Generous landowner creates labor dispute

Published: September 29, 2015

This is the ninth column in a 12-part series.

By Clifford M. Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

Upsetting conventional wisdom is how a comedian keeps you listening and laughing. Suddenly you’re hearing things in a way that just doesn’t fit the everyday world you live in. What you hear is so odd it makes you laugh, and most of us enjoy laughing, even if it’s at ourselves.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) grates against our basic instincts concerning fairness. Who among us thinks that those who do the least should get paid the same as those who do the most? And because its message seems to be unfair, it also isn’t funny. Jesus knew how to make a story interesting, but he was no comedian. He didn’t want to leave his listeners laughing, he wanted to leave them pondering.

Jesus knew it would sound unfair for a landowner to deliberately pay those who only began to work near quitting time as much as those who had been bending their backs under the sun since its rising. “Equal pay for equal work” has never meant everyone should get paid the same no matter how little or how much one does. Not only does this parable sound unfair, looking at it carefully we can see that this parable, in the way it unfolds, is deliberately set up to reinforce the appearance of unfairness.

What if the landowner had not told his foreman to first pay those who had worked the shortest shift? What if those who had worked the longest had gotten their wages first and so on down the line until those who had done the least work got paid last? In that case, it may well have been that no one would have noticed, or complained. Did the landowner deliberately set things up so the hardest workers would feel cheated? No, but the storyteller did, and that was Jesus.

What was Jesus thinking? As in most of his parables, the key to unpacking his message lies in discerning his purpose for telling the parable. He was telling his listeners, as he is telling us, that this parable would help explain what the kingdom of heaven is like. Helping us to enter the kingdom of heaven (kingdom of God in Mark and Luke) was Jesus’ purpose throughout his earthly ministry. In Mark 1:15 we read that Jesus began his ministry with a very straightforward message: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Many of us have become accustomed to equating “heaven” with the “kingdom of heaven.” They are related but not exactly the same. Jesus was intent on inviting all who encountered him to enter the kingdom of heaven, but he wasn’t simply saying if you repent and believe, you will go to heaven when you die. Jesus was announcing that in his person, and by repentance and accepting his message (the Gospel, or Good News), the kingdom of heaven was in some way or manner available for entry here on earth — not in its fullness, at least not yet, but the time for it to be fulfilled on earth was now at hand.

And so I urge you to read through the parable carefully. Does it still sound unfair? It should. Jesus wants all who hear (or read the parable today) to understand that the kingdom of heaven does not operate under our standard sense of fairness. And this is very good news for us! Perhaps some of us have striven to enter the kingdom of heaven throughout our lives, but what if we haven’t? Indeed, many have loitered throughout the days, giving little attention to the fact that the kingdom of heaven is something to be concerned about today, this very moment.

It’s not too late; God is recruiting laborers for his vineyard, inviting all to share in the good news of forgiveness, healing and acceptance.

This parable is also a challenge, however. We are not just to see ourselves in the position of the later arrivals. Whether we are new to the task or have labored in the vineyard for years, we are to be like the landowner, who is just and fair with those whom he is obliged to be just and fair, but he is also generous beyond measure to those who, for whatever reason, have lacked previous opportunities to participate in the bounties of the kingdom.

Study Questions

  • Why do the laborers who worked the longest in the vineyard believe they have been treated unfairly? How sympathetic would you be to their feelings?
  • When today might we be called to balance fairness with a desire for generosity? With one’s children? In the workplace? In a classroom? At a foodbank? Elsewhere?
  • What difference, if any, do you see between Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of heaven (kingdom of God) and heaven as the realm beyond death?
  • What challenges you most about this parable?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Sept. 19, 2015. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.