Red Letter Year: 5/8

Matthew 20:1-16

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work. At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing. At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’ They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’ The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’

That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

13 He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’ 16 So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”


This parable is a wonderful explanation of the limitless grace of God. Each of us receives the full measure of God’s grace without respect to the amount of work we have done. But I think there is more to see here than that. I think this builds on the encounter from yesterday’s reading. The owner of this vineyard is gracious with his wealth in a way the young man was unwilling to be. Both these stories bother us because both entail Jesus advocating ways of living and conducting business that are incompatible with our wealth-driven culture. That culture cannot condone this man’s wage policy. If he wanted to be generous once in a great while that might be okay, but he could not pay workers like this on a regular basis without soon coming to ruin.

Our culture has a “normal daily wage” for work like this. We call it the minimum wage and workers at this level are paid for the exact number of minutes they actually work, not a minute more. In fact, it has become common practice to monitor business volume very closely and send these workers home early whenever possible, working them less than the agreed upon hours and thus paying them as little as possible. We call this just-in-time scheduling, a vile practice that takes the maximum advantage of low-wage workers and leaves them unable to plan other activities (such as education or caring for their children) or plan a budget. What we do is as near the opposite of Jesus’ parable of the kingdom as can be imagined. 

And yet, it has become increasingly popular to approach church governance based on management principles borrowed from businesses who engage in these anti-kingdom practices. What do you suppose happens when we run the church according to such values? The result might look “successful” if we are measuring by standards also borrowed from such businesses, but how can the end be anything but failure with regard to actually advancing the kingdom?

What if, instead, we tried to order our churches – and all aspects of our lives – according to the values and practices of this vineyard owner? What if we offered fair wages for fair work and also gave wealth away? What if we ordered our lives together based on giving everything away?

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.