“‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’“ (Mt 20:12)
Do you know what this verse is the equivalent of in our vernacular?
“It’s not fair!” “Hey! That’s not fair!” These workers essentially whined and complained in an ancient language (now very dead) that is equivalent to my 3-year-old’s tantrum about nothing (absolutely nothing!) being “fair!” As a parent of three kids, I know all about the deep-seated human desire for fairness. Any parent here knows exactly what I’m talking about on a very visceral level. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the cry, “It’s not fair!!”, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d be on a beach…that I owned. I’d be a wealthy, wealthy woman.
In the world of children, everything must be fair. But according to whom? “To me.” Each of my children is the arbiter of their own fairness. If they themselves are lacking, things aren’t fair. If Jack had the toy that Quinn wanted, and I took that toy from Jack and gave it to Quinn, you’d not here Quinn clamoring that things aren’t fair. He’d be just fine and content because he has what he wants and deemed to be rightfully his. The cry that things aren’t fair bursts forth from self-oriented hearts.
Good thing this is something we all outgrow, right?
If that were true, we’d not have this very passage in the gospel of Matthew (20:1-16). If the demand for retributive fairness weren’t a deep-seated human problem, this parable wouldn’t exist. But God knows humanity better than humanity knows its self. Even as mature, rational, intellectual adults we want what’s fair for us; we want to keep what we’ve rightly earned. We want what’s ours. And everything about that natural human disposition should be disturbed and rattled to the very core by this parable.
So let’s take a few minutes to look at it.
“‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.” (Mt 20:1-4)
Any time Jesus begins a story with, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” Sit down. Sit down because everything you know to be true is about to be radically and completely altered. Everything you hold in your heart and mind as true is about to be turned on its head. Following these introductory words by Jesus about what the kingdom of heaven is like, you can guarantee that whatever you knew to be true, that everything that you think should be, isn’t. In Matthew, when Jesus utters these words, everything is about to get real; and that realness isn’t what you, the hearer, are expecting or wanting.
In the utterance, is an intentional confrontation. The utterance, the parable itself (which it is), is an intentional confrontation with you because it’s a “speech event.” And as an event, it does not happen in a vacuum, but occurs in time and space and incorporates people. And unlike the event of a command that demands an answer, the parable is plea.
A plea, in the form of this parable, is released into the air by the one who spoke the world into existence, the one who is the incarnated Word of God. The plea goes forth creating exactly what it intends to create: hearers seized by the word itself and brought to its right conclusion, those who have heard and have now believed, and those who have responded; the faithful.
In the parable as plea, as speech event, God’s word, Jesus’s word, renders to dust that which belongs to the dust—the things we’ve made, the things we hold true, the things we believe apart from an external reorienting event. And in the midst of the dust, the word recreates from nothing that which is pleasing to it: a new creation, a new people, a new way to life. The parable, and including this parable that we’re looking at, is the penetrative word that pierces our existence and our timeline (parting space and time) and brings forth by lexical labor and delivery the kingdom of God that it is speaking of.
The parable isn’t merely a story about a better place and a better time; it is that better place and time now. And we, who have ears to hear, are the recreated participants in this new place and new time, that better place and that better time.
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt 20:8-16).
As we go about our life thinking that we are living a life and living in a world that is right-side-out, the word event, the parable spoken by Jesus, grabs our lives and our life and our world and exposes it as actually wrong-side-out. In this parable, in this Word event there is an exposure; the parable exposes. And not only does it expose, but it alters, changes, and corrects; it is in the word event, in the parable, that the world is now right-side-out, now we are right-side-out.
And what’s this parable in Matthew 20 exposing and righting? Inequality. In the kingdom of God there is no hierarchy of persons. There is no claim on our own to our rights, to what’s ours. Just as we do not incur any punishments for our misdeeds and we are all equalized, so, too, in the reception of grace without merit or the promise of reward. According to Jesus, no person is better than another no matter what the earning potential.
This parable offends us and utterly and completely reduces us to dust—we cannot comprehend it. The Judge, whom we encounter in this parable and whom is Jesus Christ the vineyard owner, exposes our retributive default and posture toward fairness and “according to me” equality. When we come up against the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, we have no recourse to our rewards and merits. The Word of God levels us all. We bring nothing to the table. “We are [all],” to quote Martin Luther, “beggars.”
There is no boasting, no room for any boasting of our ourselves in Christ, in the realm of the vertical. And if there’s no room there for boasting in the vertical, then there’s no room for boasting in the kingdom of God, in the horizontal. As we are freed from the tiresome toil of earning, of seeking our merit and reward with God, we gain freedom from the same tiresome toil of earning and seeking our own merit and reward in our actual lives. While he’s writing about Genesis 11, I believe what Helmut Gollwitzer says is very applicable here,
“…we cannot by our own power break our fetters, cannot get rid of our intoxication…we need another great help. The Creator, who made the good beginning, must make a new beginning. He must come with new gifts, in order that the old gifts of our abilities and our work do not continue to be a curse to us. A new spirit must set us free from the errors of our old spirit. The whole Bible is a cry for help of this new Spirit from the creator, and the whole Bible is at the same time the euangelion, the glad news, that God does not only…confront the evil will of [humanity] with his judgment, but that he has opened his heart to us, and made possible a new way of good life, of fellowship, of avoidance of destruction. Into this new way he desires to lead us all by his Spirit.”
The Word of God doesn’t just convict us; it creates (recreates) us. In Christ, by faith alone we are recreated by the Word of God, by the ever-recreating Word of God. Even now, by the word of God, I am brought to death, into the death and judgment of Adam and am brought to life in Christ (1 Cor 15:22). I can, with St. Paul, say, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil 1:21). In this dying that is gain, and living that is Christ, I no longer have to be out to get mine; and, even more than that, I can be about the business of making sure you get what you need. I am now very much able to see to the needs of my brothers and sisters over getting what I’m owed. I am now very much moved not only to merely accept that the last will be first and the first will be last, but I, being of the first group, can actively promote the wellbeing and meet the needs of those fellow humans who are in last group. I am now given a new way to see fairness: not as what is fair to me but to you. I can (and must!) use my language (and my actions) in a new way, to advocate for you, to cry out on your behalf, “This isn’t fair!”
To close I want to creatively quote from the 2nd letter to the Corinthians and the letter to the Philippians,
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-18)…Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel (Phil 1:27)”
We have been recreated and ushered into the divine kingdom by the creative and apocalyptic word spoken by The Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Let us and care for and love each other as we have been cared for and loved by God.
 Eberhard Jüngel. “The World as Possibility and Actuality: The Ontology of the Doctrine of Justification” Theological Essays. Translated by J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989. “A plea makes a command without force. Unlike a command, it gives time. It accords freedom which the one to whom a plea has not been made never has. It leads to the differentiation of actuality by possibility. And so pleading ought to be the constitutive element of proclamation….In a plea, God’s love finds its most appropriate expression; and this love reconciles the world to God having made possible the possible and impossible the impossible, by reducing the latter to nothing and by creating the former anew from nothing.” 120.
 Rudolf Bultmann “Theology of the New Testament” vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner, 1951. “[Humanity] must become like a child, who, knowing no such thing as appeal to any rights or merits of his own, is willing simply to be given a gift (Mk. 10:15). (…) Jesus rejects all this counting up of merit and reward: The worker who went to work in the last hour of the day is rewarded just as much as the one who had worked all day long (Mt. 20:1-15). And Jesus also refuses to regard the misfortune that befalls individuals as punishment for the special sins, no man is better than another.” 14.
 Karl Barth CD III.1.40. p.37 “This is the right of the Creator with which we have to do when we encounter Jesus. It is by His right as Creator that according to the dominant conception of the New Testament God comes to be the Judge of men. He does not have to become or to make Himself the judge. He is it from the very outset. He is it as God the Creator, who as such can claim that the creature should be responsible to Him; who has the authority to decide whether it justifies its existence, i.e., whether it satisfies the right of the One to whom it owes its existence.”
 Helmut Gollwitzer “The Way to Life” p. 4 . He is speaking about Gen 11, but I believe the point holds here.