When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20: 9-16
The parable of the laborers challenges us to our very core, because here Jesus is asking us to re-think something very fundamental: our idea of fairness. This is hard for us, because having eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we have a pretty good idea of what is fair and what isn’t. And there’s something about the notion of people who worked all day being paid the same as those who worked for just an hour that just doesn’t seem right. But Jesus is doing something more than simply challenging our notion of justice: he’s challenging our very notion of God.
Because one of the things we want, perhaps more than anything else, is a God we with whom we can strike a bargain. We want a God we can do business with. I want to agree with God that if He will take away my receding hairline, then I will pray every night. Or we want to tell God that if we lead reasonably holy lives, then He will take good care of us and nothing much bad will happen. Or we want to cut a deal that if we don’t do anything really bad, and go to church most Sundays, then he’ll let us into heaven. We want a God we can understand, dicker with, and hold to a particular set of rules. We want a God with whom we can do business.
Jesus teaches us, however, that this is not the sort of God we have. He teaches us that the normal rules don’t apply here, that the first will be last and the last will be first. He teaches that our notion of fairness doesn’t even come close to God’s mercy. This is one of the problems with the prosperity gospel and with preachers who suggest that hurricanes are God’s judgment on certain places or that diseases like AIDS are God’s judgment on a given community. Jesus regularly taught that God doesn’t work that way. He said: “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Luke 13:4. This is just one of the ways, as a dear friend of mine observed, in which biblical fundamentalism is fundamentally un-biblical. Even the parable of the prodigal son calls upon us to re-think what fairness really looks like to a God of limitless compassion.
Jesus teaches that our notion of fairness deeply underestimates the Kingdom, where the first will be last and the last will be first. We don’t have a God we can do business with, or a God we can hold to a given set of contractual obligations. Instead, we have a God who calls us into a covenant which is based on a loving relationship rather than a set of contractual rights to which we can hold the Almighty to when things aren’t “fair.” Rather than a God we can do business with, Jesus teaches that we will find a God of infinite mercy and grace. I think that’s probably a better deal anyway.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2011 James R. Dennis