Little Benjamin sat down at his desk. He really wanted a puppy and decided to write a letter to God. He started his letter like this:
Dear God, I’ve been a very good boy…
He stopped, thinking. No, God won’t believe that. He wadded up the piece of paper, threw it away, and started again:
Dear God, most of the time I’ve been a good boy…
He stopped, again thinking. God won’t be moved by this. So he wadded up the letter and into the trash it went.
Benjamin then went into the bathroom, and grabbed a towel off the towel rack. He carried it into the living room and carefully laid it out on the couch. He smoothed out all of the wrinkles. Then he went over to the fireplace mantle, reached up, and very carefully lifted down a statue of the Madonna. He often saw his mother dust the statue and he eyed it many times. On several occasions, his parents told him that he could look but was not to touch the statue. Now, with all of the care he could muster, he had it in his possession.
Benjamin gently placed the statue in the middle of the towel, carefully folding over the edges. He then laced a rubber band around the whole thing. He brought it to his desk, took out another piece of paper and began his third letter to God.
Dear God, if you ever want to see your mother again…
Have you ever felt like using a little irreverent manipulation to get your own way with God? Be honest. What about a little bargaining with God? If we follow the rules, shouldn’t we get something out of it? After all, isn’t that what’s fair?
Sometimes I think politics, troubled economies, and wars bring out the absolute worst in people. To make matter even worse, there are those groups who think they have the absolute corner on Truth and what’s Right. They leave no room for discussion or differences and go to extreme measures to exert their own will.
This is exactly what was going on when Jesus came on to the scene. One, of the many, complaints the right-living and religious people made about Jesus arose from his treatment of the more disreputable and disenfranchised members of society. They might have agreed that those people should not be entirely excluded from the mercy of an all-loving God. They might have even said there was hope for them if they showed they weren’t beyond redemption by making radical changes in their lives. But they would not be accepted or included until there was evidence of such repentance.
Jesus. however, accepted people exactly where they were immediately. He did not wait to see the outcome before he committed himself to them. This was disturbing. It was even more disturbing that he seemed to take more interest in and think more highly of the outcasts than those who were living their lives the right way and religious on top of that! Jesus was Jerusalem’s most popular dinner guest, but the hosts weren’t the Who’s Who of Jerusalem.
When he was challenged for his unconventional behavior, his reply was that was how God treated all people. He told several stories to reinforce this lesson. Here’s one of those stories:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’
When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:1-16).
This is a disturbing story on many levels. The most obvious is that this story seems to defend the unacceptable principle of equal pay for unequal work.
The vineyard owner had a short period of time to get the harvest in. Maybe it was unseasonable hot, like it is in Texas right now, and if he didn’t get the grapes off the vine soon they’d be raisins! He knew he needed extra hands, so he went to the local marketplace where day laborers would be hanging around hoping to get some day work.
Now these weren’t just homeless people. These men had families, maybe even small farms of their own. If they didn’t get work that day, or pick up some extra work, their families would not be eating that night.
So the vineyard owner goes out first thing in the morning to hire several men to do a day’s work gathering grapes. A pay rate was agreed upon.
Apparently the vineyard owner wanted the job completed that same day and, as he considered the amount of work to be done and the speed at which the men were working, he decided he would need more hands. So at three hourly intervals, he went back and hire more men. He didn’t bargain with them what their pay would be. he promised to give them what was proper.
Then, just an hour before sunset, in order to ensure the work would not be left unfinished, he went back and found a few men still waiting for the possibility or work. He sent them out to join the other working in the vineyard.
As the workers lined up to receive their pay, those that were hired last, were at the beginning of the line. They had no idea what they would get for an hour’s worth of work. The men who worked three hours and six hours got in line next. At last came the workers who worked twelve hours. What would they get?
All of the workers got paid the same amount.
Well, you can well imagine what happened! Those that worked twelve hours were a bit upset that they received the same as the others who had worked less hours! After all, they wired the longest, shouldn’t they have been paid more?
But the vineyard owner reminded them that they didn’t have any reason to complain because they were paid the agreed upon amount. It was no business of theirs what he gave to the others who worked with no agreement of a fixed sum.
He could have rationalized his decision by saying they, too, had families that had to live. But he didn’t. He simply said,
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?
In the strict sense of justice, the few hours a man worked, the less pay he should have received. But the vineyard owner went beyond justice to generosity and gave the workers more than what they were due.
What makes this story so difficult for us is that we all have our own sense of what we consider to be fair or what we think is right. Generosity is OK as long as we are the recipients or they believe exactly how we believe. The true test for each of us is when we are not on the receiving end of fair or generous…or how we truly behave toward someone, or group, whose life or lifestyle is so completely foreign to us!
Jesus tells us this story to remind us that God is always generous and loving. We cannot presume to know the heart of God. Instead we must watch our attitudes because this story contains the heart of God’s message to us…all of us.