“Not fair.” That’s a common response to this parable. As Americans we have this idea of fairness pounded into us, particularly when it comes to things like incomes, wealth, and economics. And in defending our free market economy, we too often land in the place of defending whatever the status quo is: “The market always works,” we say. “Trust the free market,” we say. This parable really isn’t about economics, but it also kind of is. It’s about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, but economics is in the mix here, because the Kingdom of Heaven is about the breaking down of oppressive systems, and economies are most certainly often oppressive systems.
From my suburban American perspective, I read this and respond, “not fair!” as the workers who only worked an hour get the same pay as those who worked all day. Verse 10 says, “but each of them also received the usual daily wage…” We get angry and cry “not fair” at everybody getting the “daily wage”. Let that in. We think it’s unfair that everybody got what is necessary to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. We think we are entitled to more than our “daily bread”, as we worry not about today but tomorrow as well.
All the while what we slip right passed verses 6 and 7: “…and he said to them, ‘why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.'” It’s unfair that people got a living wage, but it’s not unfair that not everyone got hired?
We can debate the merits of a free market economy, I suppose, but one of the things this parable does is expose the ways in which the privileged benefit from it. Privilege is one of those things today that many of us like to deny exists. We think we got what we got merely because of our hard work, without recognizing that we got what we got because a system is in place wherein we got hired “early in the morning”. Those people who showed up late don’t deserve what I got. Our cries of unfairness do not expose an unfair God, they expose our own privilege and sense of entitlement. This parable doesn’t match up perfectly with the “equity/equality” concept, but the same point is in it: The Kingdom of Heaven is a place where the systemic barriers are removed.
God is not unfair here. God is doing “whatever is right” (verse 4). There is a whole heap of other things that this parable is about, but one of its overarching themes is the way in which we so often won’t let God be God. We fall right back into the serpent’s temptation in Genesis 3: “…for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” We don’t trust God to be God. We think we know what’s best, what’s fair, “whatever is right.”
The word for “right” that Matthew uses here in terms of the wage the later laborers will receive is the same word often translated “righteous”. When we take control of what is “righteous”, we take the fruit of the forbidden tree as we seek to be like God. We question the landowner, and we live lives full of envy because of the landowner’s generosity. Let us let God be God and us be us. We are laborers in God’s vineyard. Our job is to help plant, grow, and harvest grapes that God will turn into a beautiful, complex, full, vibrant wine for the world. Let’s let God do that. And let’s recognize that God will continually go back out to find more laborers to help in this work. Let’s welcome them into the work with us with open and generous arms, rather than minimize and marginalize their work with us with clenched fists of envy.