Signposts: Daily Devotions

Friday, September 19

But the landowner replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you.”
—Matthew 20: 13-14

These words are the conclusion of one of Jesus’ most controversial parables known as The Laborers in the Vineyard. Jesus, speaking to his disciples, says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” And then he tells a story about a landowner, probably a man who owned several vineyards.

At harvest time, with his vines bulging with ripened grapes, the man needs workers, so he goes to the village square early in the morning and makes an agreement with some day laborers for a denarius a day, that being the standard daily wage.

By 9:00 a.m., the owner realizes he needs more workers, so he goes back and hires more workers. Again at noon, and at 3:00 p.m., and finally even at 5 p.m., he hires more workers and sends them into the fields. 

When evening comes, he and his steward go out to pay the workers. “Line them up,” he says, “beginning with the last, up to the first.”  So the last workers are paid first, and each one receives a denarius! “Aha!” say those who went to work earliest, “if he pays the latest workers a denarius, imagine what he will pay us!” 

To their bitter surprise, each of those first workers receives exactly what they contracted for: a denarius. “Wait a minute!’ they cry. “This isn’t fair!  They only worked one hour, and you’ve made them equal to us who worked all day in the scorching heat.” But the landowner replies, “Listen, I did you no wrong. I choose to pay these last workers the same amount. Take what belongs to you, and go. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

Ouch. Those of us who are accustomed to equal pay for equal work are puzzled; those of us who work long, hard hours to feed our families are annoyed; those of us who are eldest children may feel an old pang of envy. Why would Jesus say the Kingdom of GOD is like this? The way the landowner treated those early workers goes against the grain of all we’ve been taught. It just isn’t fair.

No, it isn’t fair, in our eyes. But it is so very generous. And that, I think, is what Jesus is trying to tell us. God does not give us merit badges, and God is not a bookkeeper. We are all of equal value in God’s eyes. This parable is not about when bad things happen to good people. Instead, it’s about when good things happen to ALL people. And that, dear people of God, is what the Kingdom of God is like.

Thank you, generous God, for your goodness and loving-kindness towards us. Help me to open my heart to understand this parable, and to rejoice in it. Amen.

The Signposts for September are written by Margaret Jones and originally appeared on explorefaith in 2005.