The parable of the day laborers has always been difficult for me to comprehend. Perhaps I make it too hard. More precisely, perhaps I do not like what it teaches.
In chapter 20 of his gospel account, Matthew retells a parable that Jesus told. In this parable a landowner goes out to find day laborers for his vineyard. At the beginning of the day, he hires men for an amount of money they all agree upon. Several hours later, he goes out and finds more men. He does this again, and again, and again. At the very last hour of the day, he goes and finds a few more men and hires them.
Now, as the day is finishing, it is time for the payout. The men line up to receive their money, and the foreman walks up to those who had only worked an hour and hands them the full amount of money.
Imagine the thought running through the minds of those that had worked longer. Surely, if those who worked only an hour are getting the full amount, then those who worked all day were in for a huge payout! As the excitement crept up their face, the foreman walked down the line handing each the same amount. The amount agreed upon for those first workers at the beginning of the day.
And the response was grumbling. They were angered by the actions of the landowner.
And I probably would have been too.
However, the master of the vineyard is certainly fair and just in the wages he dispenses. Furthermore, he is not only just but also generous. He gives no one less than what is earned, but he does give to some more than is due.
The grumbling of those who worked the longest is certainly cast in a negative light. They deem the actions of the master as somehow slighting them. In this they reveal the contents of their heart. Inside of them lives a deep selfishness that seeks more than fair treatment. Their heart is not satisfied when they are treated fairly. Instead, their heart desires not to receive what is right, but what is more. The selfish heart is one that wants more than others.
In the parable, the quam that these men have with the master is not that he neglects to pay them what they agreed upon, for this is not true. He, indeed, pays them the contractual amount. However, when the master chooses to bless others by giving more than the amount that is earned, these men get bitter and begin to gripe. The master was fair to them, but he was gracious to someone else. They are mad not because the master gave out more than he had promised; they are mad because he did not give it to them.
Oh, how we often look like these despicable grumblers in the parable!
Think back to the last time you were jealous of the blessing of another. I assert that feeling is nothing more than slimy self-righteousness. We perceive our merits should be lauded above the efforts of those whom we deem have “done less” than us. You know the feeling, that pang of bitterness that sits in your stomach when someone who does not seem to work as hard as you is blessed with something they do not deserve. Truly, your heart asks the same question as mine, “Why them and not me?”
It is that coworker who gets a raise, or a better office, or a nice perk of some kind. You know, the one that is never doing any work unless the boss is around. Or maybe it is that friend who did better than you on a test even though they never cracked the textbook.
It appears to be the condition of man that we easily see the laziness in others and the hard work in ourselves. And the temptation is to overlook the grace afforded to us in contempt for the grace afforded to others.
We are in good company though.
In the gospel after Jesus tells this very parable, Matthew draws our attention to a real-life scenario with the disciples. It is no coincidence that this story follows the parable.
In it the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, walks up to Jesus and asks for a favor. “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left,” she asks (Mt. 20:21b, NASB). Can you believe the audacity?
Neither could the other disciples.
In the story, everyone gets mad. This request is a petty example of someone wanting to be picked as favored and receive special benefits. No doubt, either their mother or the sons of Zebedee themselves counted their own service as worthy of this exalted position. This is precisely the same attitude held by the day laborers in the previous parable.
And before we throw stones at these two disciples, we must note the response of everyone else. Imagine the whole lot of disciples sitting there, remembering every wrong step that James and John had made. Imagine them calling to mind all the reasons why those two do not deserve that kind of blessing. Now, imagine them selfishly running through all the reasons it should be them instead of Zebedee’s sons.
Everyone was mad, because everyone wanted to be praised for their own outstanding service. Everyone wanted those seats! This attitude revealed the inner workings of their hearts.
Jesus had something to say about this:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. Is it not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be our servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mt. 20:25-28, NASB).
The call to be like Christ is a call to give instead of get. It is a call to be humbled instead of exalted. It is a call to rejoice when others are granted something we are not. Why? Because we care more about them than we do ourselves.
That is Christ like.