The Prodigal Laborers, or the Unfairness of Mercy


Matthew 20:1-16

Sometimes it is fun to tell a story backwards. If I had been hired first thing in the morning, I would be feeling pretty fine right about now. I would be overflowing with joyful anticipation. Things don’t get much better than this. This is gonna be really good. I’ve been out there in the vineyard all day, sweating away in the hot sun, and from what I’ve seen so far, this is going to turn out to be by far the best landowner that I have ever worked for. Look how generous he’s been to all of those who were hired after me! I’ll bet, that when he gets to me, I will certainly be rewarded well. I’ll bet that I’ll get twice the usual daily wage! Maybe even more! I certainly do deserve it, look at all that I’ve done for this guy!

Well, sadly, and against all hopeful expectations, the parable ends with a great disappointment for those who were hired early in the day. From the workers’ point of view, they have suffered a great injustice.

Nowadays, we don’t think much about day laborers, or occasional workers or incidental workers, or whatever it is that we want to call them. And, if the truth were to be known, we don’t think much of them either. They’re pretty low on the totem pole. The assumption is that there’s something wrong with them. And I suspect that the same was true in the first century. Many of the parables that Jesus told were designed not to comfort us, but rather to challenge us and to call into question some of our long-held, but often unexamined beliefs. And this parable is certainly one of them. Already, we don’t feel so good about this crowd of unemployed workers hanging about in the marketplace. And we especially have questions about the nature of those workers who were hired late in the day.

First of all, why did the landowner go back to the marketplace as late as five o’clock in the afternoon, knowing full well, that those workers would work, at best, for only one hour? The Jewish day ends at six PM. And, what in the world was wrong with those workers that no one has bothered, all day, to hire them? Were they old, weak, stupid, lazy, crippled or what? When the landowner asks them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They reply, simply enough and honestly enough, “Because no one hired us.” Still, even in that answer, there are many questions that we might ask.

And if we are going to ask questions about the workers who were hired late in the day, we might also ask some questions about the ones who were hired earlier in the day. Can we assume that the landowner chose them because they were good looking, strong, ambitious, bright, and eager to work? Wouldn’t that make sense? Surely, there must be some qualitative difference between those workers who were hired early in the day and those workers who were hired later in the day. If this were a parable about the normal, workaday world, we could certainly make these assumptions, and we could probably make them safely. We might even use the words, “dedicated workers” and “bums” to draw those distinctions.

But this is not a parable about the normal workaday world. It is, instead, a parable about the kingdom of heaven. And things in the kingdom of heaven are strangely reversed from the way that they are in the kingdom of this world. We are uncomfortably surprised by the way that this parable turns out, and that is certainly Jesus’ intention.

Our sense of fairness is offended. Search as we might, as he tells us this parable, Jesus draws absolutely no distinctions between the quality of the workers. Nowhere do we read in this parable that the workers hired first thing in the morning are stronger or better looking or more ambitious than any of the others who were hired throughout the day. In fact, Jesus seems to be taking great pains to give every one of the workers a common lot. None of them is extraordinary in any way. None of them are special. All of them are out of work, and all of them are the kinds of workers that we would place very low on all of the social and economic indicators that are so important to us. And so we, and we only, are the ones who want to draw the distinctions between them. We are the ones who want to pronounce some sort of judgment upon them. And we want to do this because we want to make some sense out of this parable, because it truly does offend our sense of fairness.

But when we do that, when we try to bring some fairness to this challenging parable, we almost always align ourselves with the grumbling and complaining workers who were hired first thing in the morning. They are our friends. We see ourselves in them. We want to come to their defense. We want to separate them somehow from all of the others who were hired that day. They certainly deserve more than they are receiving.

But by coming to the aid of those who faithfully labored all day in the hot sun, sweating and toiling, we find ourselves in opposition not only to the landowner in the parable, but also to the one who is telling the parable. In paying all of the workers equally, the landowner has obliterated completely any last vestige of a distinction between the workers who were hired first and the workers who were hired last. The landowner has made them all equal to one another.

And even though it rankles us, that is how it is in the kingdom of heaven. All are equal. The distinctions that we draw of rank and value in God’s kingdom are all artificial, created by us, not by our Lord. And we are equal, because we all needed God’s mercy, and we all got it. And we are together in this place this morning only because we have received that which we so most desperately needed. We are sharers together in the expansive and lavish mercy of God.

And because this parable draws us together in God’s mercy, we ought to be celebrating and rejoicing in that, not comparing ourselves to others and the way in which God’s mercy has worked itself out in their lives. When we draw distinctions between ourselves, and when we compare ourselves to others, there enters into our lives the evil opportunity for pride and boasting in ourselves and in our accomplishments. This is especially true if we consider ourselves to be one of those who were hired early in the morning. Our labors are important to us. And we want them to be seen and admired by others, and by God.

The message of the parable, though, is that we needed God’s mercy, and we got it. When that message enters our hearts, it works itself out in humility and in gratitude, not in pride and boasting. Among the followers of Jesus, this is our common lot. It is a good thing. It is a wonderful thing. It is a glorious thing when all work together in celebration of that shared mercy.

There’s something in this parable, though, that still requires some thought. And that is, why did the landowner go out so late in the afternoon looking for workers? Why bother? Isn’t there always tomorrow? What was the point? What could those workers have accomplished in that one hour that they couldn’t have done if they had been hired the next morning? Well, if this is a parable about a normal workaday situation, the answer is not a whole lot. There probably isn’t much that couldn’t have waited until tomorrow. But this parable isn’t about the normal workaday world. This parable is about the kingdom of heaven. And in the kingdom of heaven, there is nothing that can wait until tomorrow, because in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no tomorrow. There is only one day. And so even at the eleventh hour, which is what 5 o’clock is in the Jewish day, when it seems to be too late for anything, too late to bother, God is still out in the marketplace hunting for those who will come to him and receive his mercy. And therein lies the true definition of mercy. Even when it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, God is still inviting workers into his kingdom. God is still extending the offer of mercy.

I don’t know what time it is on God’s clock; none of us do. But this I do know, God is at work, even now, doing some amazing and extraordinary things. So, be assured, that even at 11:59 our time, or 5:59 God’s time, that God will still be welcoming sinners into his kingdom. Let us celebrate God’s mercy. Let us bend our knees in gratitude knowing that God has extended his mercy to us as individuals. And let us share that news, and let us share the blessings of that mercy with those who have not yet received it. But, and just as important, let us welcome them as God has welcomed us, and let us rejoice over them as God has rejoiced over us. For we have all received mercy upon mercy and grace upon grace.

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