Rev. John Kha Tran

Matthew 20:1-20:16

An old “Family Circus” comic strip shows the two boys Jeff and Billy squabbling over the size of the slices of pie their mom has placed before them. “They aren’t the same,” Jeff pouts.

Mom tries again, evening-up the slices. Still Jeff is upset. “They still aren’t the same!” he whines. This time Mom uses a ruler and absolutely proves that both slices of pie are the exact same size. “But Mom,” Jeff complains, “I want mine to be just like Billy’s . . . only bigger!”

We all tend to think we deserve a bigger slice of the pie. From the time we are little children, we are taught that doing more is worth more. The way the landowner of the vineyard operates his business upsets other workers. They want a bigger piece and they expect a bigger piece.

The Workers

The Gospel is a parable of apparent injustice. Our way is that we should be given more for doing more. The owner made a deal with the early-morning workers and a deal with the noon-timers and the evening crew. This particular landowner’s vineyard obviously was large, and so he needed more workers. It is understandable that he would hire someone to work at 6 A. M., at 9 A. M., or at noon, but it would be difficult to imagine at 3 P. M. and at 5 P. M. when the other workers were ready to go home, this man still went out and looked for workers. 

This is very similar to some places in our cities across the country today. For example, every morning the day laborers gather at the gas station at the corner city’s street waiting for someone to hire them for the day. A man in a pickup truck would drive by and call out, “I need four men.” The first four strong young men quickly jump into the truck and the driver drives away. The others who are older and slower would miss their chance. This is happening every day in our city.

Normally the young and stronger workers would be picked. The older and not so strong would be left behind. But this owner of the vineyard did not mind whether they were young and strong or old and weak. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. It is clear that the owner was interested not only in his vineyard but also in the unemployed. He did not like to see them idly standing in the marketplace. So there were two groups of workers in the story: those hired early who went to work after negotiating a daily wage; and those hired later who went to work without a contract, choosing to trust in the goodness of the employer.

Fair or Unfair

At the end of the day, the owner told the foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”

This is a confusing story because it hits at our sense for what is fair and just. Our first impression is that it is not fair. He agreed to pay them what is just. But is it just and fair that a man who worked only one hour get the same payment as the one who worked all day?

We use various criteria to establish the scale for wages. We get pay by hours of works, full time or part time jobs, by years of experiences, and by level of education, or by the amount of works accomplished. A certified teacher should be paid more than a substitute teacher. A full time worker should be paid more than a part time worker. A worker who works overtime should be paid more than the one who works regular hours. That is the way we operate business. But this story is a description of how God’s Kingdom works. It is about how God treats his people. That is why God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord (Is 55:6-9).

ALL the workers up to those hired first were paid equally. We can imagine how the laborers who worked all day felt. The natural thought would have been, “If the owner gave them 10 bucks for working one hour, those of us who have worked twelve hours stand to gain 12 times more!” However, their hope was evaporated. They received the same payment. They began to grumble against the landowner. It was unfair! ‘These men 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.” They were upset that the landowner had made the other workers equal to them, and we empathized for them.

Working in a vineyard was hard work. It involved standing out in the heat of the day for long hours. We can sympathize with these workers. We can understand their complaint. Their joy turned to anger as they realized that they received the same pay as those who had worked for only one hour. As such, they were determined not to leave until they received “satisfaction” from the landowner. They grumbled; they complained; they protested because they enviously compared themselves with others. They were not able to share the joy with the late workers.

The Owner’s Response

‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. I have done you no wrong! Didn’t you agree for a daily wage? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” This last sentence of the story is the key to understand the parable. The cause of the problem is not in the generosity of the landowner but the envy of the earlier workers. God is generous; man is selfish. God has empathy; man apathy. God wants to help others; man wants to compete.

How the landowner pays the laborers, or WHAT he did with his own money was no business of anybody. If the landowner had wanted to give half of his wealth to one of the workers, he would not be unjust and we would admire him for his generosity. He has chosen to do this on his own accord - out of COMPASSION! He was neither obligated nor forced into it. Simply out of love, he saw the need of others. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.  

If you have ever felt incompetent; ever wished for a greater gift; ever felt inferior to others in the church and thus less important, think for a minute about those who were not hired until 5.00PM. They watched and waited while the other workers were hired. They knew that they would probably not get paid that day and that they probably wouldn’t be able to buy any food for dinner that night. All day long they were passed over like a little boy chosen last for kick ball. They were not the best and strongest who were the first to be picked. These workers were the leftovers. So they only trusted and hoped in the kindness and generosity of the landowner. They did not have high expectation as the first group of workers did. They would not dare to compare themselves with the first group of workers either. And then the landowner appears – we see His compassion for the forgotten and the downcast.

These workers really represent each of us. Even though you may not be good, God wants you! And he will reward you generously if you are willing to work for him. Our confidence and joy in this life is based - not on what we have or do not have; or on what we do, or don’t do - rather our confidence is on WHO we have! And to whom we are working for. We have a Savior who saves us and a Father who loves us. On the last day, when we stand before Him, there won’t be any distinctions between popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, ministers, and lay people, professors and taxi drivers, missionaries and a caretaker. No one is worthier than another to receive salvation because we’re all unworthy. The only thing requires of us is the willingness to work in God’s Vineyard. And it is important that we find our working position in the vineyard of the kingdom. It is so human of us to decide who belongs and whom we should exclude. Whom does God embrace and whom does God ignore. The comfort from the parable for us is twofold.  We belong together under the bright umbrella of God’s seeking love and we are still called to go out into His “vineyard” to tend, cultivate and harvest. The “last” and the “first” are not better than each other, but better for each other and for the tending of the vineyard. What all this means for us is to listen to the goodness of God within us, because we are people of the Covenant and meant to be sent to do who we are. Enviously comparing ourselves with others is not the spirit of God.

A sparrow complained to Mother Nature, "You gave beautiful colors to the peacock and a lovely song to the nightingale, but I am plain and unnoticed. Why was I made to suffer?"

"You were not made to suffer," stated Mother Nature. "You suffer because you make the same foolish mistake as human beings. You compare yourself with others. Be yourself, for in that there is no comparison and no pain."