Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Septuagesima Sunday, 20 February 2011.
Text: Matthew 20:1–16
A group of men had been working in the same vineyard. Some had worked the full day, probably nearly 12 hours; some for 9 hours, some for six, some three, and some just about an hour. And at the end of their respective shifts, everyone got paid the same, a denarius. That means that the last workers to join the working party in the vineyard got paid twelve times the hourly rate of the ones who worked the whole day—even though they got to do their bit in the cool of the day, while the others had laboured in the heat of the Mediterranean sun. Even though the fact that they had not been employed by anyone all day suggested that they were the dregs of the local labour market, like the one-legged footballer who always gets picked last by the team captain.
The only justice that could possibly come out of this strange story is what Jesus doesn’t tell us: what happened the next day. I’m pretty sure that the vineyard owner had a great deal of trouble getting anyone to work for him, at least not without some firm guarantees about fair rates of pay. In short, this is no way to run a business.
Now, we might sympathise with the vineyard owner’s reply when the first men complain about the wages of the late-comers—“Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? … Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? ” After all, technically, he is quite within his rights and is allowed to pay people as he wishes. But he is being unfair, effectively penalising those who have worked hardest and rewarding those who have been idle all day. What would the union rep have to say about that?
More to the point, what would the church have to say about it? According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican, a just wage is the legitimate fruit of work and therefore “They commit grave injustice who refuse to pay a just wage or who do not give it in due time and in proportion to the work done.”
In other words, the vineyard owner’s defence is no defence at all. It certainly wouldn’t wash in an employment tribunal. Yes, technically he may be within his rights to pay whatever he pleases to whomever he pleases, but that doesn’t excuse the injustice.
A fair employer pays a fair wage, in proportion to the work done.
Which begs the question: what precisely is Jesus trying to teach us in this parable? That God is arbitrary and, ultimately, unjust in His dealings with us, blessing some in greater proportion than others?
It may certainly seem so, and, let’s be honest, it often feels so. Like the disgruntled workers, we are quick to envy the fortune of others. Some people just sail through life upon calm waters and under constant sunshine, while others leap from struggle to struggle. If the blessings were given in proportion to godliness and piety, perhaps it would be more acceptable. But as the Psalmist points out so frequently, just as often it’s the wicked who prosper while the godly struggle. It seems so unfair. And, if we are being more honest still, we sometimes find it hard to accept that while we may have laboured for years, perhaps all our lives, in the heat of the sun, bearing Christ’s cross, others sneak in to God’s kingdom at the last minute with a deathbed conversion, perhaps after a life life of great wickedness or even as enemies of the very cross for which we have suffered. It’s not fair.
However, let’s think a bit more about what the nature of the injustice in this parable is. In what way has the vineyard owner wronged the disgruntled workers? After all, they received their contractual pay. Moreover, the pay that had been agreed was a fair one. One denarius was the common daily rate of pay for casual labourers such as the workers in the parable. It was indeed a just wage, given in due time and in proportion to the work done.
No, their problem wasn’t with their wages. Their problem was with the wages of the other workers. It wasn’t that they were being paid too little for the work done—it was what they could expect from any employer. They grumbled because the others were being paid more than the just wage. They hadn’t minded being paid a denarius for 12 hours’ work—until someone else got paid a denarius for an hour’s work. Their reward was just fine by itself, but it suddenly seemed pitiful when compared to the reward of others.
In just the same way, it’s much easier to bear our own burdens when others are having a hard time, too. It’s when we feel that our lot is harder than that of others that we begin to grumble. How often have you consoled yourself with the thought that at least you know that there’s someone even worse off than you? If that is your hope, then what will you cling to when you run out of people who are worse off than you? When you lose everything—when life itself is taken away? After all, if not before, the moment you die, no one will be worse off than you, because at that moment you will get to the point from which there is no way out and no way up.
You see, the real problem is the attitude that says that what I have isn’t good enough unless I can be convinced that things couldn’t be better. It’s the old heresy that infected Adam and Eve when the serpent hissed in their ear: “You will be like God”—He is holding you back, He could be giving you more, but you won’t get it unless you take it. It’s the same heresy that poisoned Cain’s mind, so that he murdered his brother because he felt that God hadn’t given Him the recognition he deserved. It’s the same heresy that infected the people of Israel when, dissatisfied with God’s promise of salvation and all the mighty works He had done to save them, they yearned for the flesh pots of Egypt. It’s the heresy that had infected many Jewish people of Jesus’ time who were jealously guarding God’s word as their exclusive possession, so that no Gentiles would sneak in on their promised reward. The same heresy that still infects us today—us, who are quite happy with our denarius, provided no one else gets more, or no one less deserving gets the same.
But can you see what’s behind this attitude? What is the assumption made by everyone in this sorry saga: Adam, Eve, Cain, the Israelites, first-century Jews, you and me? We all assume that we are the 12-hour shift, the ones who actually deserve the denarius, and that no one deserves more, and that a great many people deserve less.
Even those of us who have begun to learn the meaning of the last words Luther wrote before he died—“We are beggars, this is true”—are still hard-wired to assume that there is a direct correlation between effort and reward; that there should be a just wage in proportion to the work done.
The truth couldn’t be more different. None of us is a 12-hour labourer. The work of the vineyard has been going on for a long time. Since creation was perverted by the sin of our forebears, God has been calling labourers into His vineyard, through whom He has been setting it right. When the Son of God became incarnate, died and rose again, the world entered that final hour that is traditionally called the end times. When the curtain of the temple was torn in two, and the full, final sacrifice was complete, the eleventh hour began, at the end of which the workers will be gathered and given their wages. It is 2000 years into this final hour that we have been called into the work of the vineyard. Those who began the work perished long ago; we labour but a few moments in God’s great project of restoring the garden out of which man was ejected for his own disobedience.
What should your reward be for your few moments? What have you deserved? Not even the meagre wage of the casual day labourer, the minimum wage of the denarius that will scarcely suffice to keep body and soul together.
And what is the reward that God has prepared for you? It is something that that no eye has seen and no ear has heard—a reward beyond your wildest dreams, far beyond your imagination. Not the fraction of a denarius that you may have earned, but the infinite riches that Christ has earned and now gifts to you. Already, we are enjoying the advance payment: the gifts of grace in the word of forgiveness, in the washing of new birth, in the medicine of immortality being offered at this altar.
What, then, are the troubles and trials of this life, compared to what God has pledged to give to us? What are the hardships in comparison with the joys that await us? Certainly they are far less than we deserve. Even when our lives turn into a living hell, we can be assured that, having been washed in the blood of the Son of God, this life is the only hell we will ever have to endure.
For Christ on His cross has endured all the torments of hell in your place so that you may enjoy His reward—and so your wages are being paid in proportion to the work He has done.
And so it is true: It really isn’t fair, thank God!