God’s unfair wage
By Charles Qualls
We had this Home Depot store near a church I used to serve. It was part of a larger shopping center, and also on the route to get on the highway. So no matter what brought you by there, you had to pass the Home Depot.
There was always a line of workers. Day-laborers. Sincere-looking men who hung out there, and with good logic. Contractors and do-it-yourself-ers alike came there for loads and loads of supplies. It made sense that they might need some extra helpers occasionally. So, they stayed at the ready. Whoever got there first got in line first, and so on.
As one writer observed, Jesus had been asked what the kingdom of heaven was like, and this is what we got. He told them the parable, and anticipating the follow-up questions, the story ended with one of the workers asking the vineyard owner why this unfair payment system was used. He basically responded, “It’s my money. I’ll do what I want.”
Conventionally speaking, there is nothing about what the vineyard owner did here that makes sense to us. Not on a cursory reading. If this happened at your workplace, and you ended up on the wrong end of this one, you’d quit. Yet, this snapshot of the Kingdom of Heaven probably ought to be one of our greatest sources of hope.
Jesus has been on a roll. In chapter 19, he had been doing some teaching. Eventually, the disciples had stopped a group of children from charging toward Jesus. He told them to let the kids come to him, and said that it was to such as those that the kingdom of Heaven actually belonged. Children were not viewed in biblical times like children are viewed today. It wasn’t all about the kids. They weren’t the apples of their parents’ eyes. They were on the outside looking in.
Speaking of belonging, also in chapter 19 a rich young man wanted to have eternal life. He came and asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, because he didn’t want to be left out. He didn’t want to be on the outside looking in. Jesus gave him an uncomfortable answer about selling everything he had and giving it all to the poor, who also were on the outside looking in.
That’s where we turn the page. Matthew gives us today’s parable from Jesus. We shouldn’t try to hear it in a vacuum. What if this story has everything to do with the kinds of things Jesus was already talking about? Because sometimes, if we’ll be honest, we are a little on the outside looking in.
This parable is essentially an allegory. We are invited to see ourselves in the story, and then apply it to our lives. When the wages in the story are not actual wages, but instead things like forgiveness, life, grace, love, salvation and inclusion, we are confronted with our own spiritual issues.
We muse that we’ve lived a good life and tried to be faithful. Why, then, would a lifelong heathen be able to join our same church and one day be ushered into heaven, just because they made a late-in-life faith decision? Or we wonder why God used someone else for the near miraculous act and not us? Why does that guy have a worldwide TV audience? Why is that church getting so big, and we aren’t? Why should that person be a part of us?
If we are all co-workers in the vineyard, which we are, then we might notice that we tend to covet what God chooses to give to others. Forget that sometimes we look over and feel like God has blessed others with more than we feel like we get. Our actual daily problem is probably that everyone gets the same from God as we get. People we don’t feel like deserve God’s love get from God what we get. People we don’t feel deserve God’s forgiveness get forgiven just like we do. People we don’t feel deserve God’s inclusion in the kingdom now, or later, are offered salvation in Jesus Christ just as we are.
The owner of the vineyard was unfair in Jesus’ parable. So is God at times, we feel. But then we notice that sometimes we are on the outside looking in. We are in our own desperate need of God’s grace and renewal. We are thirsting for forgiveness or a second chance. Then, God’s unfairness suddenly swings our way and amazes us.
THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is the pastor of Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.
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