Here’s a quiz. Agree or disagree.
- A. You’re an extremely hard worker and it drives you crazy when the boss gives equal credit to slacker colleagues who contribute nothing, NOTHING, to your team.
- B. You’d like to resolve America’s immigration problems, but insist that those who play by the rules and wait patiently, in their native countries, should get here first.
- C. You absolutely want to help the poor as long as they are deserving. You know, not drug addicts or bearing multiple babies with multiple men.
If you agreed with any or all of the above, no doubt today’s Gospel drives you crazy, too. It goes completely against our sense of fairness. It upsets our self-righteous judgments and is one of the most counterintuitive in all of the New Testament. It’s Matthew 20:1–16, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
Here’s the story. The vineyard owner goes out at dawn to hire laborers and agrees to pay them the “usual daily wage.” At 9 a.m. he goes out again, finds others standing idle, hires them, and agrees to pay them “what is just.” He does the same at noon, at 3, and at 5 p.m.
At the end of the day, he first pays those who began at 5 p.m. and worked about an hour. But he pays them the full daily wage. Those who started at dawn see this and expect more. Instead they receive the same wage, and complain. The vineyard owner replies:
“I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”
Yes, actually, many of us are not only envious, but also annoyed or even outraged. These are unfair labor practices, almost abusive, really. What about equal pay for equal work? What about worker morale? Isn’t this a version of the failed Marxist experiment: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs?
Every time I read this Gospel I replay, again, an incident at least 20 years ago when I’d worked for weeks on a project only to have Susie-come-lately sashay into my boss’s office and claim credit for my results. She was one of those “organize the boss” types, a false flatterer drowning him in ridiculous accolades. Hearing her, my jaw was on the floor. I never thought he’d fall for her fawning spiel. Then he did.
Every time I read this Gospel, I realize, too, how far our world is from the kingdom Matthew describes. The message here, Bible scholars say, is that I’m not supposed to resent Susie. That we’re all supposed to be generous to the least among us, not judging, not discriminating, not making excuses for why they don’t deserve our help. The parable is about the compassion, mercy, and generosity of God and the kingdom of God, where the rain falls on the just and the unjust, where lazy slackers receive God’s mercy, too. Remember, the thief on the cross, who repents moments before death, shares the same eternity as Peter and Paul, who toiled for years to spread the good news. But mercy is not about fairness. Neither is love. Tragically, God loves our nastiest enemies, too. It’s awful, but there it is.
In homilies, I’ve heard priests compare the last vineyard workers to be hired, the 5 o’clockers, to the least appealing or strong or skilled, like desperate day workers in Home Depot parking lots, most of them immigrants here illegally. Passed over all day by contractors, they’re chosen, finally, just before dusk, when everyone else is gone. So today they will make money. Imagine their gladness were the contractor to pay them not just for an hour or two, but for an entire day. We are supposed to be happy for them, the priests say, not ticked off.
In her book “The Wisdom Jesus,” Cynthia Bourgeault interprets this Gospel as yet another example that the human mind cannot comprehend the divine mind. We operate from a place of scarcity and fear. We keep track of the score. We compete. We expect our fair share. But the divine comes from a place of fullness. There’s enough for everyone. The good of all must be tended to, most especially the latecomers, the weak, undesirable, unskilled, and unwanted.
I get it.
I’m nowhere near there on the spiritual path.
Deny yourself. Become a servant. Forgive your brother not 7 times, but 77 times. Love your neighbor as yourself. These and other bits of counterintuitive advice from the radical Jesus Christ? I get them, too, at least intellectually. Actually doing them is another story.
Some of you may remember the late great writer Gore Vidal, famous for his biting but self-revelatory quotes. Here are a few:
- “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”
- “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
- “Envy is the central fact of American life.”
Vidal, who didn’t think much of religion, clearly has a worldview at the opposite extreme from the vineyard owner’s. Most of us, I suspect, are someplace in between.