This parable has a lot of similarities to our world today. For example, the workday begins early. Across America our streets and highways are already jumping before sunrise. The same was true back in Jesus’ day. Those who needed work got up before the sun and gathered in a specific place to wait for someone to employ them.
It might be the same where you live, but in my community, painters looking for work gather in front of the paint store, plumbers stand near the plumbing supply shop, and handymen and carpenters stand in the parking lot around Home Depot. Each one hoping to get picked up so they can pay their rent or support their family.
Another similarity in this story is that the employer set the wage. And each worker agreed that it’s fair before they entered the vineyard to work. Negotiating salary and benefits would come much later. And even then it’s still a privilege to a very select few.
In this story the workers are just happy to have work. Jesus doesn’t tell us why, but over the course of a day more workers are needed. And four more times the manager goes out to hire more guys to pick the fruit, with each agreeing to the same terms.
At the end of the day, the men line up to get paid, just like I did after that demo job. And just like I did, each laborer received the same paycheck, no matter how long or hard they worked. Jesus said this is what the Kingdom of God is like.
His comment would have ticked some people off, just like it does today. A literal interpretation of this story would most likely raise the hackles on any business-minded person because it tosses out every notion we’ve learned about fair compensation.
In his seminal book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey asks, “Who in their right mind would offer the same reward to those who have earned it and to those who have not?”
The answer is simple. God would. God views fairness differently.
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Naturally, those who were hired first grumble. They believe they should get more. Who can blame them, right? It’s just not fair. Similarly, we tend to believe the ones who worked a full day in the hot blazing sun ought to earn more than those who barely had time to break a sweat.
But God doesn’t see it that way. And thank God for that. In the Kingdom of God, all are loved equally. And all are cared for equally. Here’s the good news. We can’t earn our way into receiving grace. It’s already been negotiated into the deal God made with us through Christ Jesus.
For those who see this story as being unfair, I’d invite you to stand in the shoes of those who were hired last. Jesus makes a big deal about this point. We might be tempted to think those workers in the story who aren’t employed are lazy to work.
When the vineyard owner sees them, and asked, “Why have you been standing around all day doing nothing?”
They simply replied, “Because no one has hired us.”
Their problem wasn’t that they were too lazy to work. Their problem was they got passed over or pushed aside for some reason. Perhaps they were strangers, or didn’t speak the language, or had some kind of disability. Whatever the reason was, they have to figure out a way to get their daily bread. And by that, I mean put actual bread on their table tonight.
Imagine what it’s like to watch others get picked while you get passed over. The fear and pressure of making ends meet can crush a person’s psyche. It’s become too easy for us to overlook these last workers, or to judge them unfairly especially when we think we are better than they are.
The vineyard owner didn’t see it that way. He didn’t judge or shame these people. Instead, he was sympathetic to their plight. And gave them work.
Take it from me, anyone can all fall on hard times at any time. When we do, we rely on the generosity and goodness of a helping hand. I think this is what this story is about. You see, when Jesus tells us parables about the Kingdom of God, he’s revealing the way God reigns.
In this particular story, Jesus is showing us how being last doesn’t set you back. That’s not how it works in God’s realm. It doesn’t matter where you were born, what language you speak, or what the color of your skin color is.
God is faithful and generous to all. Our bad timing or even our incompetence does not stop God from loving any one of us any more or any less.
Let me say it again. We don’t earn God’s grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness. These wages can never be calculated on a timesheet. They aren’t held over our head as a bonus or reward based on merit. Each one is a gift, freely given to all who are willing to enter the vineyard.
I hope this sinks in because there are a lot of Christians out there today who are complaining about how unfair it is that President Biden signed an executive order to forgive some of the student loan debt.
If you ask me, helping to ease the financial weight to millions of Americans is one of the most Christian acts an American president has done in a very long time. On paper, it seems unfair. I get that. But as Christ followers, we ought to be supporting it with our whole hearts.
Remember it was Jesus who taught us to pray saying, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
Some of us think we deserve more because we do more, we give more, we play by the rules. There’s merit in that, for sure. But some of us weren’t able to have the same educational opportunities. Some of us simply don’t have the aptitude or the physical strength that others have to do certain work.
Let’s face it, there are many who can’t afford to be as generous as others because they are buried under enormous debt. A preschool teacher doesn’t make the same amount of money as a CEO. But the price of gas is the same for both.
This parable reminds us that we need to be more sympathetic to those who are at a disadvantage. Time and time again, Jesus clearly demonstrated that.
In the space between the work and wages, God remains gracious and loving to all. Instead of getting mad we should count our blessings and be thankful knowing God isn’t concerned about what we deserve; God merely gives us what we need; “even if it means paying some people twelve times more than what they deserved.”
Whether you’ve been faithful and devoted your whole life, or you’re just coming to terms with Christ today, your paycheck is the same. At the end of the day, Christ died for all. And all of creation will benefit because of it.
We should be grateful that our God is a lousy bookkeeper. A God who, as someone pointed out to me, “adds infinity to every paycheck.” Every day, in the space between earning a living and actually living, God doles out infinite grace. Infinite love. Infinite forgiveness. Infinite life.
How grateful does that make your heart feel? I imagine that’s how those workers felt when they are finally hired. I suspect they are paid first, not because they need it more. But because they are able to receive it with joy and gratitude – not with envy or pettiness. God is a generous employer; giving us what we need, not what we deserve. And thank God for that.
God loves and welcomes all into the vineyard where there is still work to be done. But who among us is willing to step in and get your hands dirty?
Who among us is willing to show grace to someone who doesn’t deserve it?
Or forgive one another’s debts and trespasses, just as God did for you and me?
Are you willing to lend a hand to someone who is at a disadvantage without expecting anything in return?
Jesus has called us to continue his ministry of love and redemption, to help others see their worth in God’s eyes. This is our job.
We don’t need to worry ourselves with who came when. Or who does what. We just have to love God, love others and serve both.
In this sacred space of Anamesa, God comes to hire us, to use our gifts and talents for the building up of God’s Kingdom.
This takes more workers like you and me, to be willing to do more planting, more growing and more harvesting the fruits of God’s glory until Christ comes again to give us our final paycheck.
Life, everlasting, in the presence of God almighty.
Based on an original sermon There’s Work To Be Done on September 1, 2019 (accessed on 8-30-2022).
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 92-97.
McNeely, Darris. The Parable of the Workers - A Fair Wage From a Fair Employer. (March 15, 2013). (accessed on August 30, 2019)
Yancy, Phillip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) pp. 61-63.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”