Ripped off by God? (Matthew 20:1-16)


“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for one denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing in the marketplace without work. He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard, too, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So off they went. He went out again about noon and about three o’clock and did the same thing.

About five o’clock he went out and found some others standing around. He said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day long without work They told him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard as well.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ Those who were hired at five o’clock came, and each received a denarius.

When the first came, they thought they would receive more, but each received a denarius as well. When they received it, they began to complain to the landowner, saying, ‘These last fellows worked only one hour, yet you have made them equal to us who have endured the burden of the day and the scorching heat!’

But he said to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m not treating you unfairly. You did agree with me for a denarius, didn’t you? Take what is yours and go. I want to give this last man as much as I gave you. I am allowed to do what I want with my own money, am I not? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ In the same way, the last will be first, and the first will be last. For many are called, but few are chosen.”

I’m really sorry Kon isn’t here.

Kon is my best mate, and was my trainer and corner-man for all my fights, and it’s not that I need him here ‘in my corner’ when I’m preaching. It’s because when I first met him, he said to me, “Dave, I’ve read the Bible, and what about that guy who hires some workers but then pays the guys who work one hour the same as he pays the guys who work all day! Did Jesus really say that? Where’s the justice in that?”

Well … yes, Jesus did really say that, and it’s a pity Kon isn’t here because today is the day we’re looking at that story, and the question still remains … where’s the justice in it?

Kon may be disappointed, not being here. Others may be disappointed that you chose this week to show up! For, we have to be honest, in as much as the service revolves around this text, this is not likely to be one of our ‘feel good’ Sundays.

This is not ‘Shepherding Sunday’ where we reflect on that heart-warming image of the Good Shepherd looking after the sheep. This is not ‘let the little children come to me’ week (despite the fact that we’ve had a baptism today). This is a week where Jesus tells us a story that strikes at the heart of what religion is all about!

I do believe that all of us, deep down, have some instinctive sense that what God is on about is making sure that everybody gets what they deserve. And here’s a story from Jesus that says, ‘…think again!‘.

It’s a story about a landlord, more specifically a vineyard owner, and I get the impression from the story that this vineyard owner is a big vineyard owner, in charge of a very big vineyard that, come harvest, needs plenty of workers.

We’re not talking about a hobby farm here, nestled away in the Australian bush, where mum and pop have strung up a few vines in the days they have off between work and the bingo hall. We’re talking Henry Lindeman here – big man, big budget, big vineyard.

Come harvest this guy needs a lot of workers. No doubt he has a full-time staff, but come harvest this team is not enough. So he pops down to the dole office when it first opens, and then drives around the city square to see who is hanging around looking for work. You can see him gliding around the city square in his sport car convertible, leaning out the window, saying, “any of you boys want to come and work for me today?”

“How much?” the answer comes back. ‘a hundred and fifty bucks”, says the boss. The boys look at each other and say, “no problem”. They start to move towards the car, but Lindeman says,“hey, you’re not getting in the convertible! I’ll send down one of our boys with a truck!”

These boys work hard, but Lindeman is looking at the progress and he’s thinking, ‘we need more hands’. So around lunchtime he does another circuit of the town square and pops by the dole office a second time.

The quality of labour this time is somewhat reduced. These are the guys who didn’t get up early to make a fresh start on the day. These are guys who had a big night the night before, or who slept in for some other not-very-good reason. Even so, Lindeman says, “you boys wanna work on my farm today?”, and plenty say ‘yes’.

It’s about four in the afternoon, and Lindeman is looking at the work going on and he’s thinking,‘we’re never gonna get this finished in time’. So he gets in his convertible and makes yet another drive back to the dole office and back to the town square. He finds a few layabouts and addicts, standing around looking confused, wondering where all their mates are. He says, “you boys want some work for what’s left of the day?” And some of those who are left come.

Now, there’s been no discussion with these last guys as to how much they are going to get paid for their efforts, but they’ve been talking to the other guys.

Young Louie only got there an hour before dark, but he’s doing his sums. The boys who’ve been here all day are getting $150 for a ten-hour day. That’s $15 an hour. That means between me and Tony we’ll be able to afford a slab of beer tonight! He’s happy.

Then he collects his envelope and opens it. And he notices he’s got a couple of $50 bills in there and some smaller notes. Is he speaking up and saying, “hang on a moment! I think there’s been a mistake!” No way! He’s tucking that envelope tightly away in his pocket, grabbing his ghetto blaster with the other hand, and heading off back into town as quickly as his legs will carry him!

But of course the whole thing isn’t going unnoticed, and some of Louie’s buddies are being less subtle about what’s in their envelopes. So when the early birds get their turn, they’re expecting a pleasant surprise too. They don’t get one. They get the $150 they agreed to.

Some of these guys notice Lindeman, who is back in his convertible, heading home. He says, “is there a problem, boys?” Some of the group call out to him, “Yeah! We worked here all bloody day! Why should these losers get paid the same as us?”

“Buddy”, says Lindeman, pulling his shades half-way down his nose, “you got what we agreed to. Why do you begrudge my generosity? Can’t I do what I like with my money?”

Literally, in the Greek, the landowner asks, “why is your eye evil because mine is good?”What’s it to you if I choose to be nice to somebody else. You‘ve been looked after!

Says Jesus, “the Kingdom of God is like that! The first come last, and the last first!”

Hang on a second Jesus! What do you mean “the Kingdom of God is like that!?”

Do you mean that lazy no-hopers all get the same reward in Heaven as we who sweat away down here, trying to do the right thing?

Do you mean that God is like this rich twerp, who obviously has no idea about how to run a business?

Do you mean that good, honest, hard-working people like us don’t get rewarded for all our good work, while useless good-for-nothing lay-abouts like my no-good son-in-law pick up the same heavenly pay-cheque at the final checkout?

There is something very offensive and even irreligious about this story that Jesus tells!

I know that we’ve moved beyond the “all good children go to Heaven” type of religion, but surely we haven’t abandoned altogether the idea that being godly in this world has something to do with honesty and hard work!

What sort of model is this for our society? I hope my children haven’t heard this story!

For I’m sure you tell your children the same thing that I was told when I was at school. ‘Don’t cheat! Don‘t take short cuts! Do your homework! Work hard!’

Most likely you were sold the same line as you now sell your kids – that those who take short cuts only hurt themselves in the end!

I knew what my mum and dad were right! When old lazy Joe says, “hey Dave, can I see your maths homework? I had a big night last night!” I say, “sure, Joe“. Because I know that in the end this guy is only hurting himself! He’s not really learning. He’s not really getting ahead. It’s not really going to do him any good.

Then, come the HSC, old lazy Joe got a better mark than I did!

Something is not right! It’s not supposed to work that way! I did the work. I deserve the reward! Jesus says, “yeah, the Kingdom of God is like that!

Come on! It’s not just that we begrudge the other guy his good fortune. It’s because we have a sense of fair play. And it’s not just that we begrudge the other guy getting what he didn’t deserve. It’s just that we know that whatever he got, we deserve more

I heard a Trade Union leader quoted recently, saying that there had never been a strike called over low pay, only over pay differentials.

In other words, it’s never that we feel we’re not getting enough, in some absolute sense. It’s that we’re not getting as much as the guy next to us! That’s the problem. Jesus says, “yeah, the Kingdom of God is like that!”

We had it drummed into us as kids. We grew up believing that a hard day’s work deserves a good day’s pay. Hey, I wonder if we aren’t born with some instinctive sense of personal justice, for I can’t remember a time when my children didn’t argue over who was getting the greater share of lollies!

If you’ve got two kids you know the deal. If you’ve got a piece of cake to share, one child cuts, the other chooses. Why? Because the grumble will never be, ‘I didn’t get enough’. It will always be,‘she got more than me’, with the assumption being that we deserve to get exactly the same!

Now the truth is, if religion is about getting what we deserve, we’re all in trouble.

“All have sinned“, says St Paul, “and fallen short of the glory of God“, and we know that it is true. When we stand back and look at the big picture, we know that none of us is really any moreworthy than any other.

Before God, we know that there is nothing really separating us from the guys in the clinic or the guys we know in prison. We’re all made of the same stuff and make the same sorts of mistakes. Some of us find ourselves in the wrong situation at the wrong time, and some of us get caught. But none of us really has any claim on God. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God“

Jesus taught us that there is something greater than justice. It’s called grace.

Jesus taught us that there is something greater than fairness. It’s called forgiveness.

And so we come together this morning as the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the cross of Christ – forgiven, recipients of grace, glorying not in our own achievements, but in the love of God poured out for us in Christ Jesus.

You know, last time I spoke to Kon about this passage, he told me that he’d got over the parable of the workers and was more upset about that story of the father whose son spent all his money on prostitutes, but then came home and his dad threw a party! What sort of father is that?

What sort of father indeed?

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, September 2005. 

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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