Today’s parable of the workmen being paid the same wage even though they’ve all worked different hours is one everybody loves to hate. It all seems like a clear case of blatant injustice. What could Jesus possibly be getting at? Let’s take a closer look at the parable, and let’s assume for a moment that it really does have to do with wages and work.
The first thing to notice is that those hired in the morningagreed to the usual daily wage. They didn’t start out grumbling that their employer was a cheapskate, that they deserved more. They agreed to what they considered a just wage.
Those who came later, we’re told, got the same wage but for less work, but this doesn’t mean the first group was treated unjustly; it means the later groups were treated generously. It means that those who complained (this includes us) were not striking a blow for justice; they were envious of those who got more than justice. Now envy is very understandable, but it is not a virtue. An awful lot of what passes for a struggle for justice in our world is really nothing more than envy. In itself, it’s not an injustice that some people have more than others. It’s only injustice when some, through no fault of their own, are deprived of necessities, while others have more than they need. This is not the case in the parable.
If the first workers and we are really so concerned about justice, if we are really just men and women outraged at the inequity of the situation described in the parable, then it follows that if we were among those who came later and got the same wage as the earliest group, we would give them part of our wages to balance the out-of-kilter scales of justice. Fat chance! Isn’t it odd how justice keeps changing her face depending on whether or not she benefits us?
So you see, I don’t think that even when the parable is interpreted literally we’re in a position of strength as we presume to sit in judgment on it. But the fact is that this isn’t really what the parable is about at all. It’s about two altogether different things. First, it’s Jesus’ way of telling his Jewish listeners that the Johnny-come-lately pagans are being invited to the fullness of salvation just as the chosen people were. And second, he’s telling us that no matter how late we come to work in his vineyard, even at close of day, even on our deathbeds, we too will be offered everlasting life. Understood this way, the parable is filled with encouragement and hope for everyone, even the lowest, laziest, rottenest, most God-forsaken sinner.
Now maybe I’m mistaken, but I suspect that many of us find this reading of the parable little less obnoxious than the first I mentioned. Why, we may feel, should some worthless wretch who’s never done any good, in fact has done a great deal of harm and evil, be able to repent at the last minute and get the same reward as we who have toiled all these years at being good?
Once again, this has much more to do with that little green demon, envy, than it does with bright shining justice. It assumes, for starters, that we’ve earned heaven and receive it as the just desserts of our labors. That’s a heresy. Jesus has earned heaven for us. Heaven is a gift, a mercy, not a matter of justice. It assumes further that being good is basically a bore and a chore, and that being bad is the real fun. Wrong again, and pretty insulting to God whose companionship we’ve presumably been enjoying all these years we’ve been so wonderful. It forgets that in heaven and among the saints on earth, there is more rejoicing over one repentant sinner than over a hundred righteous folks who never need to repent. In the end, this parable, which we presume to scrutinize and put on trial, casts a bright light on us and shows just how worldly our standards are, how little christened we really are.
I have a feeling that, if one day we’re lucky enough to find ourselves in heaven, we’ll be so completely speechless with joy that it all turned out to be true and that we really made, we won’t care who else made it with us. In fact, if it’s really heaven, we’ll even be happy to see our worst enemy there by our side, transformed like us, into someone the like of whom we could never have seen on earth, unless perhaps we had lived two thousand years ago and bumped into Jesus or Mary, living in the land called Holy.