The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard:  Based on Matthew 20: 1-16

Last week we touched on the fact that Matthew has numerous references to the kingdom of heaven in his gospel, including seven–there’s that number again!-seven kingdom of heaven parables.    And they all begin with:  The Kingdom of heaven is like….  So they are allegorical stories, stories that have hidden spiritual meanings within them.

So what is the Kingdom of Heaven?   Well, let’s start off by breaking that down.  A kingdom is an area or realm under the control of a particular ruler or king, and heaven is historically considered God’s dwelling place, so the kingdom of heaven is “the realm in which God’s will is fulfilled”[1].

So if we give some serious thought and consideration to these kingdom of God stories, we may get, well a few things actually; for instance:

  • a glimpse of what heaven may be like,
  • a deeper idea of the kind of a King God is,
  • and a sense of what living according to the ways of God would be like, instead of living under a kingdom ruled by the imperfections of humanity’s values.

If you’ve been at all paying attention to my preaching in the past almost three years, you would have heard me say a number of times that Christianity is counter-cultural; that the values, morals and ways of Jesus’ teaching go counter to what society espouses.  Today’s gospel story is a perfect example of this!

Now, it is always a good idea when studying a biblical passage to put the story into the context of its day and time.  At this point in his gospel, Matthew has Jesus responding to the disciples’ question about how people can get to the kingdom of heaven.   And Jesus tells them it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  That on its own was probably a head-scratcher for Jesus’ listeners, as it was even for its time a counter-cultural statement. In biblical times, it was believed that those who were blessed by God, were blessed with many riches.  If you were rich, you were blessed by God, and alternatively if you were poor, or ill, or childless, well you were not high in God’s favour.   So if the rich, who were supposedly blessed can’t get into heaven, who does then?  Next Jesus tells them that those who give everything up for him, receive it in return a hundred times over and will receive eternal life. And for the first time in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says:  many who are first will be last and the last will be first; another statement that goes against society’s teachings.  Which Jesus illustrates this by telling them the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Now, in those days, and indeed in some cultures even today, it was very normal for day labourers, men who didn’t have regular employment, to gather in the marketplace and hope someone would come by and hire them—kind of  like a biblical temp agency.  Jewish law stated that labourers were to be paid daily, at the end of their day of work.  And the daily rate, the agreed upon minimum wage for day labourers, was a single silver coin called a denarius.  However, the landlord in our story is an unusual sort of a guy—he’s directly involved in the operation of his business.  In those days, landowners generally didn’t get their hands dirty in the day to day business; that was the foreman or estate manager’s job.  But our guy  goes to the marketplace to find workers, he hires them and keeps hiring all through the day and then he directs the foreman to pay them, and even how much to pay them.  And here’s where it gets even more unusual.  They all get the same daily wage, no matter what time they started—early morning, mid-day or late afternoon.  And as if to make the point, the landlord directs that the ones who started last –who worked only one hour—they are the first to receive their pay—and they received full daily wage, not just one hour’s pay.

And the labourers who spent the whole twelve hour day working under the heat of the sun are understandably ticked off and they say to the landlord “This isn’t fair!”  “You have made them equal to us.”  is their complaint.  And you know, I get it, it seems justified.  Why should someone who worked for only one hour get the same pay as someone who worked twelve?   I mean, that’s fine if he wants to pay the last guys full wages, but the first guys, you’d think they should then be paid more, wouldn’t you?  It’s the kind of practice that a labour union would love to get their hands on in today’s world!  If this kind of thinking isn’t counter-cultural, I don’t know what is!

13 “(And the landowner) answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’ 16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.” (NLT)

What does this tell us about God?  What does this parable tell us about the kingdom of heaven?

(For Wingham only–Now, if we weren’t filming this, I would turn this into an open discussion.  But as that doesn’t translate well for those watching on their screens, let me share some of my thoughts. I have 5 points.)

  1. The landowner is actively involved in his business, and his employees. He’s right in the midst of them, offering employment to those who are searching for it.
    1. God is present in our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not! God wants to be actively involved in our lives, God is there for us and responds to us when we search for God.
  2. The worker’s viewpoint as to what was fair payment for work performed and the landowner’s idea is not the same.
    1. God’s view of “being fair” doesn’t jive with humanity’s view, and thanks be to God for that! God’s view is not based on merit; worthiness of people is not based on how much and what we can accomplish.  Which really goes against what our society tells us!  You really can’t work your way to heaven, there are no bonus points with God for doing all the so-called right things.
    2. God is not stingy, in fact God is incredibly generous in God’s gifts to us.
    3. Each worker got paid the daily wage, enough to live on for that day, regardless of the perceived value of the work they did. Everyone deserves enough to live on.  Our own welfare system doesn’t do that!
  3. The landowner’s response to the worker’s outrage was not to be outraged back, even though you’d think he’d have a right to! But instead he calls him ‘Friend’.  Most unusual—there’s an incredible class difference here—a poor unemployed day labourer who is making accusations of unfairness towards a wealthy landowner who is obviously in a position of power.  It is the landowner who makes the overture of good will and calls him ‘friend’. The landowner takes his question seriously and responds to it politely.
    1. Got a beef with God? Feel like something’s not right with your life—and whose life is perfect?  You can take it up with God!  God will take your feelings seriously, and answer your prayer.
  4. The landowner does call the worker out for his envy—after all the worker who worked the full day wasn’t shortchanged, he received his day’s wage, what they had agreed upon. But he was envious because the later workers got the same pay he did for less work.
    1. God does respond to our prayers, our rants and our ravings—and don’t be afraid to take them to God—God has broad shoulders! But you may be surprised at the answer you receive, it might not be what you expected, or even wanted.  Humanity’s way of thinking is limited and biased by cultural expectations.   Spiritual growth isn’t always easy, it can be challenging for us.   But so incredibly rewarding.  It’s a letting go of self and a merging into God’s love.
  5. God ensured that the last ones were paid first, and made sure the early worker saw what he was doing.
    1. Just because we judge who is valued more or who should come first, or is of more worth, doesn’t mean God sees it that way. God has different standards.  True humility of spirit understands that not one of us is better than another, regardless of perceived merit.

Which leads me to wonder, where is this kingdom of God?  Tricky question!  We can take a clue from our Lord’s prayer:  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The kingdom of God is bigger than we can image, and not always of this earth. The kingdom of God is God’s way of being and doing, the way Jesus came to teach us, an alternate way to the self-centered, me-first, the ‘more you have the better you are’ mentality of our society.  We can imagine and work towards that better way, a way more like God’s kingdom, the ways Jesus taught.

The kingdom of God can also be within us, if we are open to it, when we work towards bringing about and being part of the realm where God’s will is fulfilled.   Amen

Rev. JoAnn Todd, Rector

The Regional Ministry of Hope

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kingdom  accessed September 15.20