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Foul or fair! How do you call it?
"The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
"He went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace and said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went.
"Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. About the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said, 'You also go into the vineyard and whatever is right you will receive.'
"So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.' When those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.
"When they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.'
"But he answered one of them, and said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?' So the last will be first and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen." Matthew 20:1-16 NKJV, condensed
First Pick; Last Pick
I attended two separate one-room schools as a child in rural Lebanon County in my home state of Pennsylvania. One, called Isabella, was for grades 1 through 3; Laurel Grove was for grades 4 through 6. Recess was the highlight of my day; but that wasn't true for everyone. Those of us who thought we were hot shots usually got to pick which games we would play and our favorites were Softball and Prisoner's Base. But before we could begin, we had to chose sides. I don't remember exactly how we decided who the team captains were but I'm sure it had more to do with brawn than with brains.
Picking first was a great advantage to winning the game. It was determined by one captain tossing a bat to the other and then the two of them took turns, one hand over the other as they moved up the handle of the bat. If there was room, the last person would lock two fingers to the top of the bat, then swing it around their head three times without dropping it. If they could do that successfully, they got first pick. But if the bat dropped to the ground in the process, they lost and the other person picked first.
One or two good picks were about all the captain could hope for at our little school. Next the average players were selected. Then the below average players, until the only kids remaining in that diminishing pool were the ones nobody wanted. These were the children who were too slow, too awkward, too little and probably hated the game anyway. It was a dreadfully uncomfortable position to be in.
Recess at Laurel Grove School was something like the situation Jesus described in this passage. We had gong-ho winners who could go at it all day long; and those with next to nothing when it came to endurance, inclination and skills to play the game. The decent players got chosen with pleasure. The rest heard their names called with a reluctant sneer. They were chosen simply because they were needed to fill the positions on the field.
Life is often like that school playground where, when the game was over, the winners boasted their way back to the classroom and the inept ones were reminded again that they were losers. Jesus would have none of that. The unique thing about his parable is the way the landowner handled his workers.
During the day he kept going out into the marketplace and bringing people in, promising them a fair wage. Potential workers were respectfully invited to join his team, whether or not they always came in last. Everyone was encouraged to work, even if they thought they wouldn't be of much help, or there wasn't enough time to make it worthwhile, or they didn't know any thing about the job, or they had a lame foot, or whatever excuse you can think of.
Those workers who started first thing in the morning knew what their pay would be. They got it "in writing." The remaining workers had no bargaining power and had to trust the owner of the vineyard to do right by them. Everyone worked based on his or her ability. All who participated were paid, but not according to the number of hours or their productivity. Each employee needed a day's wage and that's exactly what they received at sundown. In the judgment of the boss, their compensation was fair. He gave them what was right and what the situation required.
But those who had labored all day cried, "Foul! That's not fair." True, but what's not fair? Is it not right that those who have much, give much; and those who have little, give little?
What Jesus wants from us is for those who worked 12 hours to cheer for those who weren't hired until later in the day. Be glad that everyone who helped out received what they needed for themselves and their families. Let those who have much celebrate when those who have little are elevated out of their miserable position.
This is a parable about the kingdom of heaven which is ruled by grace like that exemplified by the owner of the vineyard. There is no room for complaining, envy or bitterness. Joy robbers, please take note. Heaven is where we come together and share the delights of God's kind of justice for all.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: When you were a child, what was your experience when your peers or siblings chose the people they wanted to play with?
Go through the line up of employees and describe how you see them. What is the 6 A.M. person like? The 9 A.M. person? Etc. Who would still be waiting around at 5 to be hired? Which type of person comes closest to who you are? How do you think these workers all got along in the vineyard?
Think about a time when you felt resentment. What was the situation or issue which angered you? Does this parable say anything to you about bitterness?
Do you like this parable of the workers in the vineyard? Why or why not? How do you feel about someone who made different choices throughout their lifetime and then comes to faith near the end? Will they, or should they, receive the same reward as those who always believed?
Did you ever receive better than you deserved from someone? If so, what impact did that have on you?Do you expect a return when you are kind to someone? What happens when you don't get it?Was God's grace ever wasted on you? If so, think about the specifics of what happened and how you eventually responded.
In what ways do you believe God is like, or unlike, the owner of the vineyard? What does this character teach us about grace and generosity?
How is God's economy different than the one we experience here on earth? Did you ever consider tipping service people based on need rather than performance? Would that be an effective way to enrich their lives?
If the one day in this parable represented your life, what time of day is it for you? Is the weather favorable? And the working conditions? If you are working in God's vineyard, how long have you been there? If you're not working in God's vineyard, why aren't you? Rejoicing or complaining--during the day and when payday comes, which one comes easier for you? Do you hold any bitterness toward your fellow workers? Have you received what you deserved? Maybe better? Or worse?