20th September 2020, Revd Bob Mitchell, Matthew 20: 1-16

God’s generosity – Parable of Workers in the Vineyard

Matthew 20: 1- 16  

Revd Bob Mitchell

        As any parent or teacher – or anyone who has anything to do with young children, would tell you – one of the most frequently uttered phrases is “It’s not fair!” The issue may be the amount of food on plates, or turns with the game-console, or bedtime, or possession of the best crayons, or any number of things, but the cry is still the same: “It’s not fair!”

      Where do small children get this sense of fairness? It seems to be built into human nature, a sense that the world should be a fair place, but often isn’t, and that human beings have the right to protest if things aren’t fair. And this sense stays with us as we grow up. We grumble if we feel someone else has got the promotion we deserve. We protest if our rightful needs aren’t met, especially if those of our neighbour are.

      At its extremes, this sense of the importance of fair play can lead to horrific action – where individuals may take the law into their own hands, and extract some kind of punishment for a crime they’ve witnessed. Somebody getting their just desserts is what we all feel should happen.

     This human sense of fairness is what gives the parable of the workers in the vineyard its shock value. The landowner hires some labourers at the beginning of the day, and agrees with them their pay, the normal daily wage. He goes again, and hires some more at mid-day, some more in the middle of the afternoon, and still more at the end of the afternoon.  

     When pay time comes, those hired last are paid first, and get the normal daily wage. The first to be hired see this, and expect more. It’s only fair that they should be paid more, for more work. They are most upset to be paid only the normal daily rate, even though that was what they’d originally agreed.

     I wonder whose side you’re on when you hear this story. Do you think that those first workers have a point? Think of your workplace, past or present. Would it be fair for everyone to be paid the same, without regard for the effort they put in? The landowner’s response to the objection is really thoroughly unsatisfactory; he can do what he likes with his own money. True, but it doesn’t address the issue of fairness, which is the problem here.

    How might Jesus’ first listeners have reacted? We can perhaps imagine someone in the audience expressing agreement with the first workers. “It’s not fair,” someone in the crowd might mutter, “they should have got more for all that extra work.”

     But perhaps a more thoughtful person in the crowd might say, “But the workers who were hired last, how were they to feed their families if they were paid only for an hour?” “Ah”, some one else might reply, “but that’s their lookout if they hang around the market place all day instead of doing a good day’s work.” 

    “But perhaps it wasn’t their fault,” replies our first listener, “perhaps they did their best to be hired, but there wasn’t enough work to go round that day. Isn’t it better that the landowner should be unfair, than that children should starve?”

      You can see where our imaginary discussion has taken us. It’s shifted the ground of debate from issues of individual fairness, to broader issues of justice in society.  

    So you could take the message of this difficult parable at this social level; raising our concern for those who are overlooked by society today. Those who are less fortunate, the homeless ones, those who’ve passed their use by date, the elderly, the misfits, those of a different colour or creed from ourselves? These are “the last” in the world’s concerns. 

     Jesus made a special point of underlining his compassion for the world’s also-rans, those sometimes considered beyond the pale. They were the ones he came to serve, and for whom the kingdom of God was always open. In this sense the last would be first – and we must share that outlook too, without the expectation of some kind of heavenly reward.

     One final thought. The parables are only pictures, or stories told to reinforce a truth about the kingdom of God; they’re not meant to be taken as economic principles or instructions about how society should be ordered. The message often runs counter to what we think is fair or equal. 

      But here the deeper truth is about how we get right with God – not by entering a contract and imagining we can earn our ticket by all the good works we do. The Christian gospel is from first to last about the grace of God, his generosity in restoring us to a relationship with him. That same generosity is meant to be shared with others, so all are welcome into his kingdom.

  There’s yet another underlying truth in this parable, which brings us full circle back to the cry of “It’s not fair!” In the children’s book, “It’s not fair” by Carl Sommer a young worker bee, Buzzie, becomes disaffected and complains that it isn’t fair that the worker bees have to do all the work. The queen just lazes around laying eggs, while the only function of the male drones is to mate with the queen. The book tells the story of a rebellion in the hive, with bees flying off to create a rival hive where “fairness” rules….

    There are different phases or seasons in our lives, times when we can be more active, both physically and mentally, other times when we’re incapacitated, out of action, or becoming more senior than we’d like to admit; (in brackets, having just passed a milestone birthday, I can echo this sentiment!) Within the Christian calling and vocation our responsibility, whether we be ordained or lay, is to fulfil our God given role – this may change many times throughout our lives.

     We may have to spend long days working in the vineyard, feeling we don’t have time to think about what God wants for us. Or we may spend time in the market place waiting to be hired, feeling we’ll never find a niche. At times it may seem unfathomable, but we can trust our generous God to distribute work and meet our needs according to his perfect plan. He alone decides when we should work or when we should wait, when we’re in the vineyard and when we’re in the market place.

      The parable of the workers in the vineyard leaves us with many questions unanswered – provoking areas for discussion, particularly surrounding fairness, which we’ll be taking up in Zoom “break out” groups, linking in with the wider creation-tide theme.       


  Discussion questions 20/9/20

  1. “It’s not fair!” Is it fair for developing countries to be more adversely affected by climate change, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, pollution of the planet etc? How can we address this imbalance and injustice?


  1. “It’s not fair!” How do we promote the value and dignity of work at a time when so many folk are laid off, furloughed and facing uncertainty about unemployment?


  1. “It’s not fair!” Do we sometimes feel this way about God’s dealings with our world? How do we hold together human accountability and God’s grace in time of global economic, environmental and pandemic crisis?