On Fairness and Wages (A Challenging Parable from Jesus)

On Fairness and Wages (A Challenging Parable from Jesus)
Photo by Priyansh Patidar / Unsplash

What would you consider to be the most challenging parable that Jesus taught? There are so many great ones to consider in the Gospels. This teaching has long fascinated me; here are some insights for you on one of Jesus' delightfully subversive teachings.

The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

Matthew 20:1-16

Who was the audience?

The most immediate audience for this parable is the disciples. The disciples had just seen the rich young man walk away sorrowful because of his great possessions after Jesus asked him to follow. Previously he had laid hands on children, speaking to a crowd. But the context implies that Jesus went away from that crowd.

This section, starting with the rich young man that came up to Jesus, ends with Jesus hearing Peter say, "We have left everything and follow you. What then will we have?". After Peter's question, Jesus responds about the rewards for leaving behind everything to follow Jesus.

"Jesus said to them" is the indicative phrase in Matt 19:28, "them" most likely meaning his disciples.

What is the central theme of the parable?

The repeated phrase in the previous teaching and the parable's ending are different ways of viewing this concept: "So the last will be first, and the first last."

Because the previous explanation and the exchange with the rich young person are all because of this conversation, they all are very relevant contexts to interpret the passage.

The first could refer to the wealthy, people with many opportunities like the rich young man. Given his response to rejecting Jesus initially, it might seem he would be the first who ended up last. Peter mentions how much he has given up, asking what he will have. Jesus could quickly teach his disciples, who are last now could be first in the new world. It is consistent teaching with other parables such as Lazarus and the Rich man.

Laborers in the vineyard intensify the particular theme of unfairness. It prepares the way for grace to be extended to everyone everywhere. In the historical context, it was essential to distinguish that faithful Jews would be rewarded the same as future Christian gentiles.

What are the principles explored in this parable?

Where the previous response of Jesus seemed to indicate that there would be much given to those who sacrificed for Jesus, this following parable suggests that people should not lean on their sacrifices for Jesus in expectation of what they are owed.

God seems to create situations to display his generosity and grace intentionally. In this instance, it is when he lines the workers up from least worked to most worked during the day.

If workers focus more on their pay than their generous boss, they will be severely disappointed. Same the rich young man, he was more enamored with his wealth than with the God who gave it to him.

If the laborers are focused on the generosity and kindness of the master, they will be overjoyed. Short-term thinking is one of the problems addressed here.

Focusing on the unfairness of today's one-time wage will cause grumbling at the master of the house. But understanding his long-term generosity and kindness and knowing his eternal character will inspire awe and worship. Knowing that someday, when you are the worker who must work at the 9th hour, you will be sure that the master of the house will still take great care of you on that day too.

We must focus not on our pay but on the one who gives the wages. The one giving the wages is always more interesting and praiseworthy than the wages themselves. We will be in the wrong place when we do not understand that the real treasure is God's love, character, nature, and kindness.

But when we see God's brilliant, shining, and perfect goodness, we can plant healthy churches. The church is not a place to focus on wages. Attendance numbers, giving stats, and views on the internet are not the most exciting or beautiful parts of a church. God is the most beautiful and engaging piece of every church, who inspires everything while bringing all men to himself.

When the master of the house is not the ultimate focus of worship, the wages will always seem unfair. The real treasure is knowing God for who he is, the joy of being known by him, and the peace that comes from being cared for in every way.

It's a profound parable; what are your thoughts? What are your considerations about fairness?