This post is part of a synchroblog about parables.
Your mom gives you an ice cream cone because you’ve been crying, and she also gives one to your sister who kicked you and made you cry in the first place.
You pull an all-nighter on that group poster project and get an A, and so does your classmate who just printed out the illustrations.
You get a good performance review and a raise, and so does your coworker who constantly shows up late and leaves early.
Face it, who would be happy with that?
These are the kinds of examples Jesus uses in many of his parables to illustrate the kingdom of God. Those of us who grew up hearing these stories often think of them as… well… stories. We see them as hypothetical. We forget to insert ourselves within them. And if we do, we end up realizing how blatantly unfair most of them are, how contrary to our own typical views of justice.
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) is a perfect example of this. A landowner hires a group of men to work in his vineyard early in the morning, promising to pay them each a denarius, a standard daily wage for such work. Then he hires another group at 9:00. Then he hires more people at 12:00, 3:00, and finally, almost at the very end of the working day. Each time he promises to pay them “what is right.” And then, at the end, he pays them all the same, a denarius.
Of course, those who were hired first and have worked the most are outraged, even though they are receiving exactly what they agreed to earlier. Suddenly, by comparison with the others, they feel they should be receiving much more. “Can’t I do whatever I want with my money?” asks the landowner. “Or are you just being envious because I am generous?”
If I honestly insert myself into this story as one of the first workers, I have to say my reaction is shock, followed by anger. I think the reaction those workers have is a very natural one. From their perspective, this story is unfair to the point of being insulting.
It would be a mistake to conclude from this that God doesn’t care about justice in a here-and-now sense. Even a cursory knowledge of Scripture clearly shows God’s desire for workers to be treated fairly, for people to care for one another and to work for justice. Isaiah 58 is one strong example among many (“On the day of fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers… is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”), as is James 5 (“The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you!”).
So to me, this story clearly doesn’t tell us how God feels about actual workers and bosses. But somehow, it doesn’t seem right either to say, “Oh, this is a story about Heaven, it has nothing to do with the here and now.”
I read this story as a story about God’s nature of generosity. Rather than being fair in a human context, God chooses to be more than fair, rewarding us with grace, with second and third chances even when we screw it up. And that’s not all: we are called, also, to be generous rather than fair. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in Heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In a similar passage, that last line is a little different: “Be merciful, as your heavenly father is merciful.”
So this is a story about God, and it’s also a story about us. God’s ways are not our ways, but they should be. Our feelings of anger and indignation at the injustice of grace are natural, but with supernatural help, we can learn to love grace and strive to mimic God’s mercy. Just as God loves us through all the worst things we do, God wants us to love our enemies and desire the best for them. Even when they kicked us in the shins and made us cry. Even when they’re lazy and undeserving. Even when they flame our blog posts, hold political views we abhor, or disrespect us. It’s natural to want to give people what they deserve, but God wants us to give them what they don’t deserve, to be generous instead of envious.
And that’s the brazen beauty of Jesus, drowning his insults in love through his stories. Those of us who have ears to listen past the first shock, let us hear.
If you liked this post, check out some other great pieces people wrote for the synchroblog!
Jesus’ Parables are Confusing? Good! – Jeremy Myers
Parabolic Living – Tim Nichols
Seed Parables:Sowing Seeds of the Kingdom – Carol Kunihol
Parables – Be Like the Ant or the Grasshopper – Paul Meier
Penelope and the Crutch – Glenn Hager
Changing Hearts Rather Than Minds– Liz Dyer
Young Son, Old Son, a Father on the Run – Jerry Wirtley