Thank God for the unfair landowner

Photo: Lasseter Winery, Unsplash.

Jesus tells a story in Matthew 20 about a man who hires day laborers for his vineyard. When the crew sets out for the fields at 6 a.m., the landowner promises to pay a denarius for their work. At 9 a.m. the landowner goes out again to hire more laborers for his fields. Again at noon. And at 3. And at 5.

When the sun finally begins to set, the landowner calls his hired workers together and counts out their wages — a denarius for each and every one, regardless of hours logged.

The kingdom of God, Jesus suggests, is a lot like this.

Almost every churchgoer I’ve ever met, in their heart of hearts, is annoyed by this story. We’re early risers. We pride ourselves on our work ethic. We take care of our homes and fields and even have been known to dedicate our vacations to rebuilding others’ homes.

Let’s be honest. If God had a 6 a.m. crew, it would be full of Mennonites.

We’re not cruel people. Not by a long shot. We believe in hard work, and we believe in charity, too. We would never dream of objecting to the landowner giving a handout to the underprivileged person sitting desperate beside the road.

But the trouble with this story is that it speaks in terms of wages. And wages put our minds in a different zone.

Maybe those 5 p.m. workers were doing their best and simply couldn’t get hired. Or maybe they spent the morning in bed with a hangover or game controller. Maybe while we spent decades sweating and sacrificing to make the world a better place, they were cruising around with designer shoes and the newest iPhone, not giving a thought to the planet or anyone on it until a moment of conscience belatedly hits around age 85.

Could Jesus really be suggesting that God will treat us and those guys the same?

Deep down, some of us just don’t believe it.

I’ve often wondered what it would take for 6 a.m. workers to hear this story as good news.

During a church dialogue about the story in Matthew 20, my pastoral colleague Scott asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. He noted that most of us identify with the workers who labored all day. But, he asked, what if you show up at the end of the day and present God with the basket of grapes you picked and discover that what God actually wanted all along was apples?

This hypothetical question was not intended to suggest we can somehow let God down by accidentally missing our personal calling. It pointed instead toward something much more subtle. The question speaks first to our difficulty in assessing our own true motives.

As 1 Corinthians 13 famously (and terrifyingly) notes, I can give everything I have to the poor and offer my body for martyrdom, but if the motive wasn’t truly love, it counts for nothing. Which of us can confidently claim that all our labor has sprung from pure love, unmixed by fear, pride, social pressure or self-righteousness?

The question also gestures toward our difficulty in accurately determining what matters.

As a pastor, I’ve dedicated most of my life to trying to build the church I think God desires. But am I certain I’ve judged that desire rightly? No. I am hauntingly aware that after a lifetime of work I might discover that what I built doesn’t match the Architect’s vision. Others after me might have to labor to deconstruct — tear down and rebuild — many things I felt sure about.

We might be all-day workers. But that doesn’t mean we are always working the right crops or working for the right reasons. It’s not hard to imagine we might one day present our full baskets proudly to God and hear God say, with the longsuffering affection of a loving parent, “That’s nice, my love, but you seem to have confused grapes with zucchini.”

When I think about it this way, ­Matthew 20 suddenly seems like the best news I’ve ever heard. Thank God the landowner is generous. Thank God the kingdom does not pay fair wages. It only gives extravagant gifts.

Yes, I’ll take that kind of mercy, for myself and for everyone else.

Meghan Good

Meghan Larissa Good is teaching pastor at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz., and author of The Bible Unwrapped: Making Sense Read More

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