St. Matthew 20.vv.1-16
~ The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock he saw others standing there idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right". So they went. When he went out about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?'. They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us'. He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard'. When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first. When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'The 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'. But he replied, to one of them, '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?'. So the last will be first, and the first will be last." ~
Among all the parables of Jesus, one of my favourites is that of the 'Labourers in the Vineyard' yet whenever it is read publicly I always imagine I hear the spoken or unspoken criticism, "T'ain't fair!". Why should the last hired receive pay equal to the first? But I also think I hear Jesus say, "Why, bless you, of course it isn't, but that's not the point".
We are not concerned here with blueprints for industrial relations, strict justice, sound economies or anything of the sort - least of all a TUC practical policy! No, we are not concerned with how employers should act but how God does act.
Now ask yourself, "Do you really want to receive your due from God?". I certainly do not!
If we are to appreciate and understand this parable aright, we must consider carefully the details of it.
In Palestine the grape harvest was at the end of September, before the heavy rains came and produced a panic in gathering the harvest - even an hour's work could stave off crop ruination so that for the vineyard owner adequate casual labour was critical.
As in this country in days gone by, there were 'hiring days' and the marketplace became a 'labour exchange'. In the precarious economy of Palestine even one hour's work could stave off starvation for a labourer's family, so that we can see how important is the issue for the owner and his servants if their needs are to be satisfied - it could be a matter of life and death.
It is against this background that we must consider the fairness or otherwise of this splendid parable, which contains truths at the very heart of the Christian religion.
First, we consider the relief and comfort of those who obey Christ's injunction, "Come unto me all ye that are heavy laden and I will give you rest". Those who come to him early or late are welcome and equally dear. In the book of Revelation we read that there are city gates to the east and west, north and south. All are bidden to come into God's kingdom. The Rabbis said some enter into the Kingdom of God in one hour, but others hardly in a life-time. Now let us ask ourselves, how do we react to latecomers? Do we resent them, welcome them, accept or reject them?
Secondly, we consider the compassion of God, that element of tenderness that knows our need of work, of sustenance, of dignity. Our need is not for one twelfth of a day's wages with a worried wife and hungry children to care for, but for our daily bread which God supplies and which we must share. Have we the compassion and generosity that we see in this parable?
Thirdly, we return to the point of fairness. The parable is manifestly not "fair"; it is an illustration of God's bounty and generosity. All receive the same reward for their service, for all service counts the same with God. It is not a matter of the quantity of the service, but the love behind the service is what counts - the love given and received. A child's present of five pence to God is as valuable to Him as our one hundred pounds and possibly touches the heart more. All God gives to us is of grace out of the goodness of his heart. We do not deserve it or earn it. We receive not pay but a gift from God, not a reward but grace.
Shall we begrudge God's generosity, his prodigality? Yes, we still say, "It's not fair" - and we are right, but love, compassion and generosity transcend fairness.
The Cross wasn't fair either, but love conquered!