It’s the refrain of the modern day Capitalist Christian Conservative… you must work to earn your keep. That’s why they cut your unemployment benefits, food stamps, veteran’s benefits. Capitalist Christian Conservatives live in fear that somehow, some way, somebody is going to get “more than they deserve,” and that’s just “Unchristian.”
Ironically, Jesus had something to say to these Capitalist Christian Conservatives:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.
He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’
So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing.
About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.
So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.
When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?
Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.
Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Jesus use of the term ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is complex, as both a concept and a reality; and he begins each of his parables with this phrase. He uses it as a simile, a comparison to what he sees as God’s realm and it’s interactions with ours. His Kingdom of Heaven is dynamic, proactive, and always moving. It’s the top, God, reaching out to the bottom, the forgotten, and the powerless. The Kingdom of Heaven is powerful, with abundant resources and unspeakable wealth. The Kingdom is the ideal: not for God, but for us. And The Kingdom of Heaven is always seeking humanity in one way or another.
So Jesus starts his story by calling The Kingdom of Heaven a wealthy landowner.
Here again is another complicated term. Wealthy landowners in Jesus day weren’t exactly beloved. They used their wealth to abuse their workers, servants, and slaves. They were in league with the Romans in order to protect their own property. So it’s an interesting choice.
However, as we will soon see, the landowner represents not the worst of humanity, but the best. Jesus saw The Kingdom in the halls of power, doing what was right by the poor. His “Kingdom” represents the best that humanity can aspire to and this Kingdom is not “God,” but those who align themselves to God’s values… and Jesus uses this story to tell us what those values are.
Our landowner needs extra workers, and so he goes out in the morning and hires day-laborers, those workers we might see lined up outside of Home Depot or Lowes: men who are looking for something that will pay them enough for their families to eat that day. Which informs the significance of the denarius. This is an amount just enough for that day. Anything less, and they would still go hungry.
Later in the day, the landowner realizes he needs more help, and hires more workers, promising the same price. According to Jesus, he did this on the third hour, the six hour, the ninth hour, and the eleventh hour. Then at the end of the day, he paid every worker the same wage, which set the employees to grumble: angry that those who came later got the same pay as those who came earlier.
The landowner answers them:
“I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
This is an intense conversation when you think about it. Those who arrived first thing in the morning felt cheated—and maybe legitimately. It’s highly probable that anyone of us in this same situation would feel exactly the same. They see this as unfair, and Jesus seems to think that, while their response is reasonable, their sense of fair and unfair is misguided.
He tells us this in the landowner’s response. First he addresses the issue of fairness, and it’s rather terse—quite simply: “I have not been unfair to you, friend.” Friend indicates that he is not taking an antagonistic position, but he’s being clear on his point. He asserts that it is reasonable and fair to give all those in his employ a living wage, even though it doesn’t follow their sense of justice, or even entitlement.
His question is profoundly startling:
“Are you envious because I am generous?”
The Kingdom of Heaven gave every person what they needed for survival in a world without a social safety net. If they didn’t have enough for food, they would starve, and The Kingdom of Heaven helped make sure that didn’t happen.
Jesus will use a similar theme in a later story about a prodigal son and his jealous brother.
And finally, Jesus finishes his story with this statement: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” It seems a little out of place, but that may have been Jesus’ point. The landowner didn’t see any one of them as “deserving” more than the other.
Jesus clearly doesn’t see The Kingdom of Heaven as being “fair.” But he doesn’t see it as punitive either. The Kingdom of Heaven reaches out and embraces all those who accept the call. The Kingdom of Heaven is upfront with its promises, and what has been promised you applies to you only. It’s none of your business what The Kingdom of Heaven does for someone else.
In these workers, we see resentment. Those who arrived at dawn resent everyone else. Those who arrived at the third hour resent those who arrived after … and the same for those at the six and ninth hours. Those who came in at the eleventh hour, however, were probably just grateful that they finally got some work, and were going to be able to feed their families.
So what do the resentful do?
They complain—vociferously. They argue violently about how they’ve been wronged. They complain that they are the victims of reverse discrimination. They call those third, sixth, ninth and eleventh-hour workers: takers, moochers, the forty-nine percent, and the “entitlement” society. They cut long-term unemployment benefits, food stamps, children’s programs, and aid to the poor. They vote down veteran’s benefits and shut down women’s clinics while fighting equal pay. And they blame the poor for being poor in the first place. They block The Kingdom of Heaven at every point, desperate to ensure that the landowner cannot support these laborers.
And Jesus tells us why. “Are you envious because I am generous?” Implicit in that question, is the answer. He asks the question to show us what is obvious. “Yes, they are.” They resent The Kingdom of Heaven for being generous, and they resent the day-laborers for agreeing to be employed by the kingdom in the first place, and they especially resent the eleventh-hour workers for having the same as they have—even IF it was given by The Kingdom of Heaven.
Thus, Jesus leads us to the real obstacle—the real obstacle that he, The Kingdom of Heaven, the day-laborers, and all those who care about the poor truly face: jealousy and self-righteousness.