Last week, while I was browsing some passages to decide what to talk about, I came across Matthew 20--the story of the "Workers in the Vineyard" and ever since then, it has been on my mind.
“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay the normal daily wage"[a] and sent them out to work.
3 “At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. 4 So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. 5 So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.
6 “At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’
7 “They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’
8 “That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. 9 When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’
13 “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’
16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”
Now, there's a lot to this story and, in a way, it actually takes away from the story if you try to dissect it. If you simply read it and allow your heard to just marinate in it, it's bound to change you and get you closer to the heart of God.
One of the more common explanations of the story, one that I've heard more than once, is that the major problem with the workers and the source of their jealousy is that they are comparing themselves with the people around them. If they'd simply worry about themselves, look inward, and let the boss sort things out however he or she wants, then they'd be content with their payment and everything would be just fine. So the problem is that they're looking outward when they should be looking inward. This makes some sense because the good news of the story isn't that everyone was paid fairly but that everyone was hired in the first place. The boss didn't have to hire them. But in a society where work was scarce and poverty was prevalent, any work was salvation. It meant food on the table. So, in a way, this explanation works. We should look at ourselves and be thankful for the incredible grace of God and not allow it to be diminished because we think our neighbor got more grace.
But what if the opposite is true as well? What if a major source of their jealousy wasn't so much they they were looking outward but that they were looking for the wrong thing? What if the problem is that when the workers looked at their neighbors, when they looked outward, and saw what everyone was getting paid, they were actually looking inward?
The workers missed the forest for the trees. They ignored the big picture. In their need, they lost the sense that we're all in this together. They weren't concerned about the need of their neighbor, they didn't care that they needed work just as much as they did, but instead they were only concerned about their own need and felt entitled to the grace that was given. The problem wasn't so much that they were looking outward. The problem was that when they looked outward they saw a machine, a system rather than a compassionate master issuing undeserved grace. It wasn't where they were looking but what they saw that made the difference. And their jealousy spoiled the good news.
The good news of the gospel is that God chooses us, hires us, and rewards us based not upon our level of status or what we deserve but based on our need for salvation--our need for love, acceptance, forgiveness, and dignity. This is really good news to those of us who realize just how undeserving we really are. It's really good news for those of us who are constantly caught up in a world of chaos. This is really good news for those of us who've been looking for work but nobody will hire us. We can purely and freely celebrate the grace and love of God which comes to us in our great need. But for those of us who think we're entitled to grace, for those of us who are concerned only for reaping the benefits of our own work and not for seeing the needs of our fellow workers met alongside us, this good news gets covered in the static of jealousy and greed. What if our world could be bigger? What if we could see beyond ourselves? What if our joy came not only in our own salvation but from the salvation even of those who we think are less deserving or less "right" than we are? Then our concern would not be about who's "in" or "out," who deserves it or who earns it. Our work would not just be about our need but the needs of those around us. Because no matter how hard or long we work, we can't earn it and we don't deserve it any more than those around us.
See, we Christians do a disservice to the world sometimes. Sometimes we make being a Christian sound so simple that it's fake. We make it sound like if we pray a simple prayer, "Lord, I'm a sinner..." then we'll be able to go to heaven when we die. How appealing does that sound? Is life really about waiting to go to heaven? The rest of the world is saying, "who cares about when I die? I want something that works right now!"
Or we might, not so much with our words but with our actions, make it look like being a Christian is about measuring up or "earning it." To be a Christian you've gotta stay away from all those heathens who hang in the back of the school. You've gotta wear Christian T-shirts and carry your bible everywhere you go. You even have to look down your nose at the people who say they're Christians but don't go to church. You see, sometimes we look outward, but in reality we're still just selfish and hypocritical.
The real truth is that being a Christian isn't only about where you go when you die, and it's not about trying to measure up in the eyes of God. The real truth is that being a Christian begins and ends with knowing that God loves you. If the boss in this story is God, then God goes out and finds the people with no work, the people who are bankrupt. God goes out and finds all of us. God's love for us is what puts us to work. Then when it's time for payment, when the reward comes, it's not about how much we worked, it's about what we needed in the first place. The only thing that merits a reward for us is God's love for us. When we know how much God loves us, when we see how helpless we really are without it, we begin to take joy not only in our reward but in the work itself and in the reward of others. When you know how much God loves you, you begin to want different things, you begin to see different things. You begin to want the same things God wants which includes the salvation of the people we wouldn't normally hang out with. You begin to see each person as a creation and a reflection of God. You begin to work here and now for the needs of others as a response to the love of God.
So the invitation here for us is simple. We're invited to work, to see our work as God sees it and to work not only for our own needs but for the needs of others. We're invited to embrace the heart of God so that when we see the undeserved grace of God given to our neighbors in need we can rejoice because we know that it all begins and ends with the love of God.