The Right Thing To Do

Matthew 20:1-16

  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;  and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.  And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’  When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’  When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.  10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.  11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,  12 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.’  13 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?  14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’  16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

There’s something about this parable that makes us nervous.  Most of us, anyway.  If we’re honest, we really don’t like the idea that the workers who were only in the field for an hour or two got paid the same as those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  It’s not fair.  It offends our sense of justice even if it is Jesus who’s telling the story.  As Barbara Brown Taylor says, this parable is a little like the cod liver oil that mothers used to give their kids: you know it’s good for you, you trust the one who is giving it to you, but that doesn’t make it any  easier to swallow. 

We have a built-in sense of fair play and fair pay and when they don’t go the  way we think they should, we tend to let people know how we feel about it.  Here’s an actual letter written to the head of a government relief agency: 

Dear Sir:
It seems worthwhile to call your attention to what is going on in nearby Hoboken relative to “relief”…True relief is approved by the people of the USA but merely making loafers out of individuals who don’t want to work is definitely to the detriment of the country and is disastrous to the taxpayers of the country. If the situation as it now exists is not soon changed the voters of the country will give the present administration a thorough cleanout next November. 

Yours truly, [1]

That letter was written in 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression, to Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.  The writer of that letter didn’t feel that workers on local WPA projects were being required to work long enough or hard enough for the money they were receiving.  He didn’t think it was fair that his tax dollars were paying salaries to people he saw as “loafers.”

A sense of what’s fair and what’s not may be built into us.

In 2003, Psychologists Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal did an experiment with female Capuchin monkeys.  They trained the monkeys so that each time they did the “work” of bringing them a granite pebble they got “paid” with a slice of cucumber.  The monkeys really like cucumber, so they learned to do this “work” very quickly.  Then one day Brosnan and deWaal gave one of the monkeys a grape instead of a cucumber slice as payment for her pebble.  Capuchins like cucumber, but grapes are their absolute favorite food.  All the other monkeys saw this and there was suddenly much excitement.  Wow!  Grapes!  But when the next Capuchin came to redeem her pebble and instead of a grape she got the usual slice of cucumber, she went ballistic.  She threw the cucumber back at the handlers and started shrieking at them and violently shaking her cage.  After repeating this experiment several times, the monkeys went on strike and wouldn’t bring their pebbles at all any more unless they got paid in grapes. 

 Not too long ago the Governor of Massachusetts was on a radio talk show outlining plans to provide temporary, safe assistance for some of the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who had been crossing our southern border.  One woman who called in asked,  “Why do we have to spend our money to take care of somebody else’s children?”[2]

A lot of people would ask that same question.  A lot of Christians, concerned about immigration issues, would ask that same question. Why should we take responsibility for this?  Why should we take responsibility for a lot of other things?

Why should I have to wear a mask?  What about my personal freedom?

Why should I have to take responsibility for standing against racism?  Why do I have to learn to recognize white privilege and other systemic and cultural factors that have made life difficult for persons of color?  What does that have to do with me?

Why should we be concerned about income inequality?  

I think the short answer from Jesus, especially as we see him in Matthew’s gospel, would simply be we should do it because it’s the right thing to do.

For Jesus and for his followers, fulfilling righteousness, or, more simply, doing the right thing is a central theme in the Gospel of Matthew.  It starts in chapter 3 when Jesus is baptized.  John the baptizer says, “This is all wrong, you should be baptizing me!”  And Jesus replies, “Let’s just do this for now ‘so that all righteousness may be fulfilled.’”  In other words, it’s the right thing to do.  

In chapter 7, after telling us to treat others the way we would like to be treated, Jesus reminds us that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  In other words, those who do the right thing.   

This theme of doing the right thing is expressed with crystal clarity in chapter 25 where Jesus uses the metaphor of separating the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous.  The ones who enter the kingdom and inherit eternal life are the ones who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, heal the sick and so on.  They’re the ones who do the right thing and in doing it they minister to Jesus, himself.

The parable in today’s gospel is another example of a “do the right thing” story even though our gut reaction to it is that the landowner is doing the wrong thing. 

We usually call this story The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  The problem with that title is that it puts our focus on the workers and the vineyard, the place where they’re laboring all day in the hot sun.  That means that we’re going to have a tendency to be  thinking about this from the workers’ point of view.  But what happens if we call this story The Land Owner and the Marketplace? 

The story starts with the landowner and ends with the landowner, so let’s keep our focus on him.  He goes to the marketplace at 6 in the morning and hires all the laborers he needs for the day.  He goes back to the marketplace at 9 and sees that there are still workers who haven’t been hired.  Now if we’re Jesus’ original audience listening to this, we have assumed that he doesn’t really need any more workers—a smart landowner, and you don’t get to be a landowner without being smart—would have hired all the workers he needed the first time out.  But he sees workers who haven’t been hired by anyone else, so he hires some of them. He goes back at noon and it’s the same thing so he hires some more.  Then again at 3 and finally again at 5, almost at the end of the work day.  

One has to wonder, of course, why those workers are available.  Why are they “standing there idle?”  It’s tempting to make up stories for them, but there’s no need to and it doesn’t really suit the purpose of the parable.  They’re there because, as one of them puts it so succinctly, “No one has hired us.”  There are more laborers than there is demand for labor.  End of story.  

At the end of the day it’s time to pay them.  The landowner had agreed with the first workers he hired that he would pay them each a denarius, the usual fair rate for a day’s labor.  A Roman silver denarius would feed a family for 3 to 6 days depending on the size of the family, so these first-hired workers are happy to make the deal.  It’s decent pay.  When the landowner hired the others later in the day he simply said he would pay them “whatever is right.”  

The landowner pays the last-hired workers first, and it turns out that his idea of “what is right” is a denarius;  a full day’s pay for an hour’s work.  The workers who had been hired first see this and think they’re in for a huge bonus, but when they only get paid a denarius, in keeping with their contract, they’re upset.  “They began to grumble against the owner of the estate, saying, ‘These last worked but one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’”

We sympathize, but the landowner has a point when he replies, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Did you not agree with me to work for a denarius? Take what is yours and be gone. I choose to give to this last man 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?’

Okay, so fair enough.  A deal is a deal.  Still, it all seems kind of unfair to those workers who were out in the vineyard all day. So what’s going on here?

Well to really understand this we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the parable where Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  Those words are our clue that Jesus is telling us a story about kingdom values, God’s values.  And it’s important to remember when we think about these values that Jesus isn’t just talking pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.  Jesus was announcing that the kingdom was enngiken, arriving, obtainable, drawing near, within reach.  Jesus was expecting us to embrace God’s vision and then to work to make it a reality “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Amy-Jill Levine in her book Short Stories by Jesus says that this is a parable about economics and righteousness—this world economics and this-world righteousness as God would like to see us practicing them.

Why does the landowner go out repeatedly to hire more workers when he already hired all he needs with his first visit to the marketplace?  He hires the others because they need jobs and he can afford to hire them.  It’s that simple.  

In hiring them, even the last ones hired, he gives them the dignity of earning a wage so they don’t have to beg.  He provides for their families so they don’t have to rely on the charity of the community, and thus he preserves the community’s resources.  He honestly meets the terms of his contract with the first ones hired and he generously goes beyond the expectations of those hired later.  He performs both an act of righteousness and a mitzvah, an act of generosity.  He is focused on the needs of the community more than on his own needs.  He voluntarily distributes his wealth so that the community is more stable.  

At the end of the parable when the early workers imply that he is being unfair he asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?”  That, at least is how it’s translated.  What it actually says in the Greek is, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

It’s a reminder that how we see things is vitally important.  

Years ago when a number of players for the Yankees were renegotiating their contracts there was scuttlebutt that a number of them were unhappy with the terms they were being offered.  A reporter happened to catch Yogi Berra as he was leaving the owner’s office and asked him if he was happy with the terms of his contract.  Yogi replied, “I’m gonna get to play baseball again next year for the Yankees, and would you believe it, they’re gonna pay me besides!”

We live in a time that’s ripe for change, Kairos moment, and so much of what happens next depends on how we see the world.  Is our eye evil because God is generous?  Or can we see God’s astonishing generosity and learn to emulate it, to copy it, to practice on earth as it is in heaven?

In our rite of baptism and in our affirmation of baptism, we have vowed “to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”

In other words, we vowed to be like the owner of the vineyard, to see the world with God’s vision of generosity.  Because it’s the right thing to do.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu

[2] Paul Santmire, Preaching On Creation, https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/sunday-september-18-24-year-1-santmire/

2 thoughts on “The Right Thing To Do

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.