Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? - Matthew 20:15
Once upon I time, I spent a couple of years working in middle management at a Target Store in the Minneapolis area. I had been there for a couple of years and had been promoted a couple of times within my department. News came out during this time that Target was going to raise its starting wage for hourly employees. It was news which was greeted positively in my store as the assumption was that everyone would then be getting an automatic, proportionate pay raise.
But that didn’t happen. Those employees who were recently hired and therefore were not at the new minimum starting wage got an automatic raise. However, the rest of us did not. To say those who had worked for Target for a while were disappointed and frustrated would be an understatement. As it turns out, the increase in the minimum pay was primarily intended to attract part-time, entry level employees.
In Matthew 20, we find a parable about workers and wages. It’s told as an analogy about the Kingdom of God so it isn’t a literal story, but a story told to illustrate a point. In this story, a landowner goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. He first goes out early in the morning and the original crew agree to work for a standard days pay. He then goes out several more times throughout the day to hire more workers, including just one hour before the end of the work day.
When it came time to pay the workers for the day, he instructed his foreman to pay them all the same, regardless of when they were hired. And just as my Target co-workers and I were frustrated when the pay increase for new employees wasn’t going to translate into a pay increase for us, the workers who had worked the entire day were frustrated to be getting paid the same as those who had worked just a short time.
Before we get too upset with the workers for their grumblings, let’s take a moment and acknowledge something very true for most of us. Put in the same situation, we would feel cheated and be tempted to complain about the unfairness of it all as well. I’ll admit, there are times when it is frustrating to see how much attention the person with the recent, dramatic conversion story later in life gets and how it feels like my years of quiet, often behind the scenes, day to day Christian faith is ignored. Something which makes everyday life a little easier for most of us is believing that life will, ultimately, be fair.
But this story directly confronts our human sense of what is fair and what is not. This story makes it clear to those listening that the Kingdom of Heaven is equally open to those who have worked for the sake of the Gospel for years and to those who only come to faith at the very end of their days on earth. Just as the landowner keeps hiring workers to harvest his crop so it won’t spoil in the fields, so will God keep calling people to do His work in the world so no soul may perish. God will take workers and reward them with eternal life regardless of how long they share the Gospel on this side of heaven.
Jesus wants his listeners, both then and now, to understand two very important things:
There is no special treatment or privilege simply because you have followed the rules. All those who worked in the vineyard were paid the same. The reward for the work you do in the Kingdom of God is eternity with God. If you are working towards a better house in heaven, or position of more power, then you are missing the point. All the glory and honor for your work on earth will be Christ’s alone in the end and so will have earned you nothing extra in eternity.
We are given the chance to labor for Christ not because God needs us to, but because we need to. The reality is that the laborers hired in the last hour of the day would not have made a significant impact on the harvest of the day. This is partly because of the limited amount of time and partly because they were likely not the most dedicated of workers (as they were only out looking for work at the end of the work day instead of the early morning hours). But they still were looking for work. They still needed to earn some amount of money. And so they were hired. The work we do for Christ is not about how great we are, but about what He does through us.
This leaves us with an important question to ponder: Why do you labor for Christ? Are you trying to earn your salvation? Are you trying to prove to others that you are the better Christian? Are you trying to prove to God that you deserve something better than what you currently have? Are you trying to earn a bonus for when you get to heaven?
All too often, I have to admit that my motivations are less than pure. I’m learning to embrace the work God has called me to with a joyful heart and without comparison to the work God has given to those around me. But it is a process. For everyone. A process which will, with God’s grace, help us focus more on God and less on our rewards with each passing day.
Read the entire story of the workers in the vineyard found in Matthew 20:1-16. If you were the landowner, would you have been inclined to pay everyone the same rate? If you were the foreman, how would you feel about carrying out the wishes of the landowner? How would you feel if you were the laborers hired in the morning? Hired at the end of the day? What does immersing yourself in this story teach you about God?
Take some time to examine your motivations for what you do in the name of Christ. Repent of those motivations which are for personal gain or glory. Ask a couple of people who are close to you help you identify those areas where pride or a sense of entitlement have crept into your calling and resolve to ask God to help you work on those.
In contrast to last week’s post where those in power are directly challenged to keep their greed in check, this passage challenges the worker to not be greedy nor begrudge those benefit from another’s generosity. The next time someone in your life is the recipient of a generous gift, challenge yourself to truly celebrate with them and resist them impulse to wonder “where’s my share?”
Everyday Life (to listen click on track 10), a song written by Jeremy Erickson captures the challenge of finding, and hold onto, faith in the day to day of life. Take a few minutes to listen and ask God to be ever more present and real in your everyday life.