May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. ().
I think we can be certain that Jesus was not providing us with a blue print for running a successful business in our gospel reading today. If a senior executive of a business was to pay labourers a day’s pay for one hours work the board of directors and shareholders would be looking at replacing him very quickly, not to mention what the trade union representative would do with it.
There was obviously something else going on here when Jesus told this parable to his disciples. First, let us look at the context in which Jesus presented his story. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem leading up to Holy Week he had just finished responding to a young man who had asked him what good deed he needs to do to ensure eternal life. Jesus tells him that he needs to keep the commandments and sell all he has and follow him, this led to a conversation with the disciples which prompted Peter to ask “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have? ( NRSV)” After Jesus told the disciples they would be with him in heaven he said, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. ( NRSV)”. Although Jesus begins and ends this story with those words I believe his words are a pointer to something much deeper.
The parable depicts a typical working day during the grape harvest but there are some subtle differences. It is the landowner not his manager who goes to the market place over the course of the day to hire the labourers for his vineyard at 6am, 9am, 12noon and 3pm those hired at 6am are promised a day’s pay and the others are told they will be paid what is right and they all agree to the terms and go into the vineyard to work. At the eleventh hour, the landowner goes back to the marketplace and finds labourers who have not been hired and he also sends them into the vineyard to work knowing there was only one hour of work time left in the day.
Today this would be like a builder going to a site like indeed.com.au to hire day labourers for a site cleanup or a concrete pour, or an orchard owner going through fruitpickingjobs.com.au daily to find pickers for the day. Notice here in the story it was the landowner who called the labourers and waited for the labourers to accept before they went into the field to work, we can liken the landowner to God, and the labourers called at the different time of day to those Christians from different backgrounds some professionals, tradespeople, labourers, students and all types of people who have been called at different times in their life from the cradle Christian to the Christian who is called and accepted the call later in life even at the eleventh hour.
Our story then moves onto pay time. Jewish culture at the time of Jesus and before held that day labourers would be paid what they were owed that evening, a day’s wages was normally just enough to feed the family so it was important that they were paid then or the family would go hungry. The landowner instructs the vineyard manager to pay the workers starting with those who started last and work back to those who had worked through the day. I can imagine how surprised the late starters were when they received a full day’s pay even those who had only worked an hour. As you can imagine those who had worked the full day through the heat of the day would have expected to be treated fairly and be given a bonus just as the later starters were. To their surprise they received what was promised to them but no more.
I wonder how we would have felt if we were them, would we feel cheated, would we feel like we were not fairly treated? As we heard in the reading some did feel as though they were cheated and unfairly treated and they grumbled about working the long hours through the hottest part of day and receiving the same reward as those who had only worked part of the day even those who had worked for one hour.
Now we move to the landowner’s response to the grumbling labourers. It is interesting the wording that Matthew uses when he writes about the response of the landowner to one of the early starters. Matthew uses the Greek word Ἑταῖρε (hetaire), which means friend but not a close friend or how we might address someone as friend in a condescending way. Hetaire is only used three times in the NT and only in Matthews gospel here at , (in the parable of the Wedding Banquet “and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’” NRSV) and 26:50 (in the garden when Judas arrived with the soldiers ‘50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.”’ NRSV). Where the word ‘friend’ is used elsewhere approx. 38 times in the NT the word used is mostly φίλος (philos) friend, good friend, best mate. We can gather that by this language Matthew is indicating that the landowner was about to defend his position when speaking to the spokesman of the group, to paraphrase the landowner. “Sir! I paid you exactly what we agreed on before you started in the vineyard this morning so why are you complaining, or are you jealous because I am generous with what belongs to me? If I want to pay the others the same as you then that is my business, take your money and go.”
*** If time permits mention how Jesus used parables to surprise or shock his listeners.
So, what is the message that Jesus is trying to teach Peter, the other disciples and us here today in this parable? Is Jesus saying that God is unfair, because it seems that way?
I believe as usual he is turning what is considered normal both then and now in our society upside down a reversal of the cultural norm. He is showing us a different way of looking at the world, since we were children we have been told by parents, teachers, coaches and bosses that if we put in the effort we will be rewarded based on the amount of that effort. Jesus is saying it is not like that in the Kingdom of Heaven, it doesn’t work that way. A good example of true happiness for others was from my wife Carol Ann who told me recently how happy she was when two of her friends had won an expensive four-wheel drive ute and swapped it for two less expensive cars so they had one each, and I could tell that her joy was genuine because it written all over her face I could see and feel the joy. I wonder how many of us could truly say we would be happy if someone else who we thought were not as good as us in our job were promoted ahead of us, or received a pay rise, or a large Christmas holiday bonus. I know in my younger days I felt I was badly done by when someone was promoted ahead of me, I thank God I don’t feel that way these days. I believe the message in this parable is quite simple; it does not matter who we are, how many good works we feel we have done, or how long we have been working in the garden of life, when God calls and we accept that call, whether we think we deserve it or not; God will generously reward us, as he does with all his labourers equally.
So, Jesus challenges us through this parable whether we be a Pope, a plumber, or a pirate to labour without expecting a reward, to give without expecting to be given anything in return, and to love unconditionally as God loves us, knowing that in the Kingdom of Heaven that “the first will be last, and the last will be first”.