NYOJoe 009: Jesus’s parable of the workers in the vineyard teaches that we often mistake God’s generosity as being unfair.
- Parable of the workers in the vineyard: Matthew 20:1-16
- Parables of celebration because the lost are found: Luke 15
- Ned Flanders post-hurricane, “why me?” prayer
- Definition of prodigal
- Email me your thoughts.
This is Not Your Ordinary Joe, a podcast about living as a faithful follower of Jesus in the real world. Here. Now. With no easy answers allowed.
Depending upon how you look at things, you can feel resentful of the blessings some people receive. Or, you can instead choose to see God as generous to everyone. Let’s look at one or two of Jesus’s parables that bump up against our ideas of fairness.
My name is Joe Iovino, and I am NOT your ordinary Joe.
When I was heading to seminary, my grandmother told me that she wanted me to learn about the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). You may know it. It’s this strange little story Jesus tells about a landowner who goes out several times in the day to hire day-laborers to work his land.
In Jesus’s story, the owner goes out ‘early in the morning’ and hires some people. They agreed on a price: one denarion, which the footnote in the Common English Bible says was a common day’s wage.
Around 9:00 a.m. he goes out and sees some other people “standing around the marketplace doing nothing,” and offers them some work. “You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.”
Again at noon, 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m. he finds people standing around and gives them some work. Cool right? He’s employing whoever he comes across in need of a job.
“When evening came,” Jesus continues—the story seems to hint that we’re talking 6:00 p.m.—“the owner of the vineyard said to his manger, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’”
So the workers line up to receive their pay. The 5 p.m. crew is first in line, followed by the 3 p.m. crew, then noon, 9:00 a.m., and all the way down the group that stared ‘early in the morning,’ around 6 probably, to receive their pay.
The first ones, who had worked only one hour, each get one denarion, which apparently they make known to the people at the back of the line—the ones who’ve been in the field for somewhere around 12 hours.
According to Jesus, that makes the early morning crew start to expect more. Surely, if the people who only worked 1 hour get a denarion, we who’ve worked 12 hours should get somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 denarion or denarii (I don’t know what the plural is). The math checks out.
But when they reach the front of the line, the manager hands each of them a denarion. “When they received it,” Jesus says, “they grumbled against the landowner.” I’m guessing grumbled is putting it nicely.
The landowner addresses one of the grumbling workers,
Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’
Grandmom thought this parable was confusing. Maybe there must be some grand explanation of first century economics that they teach in seminary that would help this crazy story Jesus tells make sense.
I’m guessing you know exactly what she meant. We read this parable and most of us agree with the grumbling workers. We’re ready to come to their defense.
What the landowner—the God-figure—does to these workers in this story isn’t right. It’s unfair. And my grandmother wanted an explanation that would make this strange labor practice seem more equitable. But there was no better explanation to come. She wanted to learn what this parable means, but she already knew.
The point of Jesus’s story, is that no matter how much time we put into the vineyard, we all get more than we deserve. Yes! The whole system God has set up is inherently, gloriously and beautifully unfair. The church word for this is grace.
An unfair kingdom
Just to be clear, this is not a story about how Jesus thinks anyone should run their business. Nor is it a story about negotiating your salary or the minimum wage.
Jesus tells us what this story is about when he begins with these words, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…”
Jesus is clearly telling his followers that God is not fair, in the way we think of fairness. Rather, the word Jesus puts in the mouth of the landowner is that God is generous.
Another parable Jesus tells comes to a similar conclusion. Remember the story about the kid who asks for his father’s inheritance and squanders it doing everything he should never have done before the asking his father’s forgiveness?
His elder brother in the story has the same problem. When he comes out of the fields and near the house, he hears the ruckus coming from a party his dad is throwing for his crazy, screwup of a brother, that includes the fattened calf. He comes to his dad and cries, “Unfair!”
Here’s what Jesus tells us the elders son says:
Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.Luke 15:29
Similar to the vineyard owner, the father talks about generosity. “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of your was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found” (32).
This idea of things being unfair is a pretty common theme in the gospels. Religious leaders become angry with Jesus when he pronounces people sins forgiven. At least one of the reasons they react this way is that the people don’t deserve it. They haven’t gone through the process to earn their forgiveness.
There are others who are perceived as undeserving of being healed, who shouldn’t be allowed to eat with Jesus because of their previous behavior or profession… There always seems to be someone ready to grumble, “It’s not fair!”
Or maybe what they are really thinking is, “What about me?”
Storming the Capitol
On January 6, 2021, a group of people disgruntled with our government stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C. If the image of that wasn’t disturbing enough to us as Americans, there were some in the crowd carrying “Jesus Saves” signs, flags and other religious symbols. There were prayer vigils supporting the rally, and members of the mob claiming what they were doing was in the name of God.
As a person of faith, it was disturbing to see a group of people lashing out and others later defending their actions as somehow an expression of faith.
As I reflect on these actions by these people of faith, I am more and more concerned how some in the name of Jesus claim victimhood rather than coming alongside those who are victims as Jesus taught us to do.
The primary presenting grievance of the armed mostly white insurrectionists on January 6 was that the election was unfair. It was somehow stolen because voting was made easier for so many and people who had previously been ignored made their voices heard.
Through the years many of these same people have claimed their rights are being violated because others are given the right to marry and have legal standing as a couple. They have countered cries of Black lives matter when a Black man is suffocated by a police officer, by chanting all lives matter.
As talk of a minimum wage increase gains traction and suggestions of eliminating student debt are taken seriously, there are those who say, What about my wage? What about my debt?
The cry of this group is the cry of the 5:00 p.m. crowd and the elder brother, “What about us?!?”
The god of fairness
So why do they drag the religious symbolism and chants into this fight? My guess is it’s because all of this is tied to a faith that is misguided.
In fact, I believe they are angry with God, because this god is not keeping up his end of the bargain, the deal, the way things are “supposed” to work. They are the early morning workers in the vineyard, grumbling that they deserve better, more, because they’ve put in their time. Even sometimes chanting that they are taking back “our” country that they seem to believe was granted them by God.
I also believe they are angry at their church for lying to them. They were taught that God works a certain way, and they are finding out that in the real world, that’s not how things work at all. The church people don’t always win. They have bought—hook, line, and sinker—a transactional, consumeristic faith that is simply a lie. And like the eldest brother who thought he would get a bigger inheritance for sticking it out with this dad, they’re angry about feeling duped.
Because they are angry at God and the Church—two entities their ill-advised faith will not allow them to be angry with—they find surrogates to be angry with instead. Scapegoats (to borrow a biblical image).
If group X wasn’t here screwing things up—poor people, immigrants, non-Christians, non-Europeans, liberals, conservatives, whoever doesn’t agree with us—then God would do what we’ve been taught God wants to do. Surely, God wants to bless us, the people on God’s side (does anyone think they are not on God’s side, by the way?).
It’s all very Pharisaic–or maybe it’s Saddusaic. All of Jesus’s rubs with the religious leaders about the Law were along these lines. There was a faction of Judaism of the first century that believed when people obeyed God enough, God would return to the Temple and set things right. Why hadn’t God done that yet? Because too many people were misbehaving. They weren’t doing things the right way, God’s way. Sound familiar?
And so Jesus ends up in these odd conversations about healing people on a Saturday, the Sabbath, because “work” is forbidden on that day of the week. There’s an accusation about Jesus’s disciples not washing their hands properly, and time and time again Jesus is accused over overstepping his bounds, in essence, working outside of the system. Sound familiar?
If we would follow the rules, God would bless us and our nation.
Many Christians don’t want to talk about the people who are being hurt, don’t want to do the difficult work Jesus called us to in feeding, housing, clothing and visiting our neighbors. Caring for those who are lost and forgotten—again, those without a voice.
Instead, they want to claim victimhood, to complain that they aren’t getting their fair share. That’s what whataboutism is all about. What about me?
Jesus’s message is different. He isn’t concerned with the people who started work in the wee hours of the morning. He isn’t worried about the elder brother who has done the right things.
He’s concerned with those who always seem to be getting the short end of the stick. With those who feel like they don’t have a place in the family. With those who run away, who are sent away, who find barriers between them and full inclusion in the nation, and more importantly in the Kingdom of God, the body of Jesus, the church.
The 5 p.m. crowd
My grandmother, like most of us, assumed she was one of the 5 a.m. crowd, the people who worked all day and deserved something for the effort. The people who feel ripped off.
But what if we were to put ourselves instead in the shoes of the 5 p.m. crowd? Now how do you feel about the landowner?
The landowner in the workers in the vineyard story isn’t about God being unfair, but about God being generous—the word Jesus puts in the character’s mouth. The same is true in the parable some have come to call “The parable of the prodigal father,” because the word prodigal means “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure” (Merriam-Webster) and the dad in the story is the one who spends recklessly, generously out of love for his ‘found son.’
Remember that none of us deserves God’s favor. “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). None of us has earned a spot in the kingdom, the church, the family of God. Not for our extended labor in the vineyard, nor our continued presence with the family after our younger brothers have taken off to run their lives into the ground.
Not for being clergy or an every Sunday church attendee or for reading the Bible and praying more than others. That improves your relationship with God, but it doesn’t gain you some privileged access or inside, extra blessings.
All of us, all of us, all of us, get we don’t deserve! A relationship with the divine, our creator, with Jesus. All of us get paid. All of us get a party. All of us are part of God’s inherently, gloriously and beautifully unfair Kingdom.
Lest anyone think I am preaching at someone, let me explain.
This is not a message only about the events of January 6, 2021 at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. and the people who perpetrated the riots. This is a message for all of us. And like most of my best writing, sermons, podcasts, this is a message I need to hear.
Because if you have been part of the church long enough, you have heard or absorbed by osmosis hints of a prosperity gospel or the protestant work ethic (as we used to call it back in the day). You may have been told that God helps those who helps themselves and by extension leaves sinners out in the cold. Or you may have confused God with Santa Claus, who knows if you’ve been bad or good—and gives you gifts or coal according to some standard know one actually knows. How good is good enough?
My guess is that you, like me, have prayed, “This isn’t fair.” Or “What about me?” Or the prayer that Ned Flanders prays when his house is destroyed by a hurricane on an episode of The Simpsons:
Why me, Lord? Where have I gone wrong? I’ve always been nice to people. I don’t drink or dance or swear. I’ve even kept Kosher just to be on the safe side. I’ve done everything the Bible says, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff. What more could I do? I feel like I’m coming apart here. I want to yell out, but I just can’t dang-diddily-do-dang, do-dang-diddily-darn do it.The Simpsons, “Hurricane Neddy,” season 8, episode 8
If Ned Flanders, one of the most recognizable Christians in the United States, has prayed that prayer, certainly you and I can fall prey to it as well. Maybe it isn’t a hurricane, but a shortage of money when an unexpected bill comes in. Or maybe it’s an illness (Christians get cancer and coronavirus at remarkably the same rate as non-Christians). Or maybe it’s divorce, a parent’s deterioration, or the downsizing of your job.
It seems that whenever something like this happens, there is always some helpful person of faith to tell you to “have faith, or pray or study Scripture. Which—although it is not intended this way—is sometimes heard as “the reason this happened to you in the first place is because you don’t have enough faith, don’t pray enough, don’t read your Bible enough.”
The irony to all of this is, of course, that the author of the Hebrew Scripture book of Job tried to put this question to rest some 3-5000 years ago. Job, we are told, does not deserve any of the stuff that happens to him. We’re told right from the start of the story that Job “was honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil” (Job 1:1 CEB). Yet, all of those horrible things happen to him anyway.
Jesus himself told us that the sun and the rain fall on all people—the good and the evil; the righteous and the unjust—but apparently we weren’t listening.
Let me say it again, the Kingdom of God is not a merit based country club you gain entry to and rank in based of what you believe, who you support, how long you’ve gone to church, what church you belong to, what political party you most identify with, or any of that stuff.
Jesus clearly states in this parable that God is generous, and God’s kingdom is inherently, gloriously, and beautifully unfair. People who expect special treatment because they’ve been “in” longer, are often disappointed. Older brothers who expect a special place of honor because they’ve stuck around in spite of how much they might resent it, miss parties out of frustration.
And you and I can choose either to live our lives frustrated with God because others get what we don’t think they deserve. Or we can choose to live grateful because we are receiving that which we don’t deserve.
No matter where you think you fall in comparison to the others whom you don’t believe deserve God’s favor, there is probably someone ahead of you that could think the same thing about the blessings you have received.
Our role is not to complain about what others are receiving, but to help them celebrate when they do.
I recently read the gospel of Luke in N.T. Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament translation, in which he does a very interesting thing with Luke 15. Rather than dividing the chapter into three stories, which most of us are used to—the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost (prodigal) son, Wright breaks it into four stories. He separates the the prodigal father/lost son story into two stories. One about the younger son, and one about the elder.
When he does this something very interesting happens. Three of the four stories end with a celebration, a party, a gathering. The fourth story, the elder son story, instead ends with a refusal to attend the party. It’s pretty stunning.
Like the grumbling servants who think they deserve more, like the elder son who also believes he has earned something that is owed him, they miss out on the generosity of the God-figure.
So the short answer is simply this, if you feel betrayed by God, if you feel like God isn’t holding up God’s end of the bargain, if you feel that you are being shortchanged by God, or find yourself sulking because your younger brother is getting the party you never had…
May I suggest that you are feeling betrayed by a god who simply doesn’t exist.
To learn more about me and Not Your Ordinary Joe, go to joeiovino.com/nyojoe. I’ve put some links on the notes page for this episode—number 9, titled ‘Betrayed by a god that doesn’t exist’—to help you find these Bible stories, and my email address so you can respond to these thoughts. I’m sure this isn’t going to sit well with everyone.
Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you soon. Peace.
- Music by Joseph Iovino (son)
- Podcast art by Kristi Iovino (daughter)