to the day’s pay they might earn from the generous landowner. What would happen is that the generous landowner would have found his generosity subsidising the low pay offered by other landowners; their profits would grow and his resources would have quickly been depleted.
Of course, Jesus is not suggesting that the parable of the labourers in the vineyard is the way to order an economy, he understood human nature all too well to realize that effort needs rewarding. Jesus is using this story of extraordinary generosity to explain the grace of God, to explain the way in which God shows entirely unmerited favour to unlikely people. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner”, says Jesus in Chapter 20 Verse 1. This story is not one about working conditions, it is about the way God orders things in his kingdom.
Imagine if we had been followers of Jesus who had always done our best to live good and devout lives; imagine that we were people who had said our prayers every day, who had always gone to the synagogue on every Sabbath day; imagine that we had been followers of Jesus who had always done our utmost to be in Jerusalem for the great festivals; imagine that we had tried always to seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness; imagine having tried to have lived lives of commitment and of self-sacrifice because we believed with our whole hearts that this was what the Lord required of us; imagine all these things.
Then try to imagine how we would have felt when Jesus started calling to follow him not only those, like ourselves, people who had worked long and hard at living God’s way; not only those of who, like ourselves, had given much of our lives and much of ourselves in trying to serve God; but also people who had made little previous effort, people who had lived much, if not all, of their previous lives very far from God.
Imagine how we would have felt if we had spent years living faithful lives, if we had felt that Jesus understood us and we believed ourselves to be part of his people, and then we saw that people who suddenly decided to change were also given special place among Jesus’ friends. Imagine how we would have felt at people like Matthew, a man who had made money dishonestly, a man who had extorted money from the poor, becoming one of the Twelve. Wouldn’t it feel as though we had worked through the heat of the day for our reward from God and that these late arrivals, who had done little to deserve it, were now going to receive the same reward? Wouldn’t we have grumbled?
Grumbling is exactly the response of those in the parable who had worked hard to receive a reward identical to that of the latecomers, Chapter 20 Verses 11-12 say, “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.'”
The landowner is not impressed by their complaint, he has treated them fairly; they have worked and received the reward they expected, why should they grumble? He answers them in verses 13-15, “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?”
Jesus is telling his listeners that the kingdom of heaven is like this landowner, that their reward comes not from what they have done, but from the generosity of God. The parable is a story about God’s grace, about God’s favour shown to people who do not deserve it. None of us deserve God’s grace, we are like the labourers summoned at the eleventh hour, like those about whom we would grumble if we were workers.
Perhaps the parable has a particular message for the church in our own times. Aren’t there moments when we have felt that the church belongs to us? Like the labourers in the vineyard, who have worked from early morning, don’t we attend to assume that God’s reward belongs to us? But if the kingdom of God is like the vineyard and its owner, then it is always growing, it is always taking in new members, and those members are as much members of the kingdom as we are; the church belongs as much to the person who has just arrived, as it belongs to us – a thought that makes us grumble; grace can be annoying as well as being amazing.
As the vineyard belonged to the owner, so the church belongs to God, and as the owner replied to the complaining labourers, so God replies to us, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”