Continuing in Matthew, we’re getting toward the end of Jesus’ stories and parables to people and getting into the next section of big things happening. In fact, this is the final parable Jesus uses before entering Jerusalem and moving into this section where he is essentially preparing to die.
We are going to be looking at the themes of fairness and desperation, so to get us started I want us to think about a moment where you wanted more work. Maybe a time in life when you were just scraping to get by. Maybe you’ve lost a job, been demoted, not been able to find the right job. Maybe you have been at the point of having no idea how you would make it through the next day, week, or month. So let’s talk to connect with those sitting at our table and to build a starting ground for later discussions.
What are some things people do when they are desperate?
Have you ever had a moment of desperate need?
Unable to make rent
Can’t buy groceries
Can’t afford to fix a car
Can’t afford insurance/dental/doctor visits
That is the kind of stuff the people in this story had experienced. A little bit of important backstory of what was going on at the time and what the people hearing Jesus story knew/experienced and thought. We are about to look into a story about men who are desperate for work. So desperate that they would wait around in the city center every day to wait for someone to hire them for a job. These would have been the men who had their livelihoods and lands taken by the Romans and all they could do was wait for someone to hire them for the day, so they could have their own needs met, so they could feed their family, so they could pay rent... (whatever life’s expenses were 2000 years ago…) Unfortunately, there were more workers than there are work, so some men don't get the work they desperately needed. Those standing at the end of the day must have known it was unlikely that they were going to make enough to feed their family or meet their own needs, but also clung to the idea that something would be better than nothing. These men must have been the most hopeless of the group. Those that were well enough to do would have gone home by now, thinking working only an hour or two wouldn't be worth it. But those still looking for work at the end of the day must have been thinking anything would be better than nothing. Let’s look at the text:
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
How easy is it for us to try and get ahead of other people in life? Keeping up with the Jones’? I know it’s in me, I don’t to just keep up, I want to be better. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a ‘competitive’ person, we’re still generally wired to want to look out for ourselves first and to do better than other people. I mean even when you take a flight you are coached to first put on your own mask before helping anyone else.
Think about the idea of seniority in job situation. Have you ever had a job where you hoped for a promotion and someone else got it, but they were much less qualified than you? We like to think that if we put in the hard work we’ll get paid more for it or have a higher place because of it. Let’s talk about those feelings.
How does it feel to get the same reward as someone that you did more work than?
Have you had a time where you put in the same amount of work as someone else and got paid more or less?
The land owner responds in this story by saying:
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
Then Jesus wraps up the story with one of his famous one liners:
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
We often think about things in terms of fairness. We want everything to be fair. We want to have everyone be treated equally and for people to get paid what they’re worth. This is a story doesn’t seem fair.
What are the things that don’t feel fair in life?
That person got the promotion instead of me
That person comes from a family who has a lot of money and they’re way better off than me
That person did the same thing I did; I got in trouble, they didn’t, or they got praised, I got nothing
It’s good to fight against unfairness/inequality, but if that’s where faith, religion, relationship with Jesus, relationship with community starts and ends I think we are missing the beauty of God’s mercy and grace.
Let’s be clear, in this story Jesus is addressing self perceived unfairness. This is not an excuse to not address injustices in our world on the behalf of others who are in need of a voice. Jesus is not addressing unfairness that relates to injustice, but rather unfairness that relates to entitlement. So let’s have some conversation from thatt perspective.
Why do people feel entitled to receive what others have been given?
How does that comparison effect people?
This text is pretty clearly not about the work that is performed. It comes right out of the parable of the rich young ruler and Jesus talking about how everything is impossible except through God. This parable is a picture of a bunch of people who are in need of work, and a guy who decides he’s going to hire them. Hire more of them than he actually needs. He is going to meet their real needs.
It can be hard to turn this lens on ourselves and see that we can easily move into comparison and entitlement. That it’s actually difficult for us to celebrate with other people when they’ve gotten more or better than us. That we get jealous if someone else has better things than we do. In that moment, we are the person in this story who really needed work, who was given work and was provided everything we need, and then we turn around and get jealous that the one who gave us the good things gave the same thing to others who may not be at the same place we’re at.
If we feel like we’re first in everything, trying to hold onto things, trying to gain for ourselves and compare ourselves to others, we’re missing out. If we get upset when people get the same as us even though we think “deserve more” or have “put in more effort”, we’re missing out.
This is the moment where we ask the “hard question”: how would you feel if you get to Heaven and Jesus invites you in, and as soon as you walk through the pearly gates, the first person you see is the most offensive person you could conceive? What if God’s grace is so great that the worst of sinners is actually given the highest place in heaven? What if the person that you thought was hopeless was the one seated at Jesus’ side?
What is “fair” is that we all deserve separation from relationship with God. No matter how hopeless or how righteous, how big of a sinner or how virtuous, how evil or honorable, we have all missed the mark; yet Jesus decided we are worth more than what we deserve.
What does Jesus mean by saying “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first?”
What does that change in how you choose to live your life?
TAKE IT DEEPER:
When have you been jealous of someone else?
Is it hard to watch other people get things for free that we have had to work really hard for?
Where does our need for perceived fairness come from?
When have you felt generous?
When have you felt generosity from God?
When have you had your needs unexpectedly taken care of?
What do you think God owes you?
What have you been given? How can you be more thankful/appreciative for what you have been given?
How can you better celebrate God’s generosity toward others?
Do you believe God will fulfill His promise to meet your needs? Why or why not?