In case you’re wondering, it’s a time clock where employees get their cards stamped as a way to verifying they’ve worked enough hours.
But how much work should a worker work to be sure that they’ve earned their pay?
Unless you are committed to some kind of economic utopian egalitarianism, you’ll probably not use the story Jesus told in Matthew 20 about a man who owned a vineyard and who recruited a series of day labourers.
There were five groups of them: some of them started first thing and worked all day, some worked from 9 in the morning, some from noon, some from 3 and some were recruited only at the 11th hour. The kicker in the story comes when the people who’d worked all day watch the 11th hour workers get paid a full day’s wage, assume that therefore they will get more, but end up getting the same.
It’s probably not how you’d run a business: at least you’re unlikely to be successful if the people who turn up after lunch on Friday get the same wage as the people who’ve worked all week!
But it’s the way the Kingdom works, for God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of reversals. The story is framed by a couple of bookends that make the same point: But many who are first will be last, and the last first (Matthew 19:30); So the last will be first and the first last (Matthew 20:16).
It’s not the first time that Jesus has talked about reversals: the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) pronounce blessing on some of the people who are most likely to be trampled or ignored. Nor is it the last, for it is the servants who are the greatest, the slaves who will be first: just as the Son of Man came to serve and give his life, rather than to be served.
The story of the vineyard workers is an illustration of the principle: but I think it’s also worth making a couple of observations about the King of this kingdom of reversals, and how he treats his workers.
- He is fair – and never underpays. In the story the 12 hour workers got what they had been promised. Justice and fairness are important planks in how an ordered society should work and in the story the vineyard owner kept his word. Perhaps the point is not far removed from the assurances that Jesus gave Peter and the disciples in Matthew 20: anyone who lives sacrificially for the King and his Kingdom will receive their reward, for the King never underpays.
- He is generous – and gladly overpays. In a sense the workers’ grumbling (not unlike the older brother in Luke 15) had less to do with what they received and more to do with the treatment of the 11th hour brigade. Had they received the day’s wage promised and the others received only a fraction of that, there would have been no complaint. But – as the vineyard owner pointed out to them – they begrudged their employer’s generosity. People whose lives are built exclusively around the notion of fairness – no such thing as a free lunch, you’ve got to pay your way – are likely to struggle with grace. They are so intent on being treated fairly that they resent it when the King chooses to be generous over less-deserving folk.
So how do you handle it when God seems to bless someone else more than you? When they seem to have a bigger portion of his favour and by your reckoning they are not as deserving as you? Perhaps they are not as gifted, not as theologically sound, not as diligent, not as righteous – at least in your estimate: and yet God chooses to bless them! What if you’re a leader and God seems to be blessing someone else’s leadership or ministry more than yours?
How often to some of us need to hear the King’s rebuke: Would you begrudge my generosity? If our relationship with God is based largely on some kind of quid pro quo arrangement, we are likely to struggle when he is kind and generous to those who – in our judgement – don’t deserve it.
And isn’t it also true that those who truly appreciate God’s generosity to them will not begrudge his generosity to others, even when those others are, apparently, less deserving?