Life in our communities of faith eventually reveals the big difference between what we think is proper and what God may be doing. The gospel parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) shows that our way of thinking is not God’s way, which we should appreciate and imitate.
The context of the parable of the workers was Peter’s question to Jesus: “What will there be for us?” who have given up everything and followed Him (19:27). The answer of Jesus, that those who have followed Him “will sit on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel” in the new age and “will receive a hundred times more” than what they have given up, ended with the perplexing conclusion: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Like a bracket, this paradox also concludes the parable of the workers.
Interestingly, the parable is followed by the story of the mother of James and John trying to secure for her sons special seats of honor in the company of Jesus (20:20-23). Jesus clarified that being closely associated with him entails indeed drinking the cup he drinks, but this means joining him in his passion as he had just then once more predicted (20:17-19). Their communion together is not about worldly power, but service to others. His mission and theirs is not how to be served, but to serve. Otherwise, zealous disciples can easily become jealous individuals in worldly rivalry.
After the usual hiring of laborers for the vineyard at dawn, the unusual continuous hiring around 9 in the morning, noon and 5 in the afternoon sets the scene for the payment of all hired hands at 6. The focus is on the master; his peculiar behavior contains the intended teaching. The work in the vineyard is the traditional picture for the task God gives His people; on the other hand, God is the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep (18:12-14) and does not want that any of the little ones be disregarded and lost or be without part in the kingdom.
The way the master ordered the payment of all the laborers is stunning and challenging. By beginning with the last hired and finishing with the first, the usual recognition of those who have labored earliest and longest is bypassed. And the generous payment of a day’s earning to those who came in last and worked shortest at the head of the line underscored the natural expectation of those hired first that they would get much more. Nothing of the sort happened. They, too, received one silver coin, the sum agreed upon for a day’s work. Shocked, these workers thought they were wronged. But the master pointed out that they have received what they have agreed on. The issue really is the master’s goodness to those who were hired last and thought to be getting less.
Alálaong bagá, the first hired were envious that those who came in last received as much as they did. Their standard is to each his due. They did not appreciate the goodness of the master who offered them work at dawn and who hired others, as well at the last hour, and who in his kindness gave everyone their “daily bread”. This undeserved goodness is emphasized as those hired last were first paid full, not as a slight to those who have labored much more, whose grumbling must have contrasted visibly with the rejoicing and wonderment of those who received so generously from the master of the vineyard.
Divine goodness is not a discussion about salary; it is about everyone being invited to the vineyard and given work, relying on the master’s judgment and goodness. There are those servants who may have come late and boast of nothing and just do their duty (Luke 17:10). These turn out to be the first. Those jealous of their fellow workers and know better than the master make themselves last by their own estimation, like the older son who was unhappy with the goodness of his father toward his prodigal brother (Luke 15:11ff). God is just and good to all.
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