If Jesus is known for doing one thing in his teaching and parables it this: turning your expectations on their head and shattering your illusions about how you think God works and responds to the world. In parable after parable, encounter after encounter, this is what Jesus does. One of the most dramatic examples can be found in the parable we read this morning.
I think one of the best ways to understand what Jesus is saying is to put it into our context today. How can we try and hear this story as if we’ve never heard it before and really don’t know much about this Jesus guy who has shared it? If we want to hear his story with fresh ears and see with new eyes, we need to tell this story in such way that it might take us by surprise in the same way it did with Jesus’ first hearers. It’s hard to do this with some of Jesus’ parable; the clear points of connection just aren’t there. Not so with this one. What Jesus is talking about today, the people he’s describing, are all part of our world. The people, practices, and reactions are really unchanged from when Jesus first told this story.
So what’s one way we might encounter this story anew; a story of migrant day laborers, wage disputes, economic inequality, and perceived injustice?
Forget, if you can, this is part of the Bible and the Son of God himself is relating this story.
Imagine you’re driving down the road, listening to your favorite whine and gripe talk station, when this guy calls up; one of the workers who feels he’s been slighted and cheated because he worked all day and got the same money as the people who showed up at the end of the day. It’s one of the workers, hired first, telling the story. Not Jesus. You’re hearing the exact same things Jesus said but you don’t know anything at all about Matthew 20:1-16. You hear this cold, from the first worker’s perspective. How would you feel? Would you find yourself automatically agreeing with the aggrieved worker? I think most people would. Today, the first worker would probably add something to the story. Those who came late and were paid the same were probably immigrants. This would have infuriated the first worker even more. Stereotypes would be fed, anger fueled, “see we’re going to hell in a hand basket” would be said, Congress and the President would be blamed, and the vicious cycle of “it’s not fair” would begin all over again.
How would you feel if that were you? Would you agree with the supposedly slighted workers? Is this, “what’s wrong with America/the world today”; people wanting to receive benefits or pay when they don’t do what we perceive to be the work first?
Then you remember; this is not some call on a radio talk show. This is Jesus talking. If I’m getting frustrated at the outcome of this story, how this guy was treated, and how this boss paid everyone the same amount of money, I’m getting frustrated and angry toward the Son of God, Jesus Christ himself.
Let me tell you, if you’re driving and have such a realization, and pull over.
Day laborers have been part of the economic system for centuries. People who wait on street corners and dusty roads for a chance to work for enough to eek by for another day, have been some of the most exploited human beings in the history of western civilization. The lack any worker protections, they can’t form unions, they can be paid next to nothing, and they work in horrible conditions. There are always more day laborers than available work. So even on a good day, many are left behind. When people suggest (as you see in Jesus’ parable) in our own day that we change some of those conditions in which day laborers work (protection, equal pay); the people at the top and the people who get paid, get very angry. Some will say, “Isn’t a job enough?” Some money is better than no money, right?
Here are the facts: Jesus’ understanding of justice and fairness is nothing like ours. If they were, none of us would be here today. Jesus’ ideas about how to pay and treat people who are barely hanging on to the end of the rotten socio-economic ladder of mass-agricultural capitalism are what many in our day would call un-American. How would Jesus be treated by Bill O’Reilly if he told this parable on “The Factor”? He would be called a socialist. He would be called weak on immigration for encouraging the use of illegal alien migrant day laborers. He would be vilified. People might begin to talk about the equivalent of 21st century crucifixion. Tweets and messages would flood in. “Good Going Bill, you showed that long haired Middle Eastern socialist a thing or two about how we do it in America!”
What Jesus says and teaches, particularly here, stands in stark contrast to what many in our country have been taught to believe. The terms we were taught, “God-fearing, hard-working American” and the idea of a “Protestant work ethic”, don’t look to Godly when measured against Jesus’ management practices in this passage.
Jesus resists living by the status quo, interpreting scripture by the status quo, and so should we. He is turning the world (of those who are listening) upside down as well as ours. In this parable, we have more in common with his hearers and the first workers than we do Jesus. If something about what Jesus has just said doesn’t feel right to you, then you know he’s talking to you. You are now upside down.
One of the big problems is when we read this parable is we see ourselves as the first hour workers. That’s who we associate ourselves with and that’s what stokes our anger. When we hear it in our context (if you pull Jesus out and listen to the story), we agree with that guy. The truth is, we are not first hour workers. Each one of us, you and me, are all 11th hour workers. We have all arrived at the end of the day. It is not until the last possible minute we show up. We have all been the undeserved recipients of God’s undeserved generosity and grace. It’s been that way all our lives. But somehow, we started getting frustrated when God became generous and loving to other people. It made us mad to see God do for others what he’d done for us. Where did we get the idea that we could tell God how to be God? How did we ever get fooled into thinking we were first and God owed us more than the many blessings we’d already received?
We stopped listening to Jesus, that how. We forgot who we were listening to and who was telling us the story. We stopped letting Jesus’ stories shape our lives and values and allowed the media, popular culture, technology, and the news mold our characters instead. In the words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that working out for you?”
So how do we begin to come to terms that everyone is equal in the eyes of God? That’s what this parable is really about. It’s not about the money. It’s that the landowner gave the same money. People were treated equally and fairly by God’s standard and not by our “human” or “worldly” standards. Where do we conveniently destroy our indignation at Jesus’ words and the supposed unfairness of the landowner’s actions? That like so much else; can be left at the foot of the cross.
There was a book written many years ago by a man named, J.B. Phillips. It was entitled, “Your God is Too Small.” Maybe this parable is asking us to write a new book, “Our God is Too Nice.” God is too nice, nicer than we can ever imagine. God is nicer to us than we deserve. We have no right to be angry when he’s nice to other people; people who are different from us, who show up after we do, and those who generally frustrate the hell out of us. Because we’re all different, we’re all late comers to the party, and we’re all just waiting for someone to call us and offer us a chance to serve.