If the parables were intended to cause us to pause and think about the complexities of life this one has certainly succeeded.
We have the story of a landowner who hired people to work in his vineyard. The landowner hired a group of workers early morning for an agreed wage. Then as the day progressed the landowner saw people who had been unable to find work still standing around waiting. They were also hired, some at 9:00, some at mid-day, some at 3:00 and, finally, some at 5:00. Then at 6:00 he paid each of them the same wage. Those who had worked all day received the same amount as those who had worked only an hour. There was, of course, grumbling amongst the workers especially those who had worked the longest. The landowner reminded them that they had been paid the agreed wage.
This is one of those parables that somehow makes us feel uncomfortable. Actually, as we read, part of us wants to say that is not fair! Even using a definition of fairness that says that fairness is not equality but ensuring that everyone gets what they need, it still feels unfair. These vineyard workers were only paid subsistence wages and even a day’s illness would cause much suffering and hunger for a family. A little extra was always needed.
One of the things I always do with parables is take God out of the central role. Often parables are interpreted as if the main character is representative of God. Then one has to try to interpret the parable in such a way as to give the character God-like virtues ignoring or twisting the text to explain away when the central character behaves in a very un-Godlike manner! So this is not a story to be interpreted as the landowner represents God. This is simply a story about a landowner and some workers. That allows us the freedom to look honestly at the story and say maybe the landowner was unfair.
I just want to interject at this point that as I read this and the other parables in this section, one of which John talked about last week. I wondered how much they were redacted. Clearly, last week’s was. There was talk about the “church” in a parable supposedly spoken pre-crucifixion. I wondered if maybe this was influenced by Paul and the early apostles, who had not physically been with Jesus and witnesses to the Easter event, trying to justify that they were worth as much. Anyway, no more on that thought!
Let’s get back to fairness. We see this scenario played over and over again in our society. The concept in this parable is not strange or unfamiliar to us. It is not new. Look at your places of work. I know where I work most people work really hard, usually even through breaks and lunchtime. Yet, some get paid lots of money, others a pittance often with equally good college degrees and qualifications especially in the current economic climate.
The Realm of God is not some distant utopia where in the words of C.S. Lewis “wrong will be right”. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) It is our reality now. As people of faith we are living in the Realm of God. Maybe unfairness is what we have and what we see around us. This is the world we live in. (If I wanted to talk on a global scale the problem is more acute.)
So what do we do with this unfairness? That has got to be the key consideration. We live in a society where some have more and some have less. Some get sick, some stay well. Some live safely some face disasters. That is simply the way it is. Often it is circumstantial we don’t get a choice.
Remember the workers who didn’t get hired weren’t lazy or work-shy. Actually, they showed amazing perseverance. I don’t think I would have stood from 6:00 in the morning until 5:00 in the evening hoping for work. Maybe, that is where we can see God, in the character of the workers who didn’t get hired until 5:00!
This parable twists and turns, maybe the ones who didn’t get hired initially thought it was unfair that others got a full day’s work!
So what do we do with this parable? What does it teach us?
I think it is just simply that sometimes life seems fair and sometimes it doesn’t seem fair. It is often beyond our control. Where we get a choice is how we live . . .
“To be as Christ to those we meet, to find Christ within them”