Jesus told his disciples this parable:“The kingdom of heaven is like a landownerwho went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock,the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard,and I will give you what is just.’So they went off. And he went out again around noon,and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock,the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay,beginning with the last and ending with the first.’When those who had started about five o’clock came,each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,‘These last ones worked only one hour,and you have made them equal to us,who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’He said to one of them in reply,‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. 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?’Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This week's reading is a rather strange parable. Jesus is trying to tell us that normal rules of work and reward don't really apply in the Kingdom of God. We all receive the reward of heaven. Is that fair? No. It is far better than we deserve. We need to focus on that. What we should not focus on is what other people get. They will seem to get a better deal than you. So what?
Now some commentators point out that those who didn't get work until later in the day would have been under a lot of stress. People lived on what they made. If they didn't get a days pay they would not be able to buy a day's food. Many would have expected their families to go hungry right up until the time they opened their pay packet.
That correlates well with many of our little jealousies. We assume those who have lived outside the rules of Christian morality have had it easy. That they must have a better life than we have obeying the church and serving the church. Quite the opposite. They can pursue pleasure but without purpose. Does that lead to true joy? No. We can serve God and help God change this world for the better. That is deeply satisfying even if we give up a lot. Sometimes precisely because we gave up a lot.
Yet despite the connection it does not seem Jesus really makes this point. Jesus is more emphasizing that God gives generously and you should never complain when God is generous with someone else. He rewards one person's efforts with great results and the next person who seems to try even harder end up frustrated. This is going to happen.
The trouble is we don't grasp the difference between living by grace and living by works. We still think that our success is going to be tied to our effort. We know we get more than we deserve yet we think comparisons should still hold. That God will somehow bless us more if we do more. That is not the way it works. We don't serve God more because God will make it worth our while. We serve God with everything we have because God has already blessed us beyond all measure. If God raises someone else up then we thank Him for that rather than being envious.
We are always going to be hugely in God's debt. No work we could ever do can change that. Yet we just can't give it up. We can't stop imagining that we are earning God's favor. We can't stop looking at other people and comparing.