According to Google, which these days seems to be authoritative in all matters:
- The average pay of a garbage collector is just over $16 an hour.
- The average pay of a cardiologist is $454,000 a year.
- The average pay of a childcare worker is just over $9 an hour.
- The average pay of an NFL athlete is $1.9 million a year.
- The average pay of a pastor is $383,000. Alright, I just made that one up.
What constitutes fair and unfair when it comes to what someone gets paid? I know that as a pastor and now in my work in higher education, pay discrepancy is a very touchy subject. One can easily assume that something like this is being stirred up among the laborers in our story.
And you don't need a preacher to explain this one. Anybody that has worked for an hourly wage at some point in their life can appreciate the seemingly obvious inequity in all of this. You just do not expect someone who has worked just one measly hour to get the same pay as the one who has labored all day including working in the heat of the day. It's just not fair.
Just a block away from the suburban church I once served as pastor was a gathering spot for what some called day-laborers. Most of these were men - young and old - willing to do nearly any kind of short-term job from landscaping, carpentry or just chores. At the time I drove a small truck and if I ever slowed down or for some reason stopped at that particular corner, I could count on at least one or more of the laborers leaning into my window wanting to know if I needed a worker. I often think of those day-laborers. They're not lazy; day after day standing, waiting, hoping, humbled. They just wanted what all of us want - meaningful work and a way to help provide for those whom they love. I wonder: What would they think of this story?
Many scholars see this parable as descriptive of Gentile Christians who are brought into the work late and Israel as those who have labored since the beginning - and all are accepted equally. It is towards the end of the parable that we really get to the heart of the matter: "...are you envious because I am generous?" we read in verse 15.
Ah, now comes the twinge of shame. This is really not about fairness at all. No one was cheated. The owner apparently just felt very generous as the day progressed. In the Greek we have a literal reading of verse 15 and it goes like this: "...is your eye evil because I am good?" Not wishing to split Greek hairs here, but this story is not about God's generosity, although the act is most generous. This is about God's goodness. It is about the nature, the being of God. As such, this is a parable that invites us to experience God as good, because when you know God as good you begin to see your life and the lives of others differently.
So, let's get back to the evil eye...is your eye evil because I am good?
Many of us have an eye for evil. That is, we see evil where God sees good. For example, we see inequity in the story - a faint sniff of wealth redistribution. It just does not make sense that someone working one hour would get the same as someone who has worked all day long. It is not fair! Yet the logic is pure and Jesus calls us out on it. "It is my vineyard; my money; I am not paying anyone less than what was agreed; you see evil and I am seeing good."
Busted. It seems it is our nature to have an eye for evil. Therefore, it's hard for many of us to see good let alone see God as good. Confessing God is good, sounds good, but there are some complications. For starters, there is so much evil in the world: systemic racism, environmental destruction, mindless consumption, poverty, hunger, war, crime, sexism - and that is just the stuff we cause. What about "natural evil" as the theologians call it: hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, earthquakes, polar vortexes, and a warming earth. Don't get me started on the pandemic.
As such we cannot help but have an eye for evil - that is all we see! We watch it on television, are entertained by it at the movies, and are convinced that Washington DC is full of it.
To say, to pray, "God is good" is an admission to how complicated this can be. If God is good, why do we see so much evil? One of the complexities in this story is that it feels as though the landowner does not value his long-term staff because the landowner is paying them the same as the new arrivals. The tenured and loyal employees are measuring their value against others and the pay scale appears problematic. Should someone call HR? As I noted earlier, can you really put a price on what is truly valuable?
I remember the lovely people that cared for my mother-in-law when she was deep in the abyss of Alzheimer's living in a nursing care facility. The staff bathed her, fed her, changed her clothes, gave her medicine. Staff joined alongside my family as we witnessed her breathing her very last, where her faith became sight. And the staff did all of this for a median pay of about $12 an hour. I promise you, they were worth to me more than the $56,000 every losing player in the Super Bowl received this past year. If you're keeping score, this is certainly not fair.
In the parable they were keeping score. And at the end of the day - which comes literally in the story - at the end of the day, they resented everyone that was treated equally by the landowner.
Equality sounds good in theory, but in application it can sting a smidge. The implications are at times unsettling:
- The newest convert to the church has just as much voice and agency as the one attending since nine months before the nursery.
- The deathbed conversion has equal footing to the lifelong saint.
This is not a story of fairness; this is a story of goodness, and we should all be relieved. How would we like it if God dealt with us fairly?
The owner valued them all, so there was no need to keep score.
One of the details I need to point out is that the landowner is the one who showed up to hire the staff, that is the laborers, to bring them into the vineyard. Typically, this job would have been that of a manager or a foreman as we might call it. Instead, the story has the twist that the landowner showed up.
This good God is the one who shows up and invites us to discover our value - a value that is not measured by or against others. It is a value that only our good God can give. God is good not because we bargain for the goodness, negotiate for the goodness, or make suitable exchange for God's goodness. There is no quid pro quo here. God is good because that is who God is, even if our eye is blinded by evil. God is good because God is inviting all - those on the inside and those on the outside - to join in the good work of God and therefore share in its reward.
If you are like me, you tend to hear the story from the perspective of the one who has worked all day, yet paid no more than the one who just squeaked by for an hour. But think of it from the perspective of the laborers who were hired on as the day came to a close. I am surprised they were still there at the corner. I imagine at this point they were just hoping to get enough to cover food for the night. But the owner gave them a full day of pay.
Imagine what that must have been like, felt like, standing outside, the one not chosen first; the one who wants to be included but has been picked over. Chances are, you would not negotiate because you would be happy with just a meager opportunity. But the landowner is good in a way that we really cannot fully comprehend.
So, it is with life and everything in life: life, the abundant life, and eternal life are these free gifts of God to us, and we do nothing to merit or earn them. It is because God is good that we receive freely and generously.
If this story were to have a second chapter, I think that the next day the corner is still full of some of the same laborers. Something like day after day some of us walk had in hand with God all day and others fail miserably and only come into the fold late in the day.
This really isn't about you or me or what time we show up to work, although no doubt that has its importance. This is really about day after day the goodness of God keeps showing up - in the morning, in the evening - all day long - to lepers, to prostitutes, to prodigal children, to Samaritans, to thieves on the cross, to outsiders - to you and me too.
God is good... It is not calculated or weighed; its limits are immeasurable.
God is good... To the faithful and the faithless; to the shift worker and the salaried.
God is good... It is not about merited work, but generous inclusion.
God is good... Because God shows up and settles up, and it is not always what we expect but it is more than we understand.
God is good...
And that goodness, in this sometimes-bad world God will still show up today, tomorrow, and forever.
When you know that God is good - when you see that God is good - it changes how you see the world, how you see others and how you see yourself. It is not that all of this other is good - for only God is good.
Changing how you see changes how you relate which changes how you live.
I hope you see it. I hope you know it. I hope it changes you.