The Parable of the hired vineyard workers, in the 20th chapter of Matthew, ends with the master reacting to the attitude of those first hired. When they saw their pay, they complained against the master of the vineyard, saying, “These last have worked one hour, and thou hast made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the heat.” The master’s reply is interesting to me because it isn’t curt, as it could have been. After all, he is the master, the owner of the vineyard, and they worked at his pleasure. Instead, as the father in the parable of the lost son does, the master replies with an appeal (a patient appeal) to reason.
He makes three points:
[My] friend, I do not wrong thee. Didst thou not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is thine and go.
“If this is all really just about money,” he is saying,” how did I cheat you? I gave you what you accepted was a fair rate for your day’s work.” But then that last sentence he adds, stings. “Take what is yours and go.” It should give us pause.
Was this Parable just about money?
By now, Jesus’ audience has been primed to expect that the characters and situations in His stories have a deeper meaning than their simple face value. He Himself started the story by telling them that this is how the kingdom of heaven is. Therefore, they, and us, already suspect that the master in the story is a picture of God the Father. But if that is so, then the vineyard cannot be a mere physical vineyard. Maybe it could be a picture of Israel, since prophets had referred to Israel as God’s vineyard before. Or maybe it is itself a picture of the kingdom of God as it works itself out here on Earth,
Either way, laboring in that vineyard is not just an earthly job, it is a chance to work on the work of God… to be where His heart is. And these workers who were called first, and were the first to respond, have lost sight of that. They complain at the master. And he says to them: “If you don’t like it, you are free to go.”
That’s a scary thought. Isn’t it? To have worked all day in the kingdom of God and then, just because of the way it turns out at the end of that day, to say “the heck with it.”
Would you take your money and go? I hope I would not. I hope the thought of making such a decision, a thought that he just planted in my mind, would make me pause and listen to what else He has to say.
But it is my will to give to this last even as to thee: is it not lawful for me to do what I will in my own affairs?
This is the second part of the appeal. The master is reminding the workers that He is The Master. This is His vineyard. And the money He is using to pay for the work is His.
If anyone is getting cheated in this transaction, it is Him. After all, the first workers agreed that a day’s labor was worth a denarius. And that is exactly what He paid them. But if He pays a denarius to someone that worked only one hour, and they take it, who is coming out short? Isn’t it the Master? “Why is it your business what I do with my money?”
The first part of the appeal told them: “You have got what you thought you wanted out of this deal. If that is all this means to you, then we are square. You are free to go.” But now, the second part is an appeal to reason; it is meant to make them think: “But isn’t what is going on here more than just about money and a business transaction? I mean, if I am willing to be cheated – as you think – for the sake of having these late comers work at least one hour in my vineyard, doesn’t that imply that, to me, their work in my vineyard, even for one hour, has tremendous value?”
“You are stuck thinking about the money you get to make. But have you stopped to think what the work on my vineyard is worth to me? Or, what it means to me to have you – all of you – working in my vineyard?”
And then comes the third appeal:
Is thine eye evil because *I* am good?
This is now the most direct challenge to the way they reacted. By reacting the way they did, they have created a paradox. God, who is – by definition – Good, decides to do good, to have mercy, compassion, grace… to be extravagantly generous. And yet, they would take that very action as an occasion for themselves to become jealous, stingy, ungenerous.
Jesus is asking them, “How is that even possible, that good should engender evil?”
It shouldn’t be possible. Good cannot breed evil. Jesus said so in the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 7:16-20 By their fruits ye shall know them. Do [men] gather a bunch of grapes from thorns, or from thistles figs? So every good tree produces good fruits, but the worthless tree produces bad fruits. A good tree cannot produce bad fruits, nor a worthless tree produce good fruits. Every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire. By their fruits then surely ye shall know them.
Then, what is the only conclusion? That that ungenerous heart was already there in those murmuring workers. The Master’s actions did not cause them to have an evil eye; but it did reveal it. Because as Simeon said, Jesus was born among us so that [the] thoughts may be revealed from many hearts.
And this too is a scary thought because those men worked all day in the vineyard. Weren’t they doing the Master’s will all day? Weren’t they doing the work of the Kingdom? Weren’t they already saved?
Jesus addressed this too in the Sermon:
Matthew 7:21-23 Not every one who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but he that does the will of my Father who is in the heavens. Many shall say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied through *thy* name, and through *thy* name cast out demons, and through *thy* name done many works of power? and then will I avow unto them, I never knew you. Depart from me, workers of lawlessness.
This is indeed a scary thought: At the end of days, there will be people who preached the Word, who went on missions, whose prayers accomplished miracles – even to the casting out of demons; people who, in the eyes of every observer, were “good Christians” working in the Lord’s field of harvest; and yet when they stand before the Throne of Judgment they will be turned away. Jesus will say, “I never knew you.”
How is that possible? Is it possible to work all day in the vineyard and never come to understand the heart of the master of the vineyard? Apparently so. Those first hired, the ones that murmured, are proof. To them, life was only about what they – in their strength – accomplished. They completely missed the master’s “big picture”, His purposes for that vineyard.
And so, Jesus finishes the parable this way, affirming the awful reality of that scary thought: Matthew 20:16 Thus shall the last be first, and the first last; for many are called ones, but few chosen ones.
Human self-importance and what is really important to God: that is the conflict.
The Master’s appeal reminds me of the Lord speaking through the lips of Isaiah, when He says: come, let us reason together… “Do you really understand what working in my vineyard is all about? Do you understand what is important to Me?”
Most of the time our sense of self-importance is based on measurement: What I, myself, have accomplished, even for the Kingdom of God. But the problem there is that any accomplishment of mine cannot compare to what God has already done. And deep inside I know that. So, I turn my measuring tape around and compare myself to others.
Yet, God’s primary concern is the state of my heart and the state of the hearts of all those others around me. But as long as my eyes are focused on that measuring tape, I won’t even notice their hearts.
I wonder what those first hired were thinking as they saw this parade of late comers arriving during that day. Did they scoff at them under their breath? Did they chuckle as some of those late comers, who had never worked in a vineyard before, made mistake after mistake, or stumbled and fell?
Did any of them take a moment to stop their work and go over to one of those late comers and say, “here, let me show you how to do it?”