the parable that's always annoyed me

Last night, my church's Lenten series "Parables of Eternal Gain or Loss" continued with the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Huge eye roll from me. Sorry, I know that ALL of the Bible is useful for teaching, training, rebuking, etc., but this parable has always infuriated me. I get a bad feeling when I read words of Jesus and find myself as the one receiving the rebuke. 

To summarize Matt 20: 1-16:  Field owner negotiates in the morning with some workers to pay them X to work all day. Every few hours, he recruits more workers, saying he'll pay them what's fair. Finally, some people work only an hour. At the end of the day, he pays the single-hour worker X and the guys who worked all day think they'll get (X+more), but they don't; they get X just like they agreed to. They are mad, but the field owner points out he can be as generous as he wants. Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (This repeated twice: in Matt 19:30, the verse right before the parable starts, AND in Matt 20:16, the last verse of this section.)

Ok, this is the worst because it seems a bad way to run a business AND because I feel like the all-day workers are totally justified in being annoyed. I would be really mad.

However, I am pleased to see how much I've been missing the point.

I will expand with the notes I took that helped this parable make some sense. 

  1. Jesus starts with "and the Kingdom of Heaven is like a master of a house..." He does NOT start with "and the Kingdom of Heaven is like workers who were seeking employment." Huge difference. The primary lesson here is about the master's generosity, not anything the workers do. (Obviously, not grumbling is important, but that's not Jesus' focus.) The lesson here is about the wild generosity of God, represented by the vineyard owner.
  2. The early workers were like the Pharisees to whom Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 (twice in Matthew): I desire mercy, not sacrifice. The Pharisees and the early workers AND ME all seem to think that our hard work and sacrifice on earth are going to put us "higher" on God's list, give us a leg up in the Kingdom, earn us one more crown.  We have high expectations for ourselves. But the truth is, mercy triumphs over sacrifice. The headline is always THE MERCY OF GOD and never THE SACRIFICIAL HARD WORK OF KELLEY [insert your name here].
  3. This parable is not about labor relations, but there is sometime to be said for the fact that the vineyard owner went back over and over and hired the people that others considered unemployable. He also paid them generously, at great cost to himself.
  4. None of the workers were mistreated in this man's field. They ALL got what they'd agreed to and many got abundantly more.

The pastor's two key points were:

  • The gospel levels the playing field.
  • Mercy triumphs over sacrifice. 

Bottom line: What I'm starting to see from this series of Jesus' parables is that I am so much worse than I imagined and God is so much better than I hoped. I can trust a God like this vineyard owner.