There’s this parable at the beginning of Matthew 20 that Jesus tells as a way to say something about what life is like when God is King of the world.
The premise of the story is that willing workers get hired by a vineyard owner at various parts of the day, all agreeing to a fair wage for their work. When it comes time to get paid, they all get paid the same, regardless of how long they had worked that day. It’s a testament to the landowner’s generosity that he would pay everyone a full day’s wage, so that all might have enough to feed their families. However, the landowner intentionally pays the workers in reverse order. Starting with the most recent to be hired, he gives them the full wage in full view of the laborers who have endured the heat of the day. Thus a foreseeable tension is set up. The workers who have labored longer start to think they will be compensated with more, which seems logical enough. And yet, when their turn comes, they get the agreed upon wage, same as everyone else. Equal pay for unequal work.
“Hey, mister! What’s the big idea? This isn’t fair!” they complain. But in all reality, they haven’t been cheated, haven’t been treated unjustly, haven’t been misled. They agreed to the usual daily wage at the start of the day and that’s what they received. What they’re upset about is the landowner’s generosity to their fellow workers. In fact, had they not seen what the others had been paid, there would be no issue here. Now that they have, jealousy is stirred. A sense of entitlement rears its head. Gratitude for their own ability to find work proves itself conditional. They are thankful, as long as the world runs as they think it should: justice bound by fairness. It’s an understandable position to take, if we think ourselves on the right side of fairness and never in need of another’s generosity. Problem is, our conception of what is “fair” is not always and automatically what is “right.”
I resonate with these “all day” laborers. I, too, find that generosity can be offensive to my sense of fairness. I learn that I am not always good at celebrating the gift someone else receives, because I want to make it about me. As I read the parable, I discover that my version of a good future is one that is earned and deserved and brought about by my own efforts and I forget that I can stand in such a privileged position precisely because of the many gifts that God has already given to me. See, in God’s kingdom, the point isn’t that those who have get more, but that those who don’t have get enough. Maybe this week, I can be someone who works for the benefit of others, celebrating my own ability to work, as well as my fellow man’s ability to bring home their daily bread.
Joshua Gorenflo and his wife, Kya, are ministers at Kenai Fellowship, Mile 8.5 on the Kenai Spur Highway. Worship is 11 a.m. on Sundays. Streamed live at kenaifellowship.com.