I used to do seasonal work, when I was young. In October, as Halloween approached, I’d work for a guy who owned pumpkin lots. I’d get a call in the evening—this was back before email. They’d let me know that a shipment would arrive the next morning—and by “morning,” they meant 5am, sometimes 4am. I’d wake up in the dark, drive to the lot, and unload pumpkins from a semi for two to three hours before school. Sometimes the shipment would arrive in town on a Saturday, and our crew would follow the semi truck around town, stopping at our boss’s lots, where we’d unload pumpkins, one by one, in a long human chain of labors, tossing pumpkins from one person to the next. I’d do the same during the Christmas season, when the inventory for the lots would switch from pumpkins to Christmas trees.
I did this work as a way to scrape together money for college, which is a different world from the day laborers in our story from Matthew’s Gospel.
The workers in the parable are desperate for a job, for a paycheck, to buy food. They’re waiting on the street corner for someone to offer them a day of work as a means to survival. That’s a different world from mine. But I do know that, at the end of a long Saturday, working from before dawn to after dusk, with my sore back and my arms scratched and blistered, I would be more than annoyed if I didn’t get paid more than the people who started after lunch, let alone the stragglers who didn’t join us until an hour or two before quitting time.
In the parable, for dramatic effect, the owner first pays the people who just showed up for a couple hours, at the end of the work day, in front of everyone else, while all the workers who started early in the morning watch, waiting for their wages. If I was one of the people hired first, laboring the full day, I’d be excited to see that the people who worked a couple hours were receiving wages for a full day of work, because I’d assume that the owner was in a generous mood, that the owner had increased the rate of pay for everyone, which means I would expect to get even more than I bargained for, more than the initial agreement, beyond the wages I imagined.
“Call the laborers,” the owner says to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first” (Matthew 20:8). The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. There’s something about the gospel in this reversal, something central to the message of Jesus. He has said this same line once before, in chapter 19, to his disciples. The other Gospels also remember Jesus saying it—in Mark 10:3 and Luke 13:30. God instigates a reversal, baffling our expectations. God bewilders us—that’s what we learn from this parable.
There are two levels to this passage, to this parable. The first is the most obvious. The parable takes place in the world of economics, of work and wages. The parable imagines a world where there’s enough work for everyone, and each person gets a living wage. People get what they need, no matter how long they work, no matter how little they work.
In the story, what drives the hiring process is not the demand for production, but the need of workers for work. The owner of the vineyard doesn’t hire more people throughout the day because he realizes that the job larger than he imagined. Instead, he hires more people because he discovers that there are more people who need work, people who need a paycheck. The economics of Jesus are driven by wages not by profit—an economy that makes sure everyone has enough for their livelihood.
That’s what’s happening on the first level of the parable—it’s a call for a restructured world, Jesus imagines a different relationship between work and money, where the most important thing is to make sure that everyone gets a wage, no matter how much work they do, no matter how productive they are. What matters is the worker, that they have enough to sustain their lives.
But the parable is not only about economics—maybe that’s not even the focus. There’s a second level of meaning, a level that gets at how we think about God, how we picture our lives with God. On this level, this story exposes a temptation we have, when it comes to our faith in God—the temptation to think about our faith as if we work for God, as if God is running a business and we’re here to make God a profit, and our wages are eternal life, that God pays us for our faith and our payment is a spot in heaven. We are tempted to think that the more we work, the longer hours we put in as we do this Christian thing, the closer we will be to God, as if we can earn a position closer to God, as if God has favorites, an employee of the month, with a prime parking spot in the kingdom of heaven.
That’s how to hear the complaint in the parable, when the frustrated worker grumbles about working all day, in comparison with the others. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us” (Matthew 20:12). It’s the equality that bothers the worker who labored all day, when compared to the others. The frustration has to do with an expectation that there is a hierarchy in the kingdom of heaven, that some receive a higher status than others, because of how hard they work for God, because of their sacrifices in this life, because all of life is about ranking some people as more valuable than others, some as more important than others. “You have made them equal to us.” It’s the egalitarianism that they find annoying. The owner of the vineyard responds with a question: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Matt 20:15)
We’re the workers in the story, the workers who’ve put in a long day—serving God, doing justice, offering our lives in devotion to God. And we’re tempted to think about all of this as a transaction—as if our faith, our morality, is something like economics. We pay God with good deeds, with right thinking, and God gives us love and acceptance and blessings, multiplied a hundred fold. Our faith, our morality, our convictions become a kind of currency, the money we use to pay God to get what we want out of this life, to get what we want in this world.
If I pray the right things, if I do the right things, if I live the right kind of life, then God will take care of me. But God isn’t like that. God doesn’t need our faith. God doesn’t need our goodness. We don’t do it for God. We do it for ourselves, for our neighbors—we labor in the vineyard for our community, to make a life for all of us, where we are sustained, where are nurtured, where we discover the generous love of God.
Not just generous, but frivolous—that’s what struck me, after reading the parable a few times. It seems like the owner has no idea what he’s doing. He seems like an absentminded manager. Kind of clueless, when it comes to running a business. He can’t figure out how many people he needs to hire to get the job done. He has to keep on going back, to pick up more workers. He could have paid half the people to get the job done, if he did his math right, if he calculated the work that needed to be done and made all the necessary hires first thing in the morning.
Actually, the owner seems uninterested in the vineyard, ignorant of how the harvest is going, careless with business ledger, with expense and income, with payroll, with profit margins. Not once in the story does it say that he took stock of the vineyard and the workers in the fields. It’s like he’s disinterested in what’s going on out there.
Instead, what he cares about are the people without work. Every time he sees someone standing on the street corner, he invites them to the vineyard. He offers invitation after invitation, without any concern about the work, without any idea of the harvest, without any thought about what’s going on back at the vineyard. That’s not his concern. Instead, when he sees someone, he asks them to join his crew. At this rate, he’ll drive the business into the ground, bankrupt the whole operation.
This is a story about a frivolous God who doesn’t weigh costs and benefits. God instead makes decisions based on love. In the kingdom of heaven, the only law is generous love, all people as deserving of the lavish providence of God.
And this is not just about God. This is a parable about the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says (Matt 20:1), this is a story about the reign of God—a world for all of us, an invitation to be part of this generosity, to live as if the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, a world turned upside down.