What are we to make of that strange story Jesus tells (Matthew 20) about the people who worked for different amounts of time but ended up being paid the same wage?
To remind you: the first batch of workers were hired ‘at the third hour’ and were promised the going rate for a day’s work. The next batch were employed three hours later, the next a further three hours later and then there were the 11th hour brigade who had just been standing around all day. When the wages were distributed it was the 11th hour workers who were paid first and they got a day’s wage. Good work if you can get it! Which meant that when the all day workers came to receive their pay, they thought they would get more, and were quite displeased when that did not happen.
Unless you subscribe to some form of egalitarianism that argues everyone should be paid the same, no matter how much work they actually do, you probably have at least a touch of sympathy for the workers who slaved away all day under the hot sun. Fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, and so on.
The story is framed by the double occurrence of Jesus’ teaching that the last will be first and the first will be last: it’s an important theme through the latter part of Matthew 19 and into much of chapter 20. Those who have given up things in this world will be compensated in the next. Those who want to be great have to become the least. In this (to us) upside down kingdom, the King gets to be generous to whomever he chooses in whatever way he wishes.
The landowner had kept his word to the workers who worked all day. He gave them what he promised. There was no way they could sue him for breach of contract. He had not paid them too little; if anything he appeared to have paid the other too much! ‘Do you begrudge my generosity?’ he asked them.
If our relationship with God is based largely on some kind of quid pro quo arrangement, we will struggle when he is kind and generous to those who – in our judgement – don’t deserve it.
Those who truly appreciate God’s generosity to them will not begrudge his generosity to others, even when those others are, apparently, less deserving.