They Get What — Matthew 20:1-16

By Terrell Carter

Terrell Carter
Terrell Carter

Has there ever been a time when you thought that God had not treated you or a family member fairly? Have you ever felt like you were doing the things you should have been doing, but God didn’t seem to notice? And, when you looked around at other people who were not as faithful to God as you, they seemed to be doing better in life than you were.

At first glance, it seems like that is what Matthew 20:1-16 is dealing with. The passage is a parable about a landowner, a group of laborers he has hired to work in his vineyard, and the perceived unfairness of the landowner because he is willing to pay everyone the same amount of money even though they have not done the same amount of work.

We read that the landowner went out searching for laborers to work in his vineyard five separate times in one day. Each time he talked with a group of laborers, he agreed to pay them a reasonable wage for their work. Each group agreed to the terms. I imagine the ones who started earliest expected to get paid for the entire day, while those who were hired later expected to only get paid for partial days. And those who were going to be paid for only a partial day’s work would be happy to simply get something. At the end of the day, some laborers were angry because everyone was paid the same wage even though they did not work the same number of hours. The question they struggled with was “Is that fair?”

The parable undermines our dependence on the great Protestant work ethic and our belief that if you work hard, you will be rewarded for your labors. And if someone does not work hard, they will not receive a reward, or what they do receive will be equal to the level of work they put in. This idea built our nation and continues to influence us today. We do not want people to come in from other communities and countries and experience the benefits that we have because they have not worked for them like we have. We do not want our government to use tax money to provide services to people who are not willing to work as hard as we are. We want to be able to dictate who grace is shown to. We want to make sure that primarily grace benefits us.

The land owner’s response to the workers frustration is interesting. He tells them that he has paid them what was agreed upon. No more and no less. They should not see his act of generosity to others as an evil thing or something to be envious about. They should celebrate that everyone earned enough to sustain themselves for another day.

Ultimately, the parable is not about defining a fair wage for a fair day’s work. Instead, it is about the kingdom of heaven, what it will be like, and who will occupy it. Jesus uses it to give us an idea of what we can expect in the coming kingdom of heaven.

In the coming kingdom of heaven, God’s primary concern will not be about the hard work we each put in here on earth, or the fact that we may have been a Christian longer than someone else. God may recognize those things, but that does not make us more valuable or important than anyone else in the coming kingdom. God sees all of God’s children as equal. Any favor or blessings that we may receive in this life is not because we are more special than anyone else. We received them because of God’s unmerited grace.

The real question from the parable does not concern God’s fairness. Instead, it concerns our willingness to recognize God’s graciousness to all of us, and our unwillingness to share God with others whom we think do not deserve God’s grace. We should remember that we have not earned the right to be in the kingdom. Our presences will be a gift. We should think about how can we help others understand that so they too can call the kingdom home.

Terrell Carter, D.Min., is assistant professor and director of contextualized learning at Central Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church in Webster Groves, Mo.

Note: The views expressed here in columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.

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