Matthew 20: 1-16 The Vineyard Owner


This is not a parable that I am comfortable with. How many of you have heard this story and felt completely comfortable with it?

Some of you heard me speak about unfairness by business and government last time. It is a subject I am passionate about. My nature is to look for equal treatment rewards proportionate to effort, fairness in everything.

And the vineyard owner! What a fool he must be to pay people a whole day’s wage for half a day or just an hour’s work. Doesn’t he realise that the best workers will be disincentivised? “Why should I work hard all day when my friend got a way with a few hours?” they will think.

So, this parable does not resonate with me at all. If I had been working all day, especially hard physical work in the vine fields. I would expect to be paid more than those who worked half a day, much more that those who had worked a few hours and I would find it odd that those who came along right at the end got much at all.

In this parable, those who have worked all day react badly to the vineyard owner’s generosity. Just like me they are indignant at the unreasonableness of it all. “It’s so unfair!” But it is Jesus’ story so clearly I am wrong. What is going on?

First, it is a parable, not necessarily real but a story that Jesus intended to illustrate a point.

The truth is, it’s only unfair in our simplistic tiny world of earthly justice. In God’s world, in the Kingdom of Heaven perhaps it is fair. Everyone in this parable is treated generously. They don’t necessarily receive what they have earned, not what we or they think they deserve. They weren’t paid for the hours they worked. But they were all paid generously. Some of them were paid extravagantly.

“It’s not fair.” What we often mean when we think or say these words is: I don’t like what’s happening and how it’s affecting me. We are rarely concerned by the overall lack of equality in society at large. When we complain, “It’s not fair,” we’re most often complaining about the way we perceive God to have arranged things for us. Whether our friend is in a great relationship and we aren’t; our neighbour has a high-paying job and we’re unemployed; our son or daughter has special needs and our friends’ children are graduating; our sense of unfairness usually pertains to what we have or have not received compared with those around us. It’s normal for us to evaluate our situation in comparison to others. Anyone here who has never felt a pang of jealousy at something someone else has?

 “I’ve been dealt a bad hand. I want what they’ve got.”

Now, let me be clear. While these thoughts might sound superficial and complaining, I don’t think every experience of “unfairness” is wrong or petty. Our dissatisfaction is often quite understandable. There are few of us who would not get upset and rail against God and the universe when a loved one  gets dementia or cancer; when a child is born with a genetic defect; when we watch someone slowly kill themselves with drugs; when a flood or fire kills thousands; when a terrorist brings down a plane It is only human, in the best sense, to rail against the unfairness of it all! “Why me?” Or, why her? Or, why them? “It’s just not fair”.

The problem seems to be that we think of fairness from our limited human perspective. And how else can we think of it? Cause and effect, right and wrong, reward and punishment.

That is not God’s Kingdom, a place of infinite love and blessing. Our world is not like that.

God does not roll dice, but our human life seems to do that all the time random events both good and bad affect us all the time. Where we live injustice and suffering, abundance and joy exist side by side. And, from our human perspective, this seems completely haphazard. The child born into the wealthy family who dies young, the single parent who becomes a world famous author. Each of us learns our idea of fairness from whatever lessons life throws at us.

Some of us struggle financially. Some of us have difficult relationships. Some of us have health problems. Some wrestle with addiction. And globally far too many struggle to find enough to eat every day. That’s life. And it’s not fair.

But, why? Why would a good God inflict us with these challenges? And, why does it seem that the injustices of life are, so often, unequally distributed?

We all suffer. But, we don’t all suffer equally. Some of us are stressed by demands of work and untidy children, while others suffer torture or watch their children die helplessly.

Life is not fair and we do not all get what we deserve.

You have heard me talk about the banker’s salary versus the carer’s salary before. George Monbiot (Guardian Journalist) wrote: “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”

Life is unfair, but God is not. Our landowner in the parable is extravagantly generous to all the workers like God is extravagantly generous to all of us. God does not make distinctions. We all receive God’s unreserved love and forgiveness, and we all need it. Our sins are very different, for example we are not all murderers but God forgives murders as freely as he forgives us when we have an unkind or jealous thought.

Yes, our sufferings are different in nature and degree, but we all suffer. And, we all sin so we all need the fabulous generosity of a God who loves us, both in spite of and, because of everything we are.

It is just not possible to know the mind of God. We cannot begin to understand the complexity of God’s thinking in our universe. It is clear, though, that this thinking is often at odds with simplistic way that our puny human brains think.

The Prophet Isaiah said in Isaiah 55:8-9:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

God’s way, is different from that of the world. God’s Kingdom is not about punishment and reward, cause and effect, right and wrong per se. God’s Kingdom is not about fairness, as we would understand it. God’s Kingdom is not about paying everyone exactly what they earned, per hour, down to the last denarius.

God’s Kingdom is about extravagant love. God’s Kingdom is about love without judgment. God’s Kingdom is about reward without comparison.

I guess that, like me, most of us identify with the laborers in Matthew’s parable who arrived early in the morning and toiled long and hard in the heat of the sun, finally finishing in the evening, only to return home and do the chores that had to be done there. I doubt that there are many us who identify with the workers who came at the end of the day even though this may not have been due to their unwillingness to work.

While we may identify with the diligent and responsible and hardworking and, perhaps, overworked men who spent the day toiling in the vineyard, only to be paid the same amount as the latecomers, from God’s perspective, we’re all latecomers. In other words, we simply haven’t done all that much to merit God’s extravagant love. And yet, we receive it anyway. Even when we’re judgemental, cold-hearted, gossipy, grumpy and dishonest (and, we are all those things, at times), God embraces us. God just keeps loving us.

So, let’s work on being made in God’s image. Let’s consider what it would be like to welcome everyone with the same generosity of spirit. Let’s imagine a world in which, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are truly welcome here.

The Kingdom of Heaven is here, the Kingdom of Love, the Kingdom of Peace—and it’s not like our place on earth.

Dorothy Hunt, a San Franciscan pastor puts it this way:

Peace on Earth, the Kingdom of God—that treasure on the mountain—is here. It is now. It’s among us. It’s God with us. And, like the people of the valley, we can insist on our version of fairness and annihilate all possibility of a world that reflects God’s extravagant love. Or, like the mountain people, we can share this God-given secret with everyone.