An intriguing story of grace is found in Matthew 20:1–16. It’s a good reminder that life isn’t fair and grace seems great until someone I don’t like or respect gets more than you think he (or she) deserves.
In this parable, a vineyard owner demonstrates generosity and grace — though the generosity isn’t well-received, revealing a problem about grace. The landowner hires laborers to work in his vineyard all day for a flat fee of one denarius. This amount of money represents standard wages for a day’s work.
A few more times during the same day, the landowner realizes he needs more help and hires again and again and again. As a result, there are laborers in the vineyard who have worked about one hour, three hours, six hours, and 12 hours.
At the end of the day, the vineyard owner pays everyone exactly the same amount of money. This action angers the people who have worked all day. They complain to the landowner but he rightly contends that he has paid them according to their agreement. Plus, he says they shouldn’t begrudge his generosity.
Equal compensation for unequal contribution isn’t the norm in capitalism
In general, I wouldn’t think that business owners today (or in the past) would operate according to a set of rules that provide equal pay for variable amounts of work. But I was intrigued when a member of my Sunday school class described a real-life situation similar to this one.
In this case, highly skilled laborers who were long-time employees of a locally owned business discovered that their hourly wages were the same as lesser skilled workers. The first set of folks earned above-average pay whereas the second set earned well-above-average pay, considering skill levels, job stability, and cost of living in the area.
Nevertheless, the highly skilled laborers confronted the business owner with charges of unfair treatment. The owner calmly asked them if they were upset with the pay itself or angry that they weren’t making more than the other (less valuable) employees. The more skilled folks were smart enough to realize that the question was rhetorical and their wages were more than fair; they dropped the matter.
Now, I am not saying that this compensation model should be adopted by businesses everywhere. And just because this pay philosophy worked for a successful business owner in a small town in North Carolina doesn’t mean that it will work elsewhere. Based on my friend’s recounting, I speculate that this business was extremely profitable and these profits were largely dependent on a stable workforce (hence, well-paid workers).
Grace means other people benefit from God’s generosity
If you’re like me, you see yourself as the valued worker, the dedicated one who is not only committed to excellence but regularly and consistently produces excellent results. You and I are the highly skilled laborers who work all day.
So when someone else comes along and doesn’t contribute half as much as we do, but reaps the same rewards, it’s annoying. And we call out the boss on this unfairness. I may not get mad at God but instead take out my anger at the new folks, the other folks, the lesser folks.
I wonder if Jesus told this parable to illustrate not just how grace is extended to individuals but more importantly how grace works in the context of a community, how grace should inform the way I think about and interact with other people, particularly those who I consider newcomers to (or outsiders in) my town, my kids’ schools, my churches, or whatever groups or social circles I inhabit.
One of the key aims of transformation is to become the type of person who is genuinely happy when undeserving people receive grace.
I think Jesus told this story not simply to annoy the Pharisees, the established religious folks who looked down on everyone else, including the new believers. I think He told this story to give me an understanding of what my relationship to other people should look like, and to remind me — based on my reaction to generosity, spoken or silent — of how close I am to the ideal of loving my neighbors as much as myself.