Early in the morning, you go to the marketplace, and stand at the ready. Around you gathers a group of other people, and you all have one thing in common: you are unemployed. So you’ve come to the marketplace to see if anyone will hire you.
Before long, a well-dressed man approaches. He introduces himself as the owner of a local vineyard. This is peculiar. Rarely, if ever, do landowners come to hire workers; typically, they send their managers or servants. Yet here is this stately gentleman farmer. Behind him managers from other farms come to hire workers for their masters.
The landowner strides over to you and asks you, and a few of the people around you, if you would like to work for him. You readily agree and then you prepare to haggle. “I will pay you a denarius for your work,” He says. This is not a surprising offer; indeed, it is a good one! A denarius is the value of a full day’s work; other landowners might try to get away with paying less. Not wanting to let a good offer go, you heartily agree. Then the landowner leads you and a few other workers to his vineyard.
You work for a couple hours, then suddenly you see the landowner return to the vineyard with a few more workers in tow. There’s much to do. Perhaps the landowner underestimated how many hands he needed. No matter. You put your head down and keep on working.
Around lunchtime, you see the landowner depart again, returning with even more workers. Peculiar, but you keep working.
At three he comes back with even more. Very odd. But there is plenty of work to be done so you keep at it.
Finally, about an hour before sunset, the landowner shows up one last time, depositing a few more workers into his field. Now this is unheard of. Who would hired laborers for only one hour of work? Who would stand around all day waiting to be hired for only one hour of work? Yet here these workers are, and they seem capable and willing…
Finally the sun sets and you go to the main house to get your earnings. The landowner is waiting for you and beside him stands his manager. So he does have a manager! What’s that guy been doing all day? Why did the master keep trekking to the market, instead of the manager?
The master mumbles something to the manager and the manager calls forward those who have worked only one hour. He then places into their hands one denarius. “How generous!” you think. This landowner is gracious indeed! You begin to wonder how much you might get paid.
Then the workers who arrived at three o’clock are handed one denarius. “Well,” you think, “that is still generous, though these workers worked more than the others—do not they deserve more?” You let the thought go.
Then the noon arrivals and the nine arrivals are paid their denarius respectively. And now you are nervous. Everyone is getting a denarius, despite the fact that the workers who showed up at nine worked a lot harder than those who showed up at five. “But surely,” you think, “I will get paid a little more because I put in a full day’s work!” The manager calls to you. You step forward and put out your hands and receive…one denarius.
You stare at the single coin in your palm, and then you start to fume. “What kind of game is this!?” you say to the landowner. “We worked harder—we deserve more! That’s how it works!” The other all-day workers murmur their agreement.
The master looks at you, a little confused, and replies, “Wait a minute. We agreed that you would work for a denarius. You have received your denarius. What’s the problem?”
“The problem,” you reply, “is that you have made us equal to them.” You point over at the five o’clock workers, as if to say “I’m better and I deserve more.”
“Look here stranger,” the landowner replies, “We had a contract. I fulfilled my end of the contract. I have paid you justly for your work, as agreed. What is it to you if I am generous with what is mine?” Then the landowner dismisses everyone, and you start walking home.
This may be one of Jesus’ most offensive parables for any who believe that equal work deserves equal pay, which is, I would guess, just about all of us. It is reasonable that people who work more deserve to be paid more than people who work less. And so, I find the landowner’s actions bewildering.
Understandably, the all-day workers feel they are the victims of injustice: they worked more than everyone else, so they deserve to be paid more than everyone else; and yet they were paid the same as those who worked only one hour.
But despite their feelings, really there is no injustice. The workers who worked all day receive the payment they agreed upon at the beginning of the day. It’s not like the landowner only gave them half a denarius—he paid them in full. They entered into a contract with the landowner and the landowner honored that contract. That is justice. That is fair.
In truth, no one in today’s passage is undercompensated for their work—those who worked fewer hours are simply overcompensated. The landowner proves to be both just and gracious. He is just in the payment of the workers who worked all day (for they are paid what they are owed); and he is gracious in the payment of those who worked less than a full day (for they are paid more than they are owed). There are no losers in this parable.
Still, when you work hard for something, it’s hard to see someone who worked less receive the same reward. Imagine you’re about to retire from a company you’ve served your entire career—50 years, let’s say. At the same time, a colleague of yours is also retiring; but she’s only worked at the company for five years. The company decides you can share your retirement party and, after the cake, your boss stands up and proclaims that you have both made invaluable contributions to the company. I don’t know about you, but I would feel frustrated that my fifty years of contributions were lumped in with my colleague’s meager five-years.
But the thing is, nothing your boss said was wrong. After fifty years, you have done good work; and in her five years, your colleague did, too. What we’re dealing with here is not injustice, but envy. Despite having been paid exactly what they agreed to be paid, the workers who put in a full day are more concerned about comparing their earnings to those of other people. They are envious of the grace that was shown to the other workers.
Grace is often resented most by those who worked the hardest. But this is misguided because grace has nothing to do with work—it cannot be earned! We Americans might like to gloat about how we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but in God’s economy, nothing is earned. It is only given. Our parable today shows us that, at the end of the day, the work is not the focus—the focus is God’s grace. The master compensates all the workers the same way despite their varying work hours to show that grace is not earned. In truth, God does not use God’s grace to underscore our works; rather God uses our works to underscore God’s grace.
Someone once said that a believer should look upon the works of another believer not with envy, but with gratitude, as though the works were his or her own. Envy is the daily act wanting what someone else has, and it makes us discontented with what we have; gratitude is the daily act of giving thanks to God for what we have, and it makes us content with what we have, and happy for what other people have.
When we experience God’s grace poured out on other people, we ultimately have two choices: we can be envious or we can be grateful. We can jealously speculate that someone has unjustly received more grace than we did or we can give thanks that another sinner has received the same kind of abounding grace we did. We can be envious of other people’s work for God’s kingdom, or we can take delight in it no matter how great or small it is.
If we choose to envy the grace of others, then we will, I think, ultimately lose the ability ever to experience grace for ourselves. If we choose to be thankful for the grace of others, then we will become better at experiencing grace for ourselves. Many of us are trapped in a cycle of envy; and the cure for envy is gratitude.
As you walk away from the landowner’s home, you ponder what happened. “I should just show up late tomorrow, work one hour, and get paid the same wage as everyone else!” you say, still frustrated. But then, as you walk, you begin to wonder about those other workers, eager to work, yet late to be hired. You imagine the joy they must feel at their overcompensation and you begin to laugh. You look at the denarius in your hand, just payment for a good day’s work. And as you close your hand around that coin, you feel a sense of contentment, not so much for your work, but for your master, this just and gracious landowner.
The next morning, bright and early, you stand in the marketplace and wait for the landowner to come.