When Things Just Don't Seem Fair

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing 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 again 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 laborers 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 daily 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, ‘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.’ 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.”  ~ Matthew 20:1-16

We are on the road with Jesus again today. As he approaches Jerusalem, and all that waits for him there, his parables become more… intense. Difficult, challenging. Like this one.  And judging by my own first reaction to it, it might be good to stop, take a deep breath, and check in briefly with what, exactly, a parable is, and what it isn’t.

The word “parable” comes from a Greek word that puts together two other words that mean, “to cast or throw” and “alongside.” A parable is a statement or a story that gets thrown alongside our day-to-day experience to give us another way of thinking about something, fresh eyes. And if there’s anything we need to look at this story, it’s fresh eyes. A new way of thinking.

A parable is not, on the other hand, an allegory. Allegories are stories in which each character is designed to represent someone else, and only that person. For example, “The king is the devil, and the jester is Jesus.” That’s not true of parables, even though some parables get allegorized over time, because we cling to certain interpretations.

So let’s try not to do that. Let’s try to wonder about the characters in this story, and find fresh eyes with which to see them. It is easy to identify with those people who worked in the scorching sun all day, harvesting grapes, and who felt that the owner had given them a bad deal. But what about the owner? He seems to be a pretty unusual person. Kind of weird, actually.

First weird thing: We find out halfway through the story that there is a manager for this vineyard. So why does the owner go out to find the workers?

Second weird thing: The owner is obsessive in his hunt for workers.  First he goes out early in the morning, and then he goes out again a few hours later. In fact, he goes out every two or three hours all day long, until the hour before the sun sets. And each and every time, whenever he finds willing workers, he hires them. To the first hired, he promises “the usual daily wage.” To those hired after that, he promises, “what is right.” In the original Greek, it’s a stronger word: “whatever is just.”

Third weird thing: Everyone is paid the same amount—those who worked from early in the morning and those who worked just the last hour of the day. All receive one denarius, the usual day’s wage for a laborer.

And, wow, I get it. This is hard to swallow. How can that be right? The ones hired early would never have expected more than their agreed-upon rate, except… that’s what the guys who only worked an hour got. The first arrivals got their hopes up.

The whole thing’s weird. But: this is Jesus, and we operate under the principle that he has good news for us. He is the one who said, “Blessed are the poor,” “Blessed are the meek,” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” There is good news here, but it may require still more of a new way of looking, fresh eyes.

So, what was it like to be the ones who came last? What it is like to wake up every morning unsure of where tonight’s dinner will come from? That is the situation of the workers the owner of the vineyard keeps finding in the marketplace. And let’s be honest: isn’t it highly unlikely that any of them rolled out of bed at 3:30 in the afternoon and said to themselves, “Hmmm… I wonder if there’s some fool down at the marketplace who will pay me a day’s wages for an hour of work?” Isn’t it far more likely that these workers have spend the day moving from market to market, from field to field, from town to town, in desperate search of one day’s wage, and one night’s dinner?

Which brings us to another weird thing about the owner of the vineyard: When he sees people looking for work, he seems never to include in his calculus what time it is, or how much money he has already committed, or even how much value he, personally, can get from the work. All he sees is: Does this person need to earn their daily bread? And, probably, their family’s? Can I give it to them? And, he does. This owner is weird; he looks at workers from a different perspective than we imagined. He looks to their good, not his own.

I’m guessing most of us think of ourselves as being in the early morning category. We’re the kind of go-getters who get up early in the day, get to where we’re supposed to be, and put in our time. We tend to identify with those who were hired first.

But what does it feel like to be a latecomer?

Showing up late can be embarrassing. The very threat of showing up late can cause us to decide to just stay home, because what’s the point? I was later than I wanted to be in getting to the pool at the YMCA the other day, which, in my mind, meant, I might not get in all the laps I wanted to. And if I can’t get in all my laps… maybe I just shouldn’t bother?

But it can be incredibly important to show up, even if you are showing up late. A friend of mine went to a demonstration in support of the Standing Rock Water Protectors last fall, and soon realized that she was the only identifiable clergyperson there. She wrote, “I realized that simply showing up mattered. It mattered not because of who I am personally, but because of what I represent as a pastor in a Christian church. The important thing was to be there, and to show the community that there are Christian leaders who love them and support their cause.”[i]

And the truth is… a vineyard is a wondrous thing. The fruit of the vine is delicious, and sweet, and can be dried to make raisins or crushed to release the sweet juices, and fermented to make wine. In hot weather you can freeze grapes, and they are amazing. In cold weather, you can open up the jar of jam that you made with grapes and spread it on some hot toast, and have it with tea, and look out at the snow.

Vineyards, in the bible, are both literal and symbolic. Yes, they are things to possess and cultivate and fight over, but they are also something else, something more. Vineyards speak of God’s love for us, of God’s determination that we should have delicious life and have it in abundance, that we all—every single living human—we all deserve to have our own vine and fig tree, and to live in peace, unafraid. Is it worth it to show up late for a project like that? To get to do even an hour of work that will further that particular agenda for humankind? You bet it is.

And yet, we are still left wondering about those early morning workers: was this fair? How do we get past it? My friend Miller shared a parable about his godson, AJ, about a day and a night when AJ was five, and life just did not feel fair to him. Miller tells it like this:

After tiny AJ had already eaten an ice cream cone and some banana split dip-n-dots at the New York State Fair, he was at the dinner table insisting that he wanted Pat Mitchell's ice cream for dessert… AJ's papas were away on a date for the evening, and I listened from the kitchen as Corrine tried to gently explain that there was ice cream in the freezer that he could have after dinner, but that we wouldn't be making a trip to Pat Mitchell's that night…

I remember that AJ was fairly calm, but it was a sort of distressed calm. He tried to reason and bargain. His voiced was choked with emotion, and big tears welled up in his eyes. At one point he threatened to ride his tricycle to every restaurant in Binghamton until he found his papas, who, he insisted, would let him go to Pat Mitchell's. He was dogged and absolutely undistractable. 

I finally came into the dining room and said, "Alfie, I don't know if it will help or not help to tell you that Pat Mitchell's is closed." (The ethics and deliberately bent truth of this comment is up for consideration, just not at this time.) His reaction surprised even me. Once he thought that the store was closed and not an option, immediately he was able to think about other things, he was able to eat his dinner, he was able to start a conversation about Spiderman and dinosaurs and the favorite part of his day at the State Fair. Suddenly he was freed to be where he was and see what was before him and think about all the good things in the world that he loved or hoped for or already had. 

Sometimes I don't feel much more together than my godson when he was five. (Sometimes at five he had the wisdom of Solomon.) All the what-ifs and why didn't I say that’s and wishing I could go back a year (or 13) and have a do-over. But I'm left—we all are pretty much left—with where we are now, with what is on the table (and in the freezer) now, and all the things in the world that make us happy.

If we can only get through the huge mental closed door that we're focusing on.

So, for what it's worth... I don't know if it will help or not help to tell you that Pat Mitchell's is closed? What will help you get through that huge mental closed door?[ii]

Five-year-old AJ was given the gift of a new way of thinking, and it helped him to open a huge mental door that had been closed. Can we find our way to that gift? I can’t tell you who each of us is, in this parable. Are we the early-arrivers, exhausted from the long day of work? Or are we the latecomer, still hoping to help with the project of sweet abundance? Are we the owner of the vineyard, who only wants to offer as much as we can to as many as we can, or are we the manager, just doing our job and hoping for the best? Are we the complainers?—And listen. There is a place for complainers. Lest this parable be misunderstood, Jesus is in no way telling us that workers should be satisfied with less than they deserve, with less than a living wage, less than what it takes to live without want. It’s complainers who helped to establish things like minimum wages and worker safety requirements. But that is not what this story is about. This story is about, what does everybody need? What does our humanity—and our divinity—tell us is the right thing to ensure that everyone has? And if we do have enough, how can we all get through the huge mental closed doors so that we can recognize that, and live in gratitude rather than anxiety?

This parable is about the delicious life God places before us, available to savor in every season, just because God is good. It is about the sweetness of God’s project for humankind, and God’s love for us, of God’s determination that, early or late, we should all have delicious life and have it in abundance, that we all—every single living human—we all deserve to have our own vine and fig tree, and to live in peace, unafraid.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Rev. Katya Ouchakof, “Revised Common Lectionary: Showing Up,” RevGalBlogPals Website, September 18, 2017, https://revgalblogpals.org/2017/09/19/revised-common-lectionary-showing-up/.

[ii] Rev. Miller Hoffman, Open Door Community Church (Boyds, Maryland) Newsletter Post, September 14, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/welcome.opendoormcc/photos/a.314120765319084.75026.297511976979963/763091903755299/?type=3&theater.