Today’s message from Matthew (20: 1-16) showcases a parable about the kingdom of heaven. Although Jesus was a Jew, his movement differed significantly from what we think we know about first-century Judaism. In any case, it seems that Jesus (and others) had a hard time trying to reform ancient Judaism. So complete was the reform effort that a new religion emerged instead—Christianity.
Jesus’ parable in Matthew introduces a strange character, a manager with some odd behaviors. The manager in Jesus’ story hires workers, some early in the day and others later. He then makes a separate contract with each group of workers. The controversy centers on the workers’ assumptions, namely their sense of economic justice as opposed to contractual commitments. The workers hired earliest in the day worked at least eight hours longer than the last workers hired. The manager honored his contract with all the workers, but those who had worked the longest time assumed that they would receive more money than originally promised.
An obvious lesson from the parable involves restraining our assumptions. Yet, something far more significant is going on. Was the manager fair? How you answer depends in part on your personal values and work ethic. For some, the manager comes across harsh, insensitive, and divisive. Perceived another way, the manager was more than generous—at least to those workers who labored the least amount of time. Others argue that the manager wasn’t rational with his money because he paid too much for the last workers he hired while simultaneously upsetting those who had worked hardest and longest. The manager’s ignorance may emerge here, such that if he had paid hourly wages then there likely would have been no argument and no problem. After all, it is the flat wage that contributed to the problem.
Did the manager provide a satisfactory response about his reasoning? The manager claimed the privilege of ownership of his money, such that he didn’t need to answer to anyone. This type of response often comes from people who exert the primacy of their private ownership at the expense of broader social concerns. Some also cite the lack of the manager’s accountability to a higher authority. Other interpreters argue here that private privilege outweighs anything else and that an individual’s rights reign supreme over any purported social good. Do these arguments sound like the rhetoric in contemporary American politics? A more tantalizing take on all this is the suggestion that each of us has the possibility of a different contract with God. The implications and ramifications of negotiating with God are sufficient to strengthen us for an entirely new level of debate.
If the manager is a symbol for God, then the stakes are high given the manager’s questionable behavior. In the traditional view, God doesn’t have to answer to anyone. However, the justice of the wages paid to each type of worker is a divisive issue. The struggle can quickly lead to pitting one group of people against another. The workers who labored the longest could represent the Jews since they were God’s original people. The workers hired last could represent us, the Johnny-come-lately Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. Thus emerges one of the most simple, charitable interpretations of this parable: God’s promises and blessings—the wages—are available in the same measure to all people.
Harsh questions remain. Do you feel cheated as a laborer in this life? Do you feel that you are envious of God’s generosity toward others? If so, it can be tough to deal with the sense of betrayal. Do you feel that your spiritual wages are fair, just, and complete? Toward what end do you labor, and is the divine manager treating you in the preferred manner? These questions can be productive if we allow them to lead us into a transforming frame of mind. When is the last time you negotiated with God about your faith contract? Perhaps your struggles with managing your life will lead to a more productive journey. –Reverend Hoxey