I had occasion to discuss this passage a couple of days ago, and it reminded me of many discussions I have had regarding this parable. (It’s Matthew 20:1-16, by the way.) This is a short note and not an extended discussion.
The most common response I hear to this is that it isn’t fair. My most common response to the response is that God isn’t fair. Then people want to discuss whether as employers we should reward people according to their accomplishments, or whether this is a call for a different type of society.
My simple note is this: While I stand by my statement that God isn’t fair, I need to go farther and faster. God is not fair in that he gives us more than we can possibly claim. We are often afraid to simply note that God doesn’t really have to do anything.
Go back to the garden. God creates human beings, male and female, and places them in the garden. God doesn’t have to do that. We can say that it wouldn’t be nice to just dump them somewhere, but we have no way of calling God to account about that. In Scripture, God can be called to account, but it is only because God has set the standard and invites us to do so. When we talk about fairness we appeal to an outside standard.
To some, that makes God seem worse than us. God is unfair, and God can be unfair because, well, God! But what we see is God being kind and gracious even without that outside appeal. Many of us only do nice things because we might be seen, or we want the reputation, or—face it—because we have to. God does more than God has to because, well, God!
When we read this parable, I suspect we are not called upon to examine the fairness of economic systems (though that is a good thing to discuss), or whether the owner of the vineyard was a nice guy, which is perhaps questionable.
Rather, I think we are invited to think about who we are. And that’s tough.
I’ve never heard someone respond immediately by commenting on how unfair it would be to them, as the 11th-hour worker, to get a full day’s pay for one hour of work.
We think of ourselves as early, all-day workers. We’re wrong!
I think the passage’s main point is to invite us to think of ourselves as 11th-hour workers, people whose wages would be inadequate to feed our families if we just got the standard wage for our hour of work. We’re the ones who get something without a claim on it.
This is the value of a story: Helping us adjust our thinking by placing ourselves in the story.
I think if you get what Jesus is saying, one impact will be to change the way you think about yourself. In doing so, you may change the way you think about, and interact with, other people, those we have often thought of as getting more than they deserve.
Which is another value of a story: It carries over into so many different aspects of our life.