I was visiting a lovely church in Manzanita, Oregon for services one Sunday. One of the bible passages appointed for the day was the parable of the hired hands from Matthew 20:1-16 in which a landowner hires workers throughout the day. At the end of the day he settles up with all of the workers, paying them all the same amount, regardless of how long they worked.
This has always been one of the difficult passages of the New Testament for me. Every time I came back to this story I would be on the side of workers who had been hired first thing who were asking why they were only being paid the wages agreed upon at the beginning of the day while all the other latecomers were getting, essentially, a bonus for working a shorter day. Not only that, but the landowner has the latest workers paid first. The early workers see that those workers are getting a full day's pay and think they might get more than originally agreed upon. When they are only give the day's wage they are disappointed.
While I was listening to the sermon, I reread the passage printed in the church bulletin. When the first workers are hired the passage says “After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.” When the later workers are hired the passage reads: “'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.” What struck me is that the first workers bargain with the landowner and make a contract, which the landowner later fulfills, while the later workers take the landowner's offer that he will pay 'whatever is right' on faith. He could have paid them anything-- prorated the day's wage, paid them piecework, whatever he felt was right-- they were leaving it in his hands.
When the early workers grumble that the later workers have been made equal to them without having put in the same amount of work the land owner makes two replies. First he says: “'Friend I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” The contract is fulfilled. He goes on to ask the early workers, who are feeling wronged: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Usually the focus of this passage it on the last line-- the summary of the parable “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” However, I found that the last question “are you envious because I am generous” is what leapt out at me. The early workers made a contract and were paid accordingly. The later workers, some of whom had been waiting to be chosen for work all day, were grateful for anything they could get. They made no contract. They gave their work and trusted to the promise of the landowner that he would pay what was right at the end of the day. When the end of the day came their trust was rewarded by the generosity of the landlord. All were paid for a day's labor.
Now, with a human landlord, a contract is a very good idea but in the the beginning this parable is introduced in the following way: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”
The parable is describing heaven. Those who trust in God to do what is right will see that promise fulfilled. Those who make a contract with God will see their contract met. God keeps faith with both.
All are equal through God's grace but some of his workers feel betrayed by his generosity. Even in the kingdom of heaven, it seems, people will still be people and feel envy, greed, despair, and disappointment. The landowner levels the playing field by providing all of his laborers with a day's wage but that does not magically transform people into generous, loving souls.
Those who are confronted with the question: “are you envious because I am generous?” are left to reflect on how it could possibly hurt them for others to be raised up in grace when they have already received full payment for their work. While those who trusted in the promise of 'whatever is right' are left astonished by the generous payment of the landowner.
And so I ask myself, who would I rather be-- the laborer who feels slighted at being paid in full for a day's labor? or the worker who was picked last, who despaired of finding work, and who ends the day showered in the joy of unexpected generosity?
Contracts are fulfilled but faith is rewarded.