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[a] 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.’
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?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Whenever I read the parable of the labourers, I get the feeling that despite what Jesus said most of us still don’t get it. Instinctively, we tend to sympathise with the labourers who worked longest and felt hard done by. It’s not difficult to understand why. We live in a world that, even though full of glaring injustices , works on the premise that you should get what you work for - equal pay for equal work.
Despite our beliefs about caring for the poor and raising the level of allowances for the unemployed and disadvantaged, few of us think they should be paid the same as those of us who work full time. So when Jesus talks about some labourers who put in one hour’s work getting paid the same as those who put in 12 hours, and used this to illustrate that that’s the way God operates, we feel that’s just not fair.
I remember an occasion, some years ago, when I tried to replicate this sort of spontaneous generosity at Sydney Airport and incurred the wrath of a whole bunch of taxi drivers. It was the evening rush-hour and I’d arrived back from an interstate trip. I made my way out to the taxi rank where dozens of taxis were lined up waiting for customers.
It was then that I thought of this parable and decided I’d try to be like God and dispense grace and favour on some poor driver who was way down the end of the line, having to wait ages for a fare. So I walked past I don’t know how many cabs until I found one right near the end whose driver, an immigrant with a rather dejected look on his face, sat waiting patiently for his turn to move up the line.He had quite a surprise when I climbed in and told him to take me to West Pennant Hills, and so did all the others who shouted abuse and blasted their horns as we pulled out of the line and sped away.
It gave me a bit of a shock too. I didn’t realise that my spontaneous act of grace could provoke so much resentment. But that’s how it’s always been, and Jesus taught that even God gets the same treatment.
It’s often said that all religions, despite their outward differences, are essentially based on the same human aspiration – the desire to find and be accepted by God. While this, to a large extent, is true, there is a fundamental difference between the Christian Gospel and all other religious systems. The word that describes it is the word grace.
Most religious systems have at their heart things that people must do in order to gain the approval of God – or, in Buddhism, to advance to a higher form of being and finally achieve a state of Nirvana. Christianity is the only religion that says that nothing we can do can earn God’s favour – it’s beyond us and God knows that. Grace is all about God’s infinite love and goodness given to us as a gift.
The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every human instinct – it is right and proper that we should only get what we earn. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law—all offer ways to earn God’s approval. Only Christianity makes God’s love unconditional.
But even Christians often fail to grasp the concept, and for centuries have devised rituals that must be followed, or laws which, if obeyed, will put credits in our account with God to counter-balance the debits. But God doesn’t work that way. God’s way is the way of grace – unconditional love offered to us freely with no strings attached. And that’s what this story Jesus told is all about.
Jesus’ story about the labourers is one of his great parables – earthly stories with heavenly meanings. And, as with many of his stories, it used a familiar type of situation to make the point. In Israel in Jesus’ day the grape harvest ripened towards the end of September, and close on its heels came the Autumn rains. So, it was always a race against time to get the harvest in. That meant the landowners had to keep an eye on the weather so as to know if the team of labourers needed to be quickly increased to speed the job up. That seems to be the situation Jesus pictured here.
The usual daily wage for a labourer was one denarius – it was a small silver coin. A day’s labour lasted from sunrise to sunset. A denarius was a pretty minimal sort of wage - about enough to feed a family. But each morning men desperate for work would gather at sunrise hoping that someone would hire them, and if not, they’d stay there the whole day waiting, even if only to get part of a day’s work and pay.
So, it was quite possible that at that time of year a landowner, anxious to get his harvest in before the rains ruined it, might suddenly decide to increase his labour force, and even do it again before darkness fell.
So, in this story, the original group of labourers started work around 6am on the understanding they’d be paid one denarius. The second group got hired at 9am, the third at midday, and the final one at 5pm. The Law of Moses decreed that labourers should be paid at the end of each day, so they could feed their families that night. And every man expected his wage would be proportionate to how long he’d worked.
Consequently, when the others – especially those who started at sunrise - saw the last group get paid a full denarius after only one hour’s work, they anticipated they’d get more than they’d agreed on. But when they also received the one denarius, they felt hard done by. They weren’t, of course. They’d received exactly what had been promised. The thing that got to them was that the others got it too.
But looking at it another way, the latecomers had also been there at dawn and had spent a miserable day waiting for work. It was just bad luck they’d not been hired. And they’d have sooner been working. Even though we all complain about work, few of us would prefer to be unemployed – and not just because of the money. People who want to work but can’t are to be pitied rather than thought badly of.
It’s been said that this parable states implicitly two great truths that the world had to wait 20 centuries to see fulfilled – the right of every adult to have meaningful work and the right to earn a living wage. But sadly, it still doesn’t keep us from complaining if someone seems to get more than we think they’ve earned – even when they would gladly have put in the effort if only they’d been given the chance. We still tend to think that a person’s worth is measured by their productivity. But God doesn’t – that’s the point of this parable. We don’t and cannot earn God’s love; He offers it to all as a free gift.
When I first became an Army chaplain, I felt bad that I’d been given the Queen’s Commission without having endured the long, gruelling process that general service officers went through to earn theirs. Eventually it was a tough old sergeant major who put me at ease when he told me to just accept the fact that I had that commission because the Governor General, on behalf of the Queen, had given it to me.
When a person does a day’s work and receives a day's pay, that is a wage. When a person competes and receives a trophy, that is a prize. When a person receives recognition for achievement, that is an award. When a person is given a status as a gift, that is an act of grace. And that’s how the Bible describes God’s acceptance of us as His beloved children – an act of grace that we cannot earn, just receive.
Jesus told this story about the labourers to teach us that that is the basis on which God deals with humankind. There are no rankings in the Kingdom of God – no lists of seniority based on length of service. Some of us may feel that our many years of service in Christ’s Church ought to guarantee us seniority over others who entered it later in life and haven’t put in the years that we have.
But the point of this parable is plain: length of service and long hours of toil constitute no claim on God and provide no reason why God should not be equally generous to those who have done less. All of us are equally undeserving of the limitless love of God. In God’s Kingdom there is no place for personal pride, self-satisfaction or resentment of others. For all of us, it is a gift of grace.
And those of us who’ve long been faithful to God and resent sharing equally with others who, until their conversion, lived for their own enjoyment, ought to think about what constitutes a meaningful life. The more I hear people’s stories about the emptiness of life – despite their pleasure-seeking and experiences, the more thankful I am that from my teens I was given a life filled with purpose and meaning. If anything, we should be even more appreciative of God’s Grace because we’ve already had the privilege of a foretaste of the good things God has prepared for those that love Him.
King Solomon, a man who started out with good intentions but whose wealth and ambition caused him to stray from God, summed up the futility of a self-seeking life powerfully when he wrote these words:
‘Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.’ The good life is an illusion. But compare that with Jesus said: ‘I have come that you might have life and have it in all its fullness’ and the Apostle Paul who said: ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain.’
When Nelson Mandella was about to have his 70th birthday while still in prison, a huge concert was staged in London’s Wembley Stadium to support the growing demand for his release. For 12 hours rock groups like Guns ’n’ Roses blasted the huge crowd until the final act; an African woman wearing a flowing African gown; no backup band, no musical instruments, just Jessye Norman. The crowd – mostly young people – starts to get restless. Some of them start to yell out for more Guns ’n’Roses. More and more join in. But, alone and unaccompanied, Jessye starts to sing Amazing Grace.
Well, a remarkable thing happened that night. The raucous crowd fell silent. By the time she reached the second verse she had them in her hands. By the third verse they were all singing with her. Jessye Norman later confessed she has no idea what power descended on Wembley Stadium that night, except as Philip Yancey says: ‘When grace descends, the world falls silent before it.’