“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
I imagine the day laborers who gather all over here in Orange county. I can drive a mile or two and go by one such location near my home here in Mission Viejo. Dozens of men wait for an opportunity for fruitful labor.
They are looking for a day’s work at a day’s wage (which is the basic meaning of denarius). As I read the parable, I try to imagine it through the eyes of these day laborers. Imagine the scenario of various hiring times through the day.
- First workers hired at sunrise, perhaps 6am?
- Second workers at about 9am.
- Third workers at about Noon.
- Fourth workers at about 3pm.
- Final workers at about 5pm.
- Everyone finished their workday at about 6pm.
At the end of the day, the boss begins by paying the 5pm hires, and gives them a full day’s wage. I can only imagine what the other workers are thinking. “He’s generous. He’s crazy. What will I get?”
Then I try to imagine how I would feel as I saw him pay every single worker that same amount. If I had worked twelve hours for the same amount as someone who worked only one hour, I’d feel ripped off and angry. I would almost certainly forget that the boss told me what he was going to pay at the beginning of the day. I’d be thinking, “If you decide to be generous with them, why just stick to the letter of your agreement with us? If you have money to give so lavishly, why are we the ones to be left with a basic wage?”
If the boss were to ask me (like the owner in the parable), “Are you envious because I am generous?”, I would have to answer, “I sure am! Why aren’t you generous with us to the same degree as you were with those last hour folks. Why not give us twelve-hour workers twelve denarii, and so on.”
But what I would be expecting the owner to do is to give me twelve days wage for one day’s work. That isn’t fair either. So fairness, in this case, is not the owner’s criteria. His motive is, according to the parable, generosity. That works on a very different model from naked justice.
All of this is one of the ways Jesus explains the meaning of his cryptic saying: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The last will be first in the sense that they receive far more than they ever imagined, and the first will be last in the sense that they receive what they agreed to.
If I were a first hour worker, I would feel that others experience generosity, but I experience only basic justice. I want generosity. Generosity, though, is never a reward for extra work. Generosity, by definition, is unconnected to anything I deserve. Do I really want to work for God on the basic of naked justice or would I prefer lavish generosity?
For example, do I deserve everything I have received in my life? Did I deserve to be born in the economic paradise of North America? Do I deserve to live my life in the wealth and beauty of Southern California? Of course I don’t. But I conveniently forget this when I feel I’m being getting less than someone else.
- When you think about your relationship with God, are you expecting to be treated with justice or generosity? And if with justice, do you see justice as getting the good you deserve or getting the bad you deserve?
- What would it look like if you rose everyday expecting God to treat you with generosity?