Maria worried every morning as her husband, Jose, went to stand with the others looking for work. This evening her fear escalated as it was seven o’clock and Jose had not returned home. She feared he had been robbed? Beaten? Injured?
He didn’t see her but she saw him standing with the other day-laborers later in the day as she made her way to the store to buy bread for dinner. It was five o’clock and he had not been chosen for any type of work. Of course, he was up against younger and healthier day-laborers in fighting for the attention of those needing workers. At five o’clock he had still not been chosen. But where was he? He was missing dinner.
With a sudden force the front door flung open, Jose had returned home. He hugged his wife and gave her a big kiss while swirling her in circles. He tells her to sit down. He has good news. She asks, “Where have you been? I saw you at five o’clock. I know you didn’t get any work.” He says, “That’s just it. I did get work. At five o’clock this man invited the few of us that remained to come do some work for him. He had other crews that had been there all morning. At six o’clock when the work day was complete, he called us all up to give us our pay. He asked those of us who had just arrived to come up first. Maria, you won’t believe it. We got paid for a full days work. Gloria a Dios!”
This might be a modern version of Jesus’ story of the vineyard owner found in Matthew 20:1 – 16.
A lesson that has us all wandering does Jesus really know how things work in society. A vineyard owner paying workers who work for just an hour the same rate as those who have been working all day. Who does that? To make matters worse he pays first those who he hired last. Why not at least pay first those who were hired first? At least they wouldn’t know how much the last workers got paid. It is almost like the vineyard owner wants those who were hired first to know how much he is paying the last workers. Is this a taunt? A tease? Or is this a lesson?
Nothing in this passage suggests the last to be hired were lazy. It’s not that they did not want to work. They spent all day waiting to be hired. They were looked over. Who spends all day waiting to be hired but doesn’t find success until the end of the day? It is the same in Jesus day as it is in ours – the weak, the disabled, the elderly, the unskilled. It is not that they were lazy. They were unwanted.
The hiring of these workers speaks to the character of the vineyard owner. When all the other owners went into town to hire day employees for their vineyard the workers that remained were overlooked, neglected, and seen as insignificant. But the vineyard owner in Jesus’ story sees something of value in those left behind. The owner is merciful.
We like a merciful God. It makes us feel safe. I think we can all agree that a merciful God is not a bad thing. Who has never needed mercy? We all at times need our sins overlooked, imperfections unnoticed, or mistakes cleaned up. A merciful God is a good thing to have around.
But what he does next is hard to swallow. It doesn’t make sense. There is nothing rational about how the vineyard owner decides to pay the workers. C’mon, we are glad he agreed to bring them on board and give them a job. It was really nice thing to do. But pay them the same thing that he pays those who have worked all day? Vineyard work is hard work. In a field on the side of a hill in the scorching sun all day. Paying those who worked one hour the same amount as those who worked eight hours is unfair. I think we would all agree that is unfair. It is mercy taken to the ridiculous.
When they complain about the unfairness of the whole thing, the vineyard owner responds, “Are you envious because I am generous?” We want to respond for them, “I am not sure you would call it envious, just confused.” Jesus responds, “Don’t be surprised in God’s kingdom if the last are first, and the first are last.”
Grace teaches us that God does for others what we would never do for them. It also teaches that God does for us what we might otherwise never do for ourselves.