Fairness: The world against the Kingdom of Heaven


Scripture: Matthew 20: 1-16 Nigel Bunce

Jesus’ sense of fairness sets the world against the Kingdom of Heaven.  In his parable of the labourers in the vineyard all the labourers were paid the same wage, even though they worked for different lengths of time. But this parable is not really about labour relations.

The Gospel story

A landowner hired casual farm labourers at a set daily wage. As the day went on, he needed more workers. So he went back to the marketplace and hired more. At the end of the day, he paid everyone the same daily wage. Those who worked the whole day were angry. They thought they should get more than those who worked only a part-shift. They grumbled, “We worked longer. So we should get more pay.”

Vineyard near Carcassonne, France/ Photo: Nigel Bunce

Today, we celebrate the fall harvest. A story about working in a vineyard seems like an ideal Scripture, right? We imagine the Niagara Peninsular, or perhaps a vacation in southern France. But the opening words remind us that this is a parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like …” Jesus’ story is not really about agriculture. It completes the section of Matthew’s Gospel about the meaning of discipleship.

What is fair? The world against the Kingdom of Heaven

A good explanation is that God’s ideas about fairness differ from earthly expectations. We sympathize with those who worked longer. That’s because the modern norm is to pay workers by the hour, not by the day. In the parable, the complainers behaved as individualists. Me first. The landowner told them, “I can spend my money how I please. You all agreed to work for the daily wage. So stop griping.”

The workers were casual labour. Canadian companies hired dock and construction workers that way years ago. They all came early looking for work. On a given day, some got picked and some didn’t. It was just chance. But they all had families to feed. It was a gig economy. Like Uber or pizza delivery drivers. No security; no benefits.

But I doubt that the parable was just about working conditions. Because, the story involves a vineyard. Jesus’ listeners would have recognized the metaphor of the nation of Israel as a vine. God owned the vineyard: the Promised Land [Isaiah Chapter 2, Psalm 80]. So God’s kingdom of heaven ought to run on God’s rules. That immediately sets the world against the Kingdom of Heaven.

Another explanation of the parable

The workers in the vineyard are the people of Israel. Which ones will inherit heavenly bliss? Those who devoutly attend synagogue, keep Sabbath, and make pilgrimages to Jerusalem? Not necessarily. God does not have to make entry to the kingdom a long service award.

That might hit home to those of us who are life-long church-goers. We might think that regular church attendance should “earn” us a place in heaven when we die. Surely, more than the family who only come at Christmas? Like the grumbling labourers in the vineyard, I could say that I worked longer. But the parable tells us that eternal life with God is God’s gift. Again, not a long service award.

The truth is that no-one promises us that life on earth is fair. It never was. The psalmists faced that problem. In Psalm 73, for example, the writer rails against unfairness. Evil people seem to do well in life. They are greedy. They treat other people badly, caring only about themselves. Yet, they never seem to get their comeuppance. So is it just a waste of time trying to follow Jesus? In the end, the psalmist realized that all this was God’s problem, not his.

Even when we think about the physical harvests, life isn’t always fair. We “plough the fields and scatter” in our gardens and farms. But “God’s almighty hand” grows the crops to harvest. Even people without religious faith can’t control the fate of their crops. Working harder than your neighbour doesn’t ensure you greater success. Because ‘Mother Nature’ doesn’t provide sunshine and rain equally to everyone.

Harvests of the Spirit

Yet another approach to this parable comes from the Book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 26: 1-3). It plays into the idea of individualism versus community. Moses instructed the Israelites to give a portion of their harvest back to God. Everyone had to tithe according to their means. These “harvests of the Spirit” in the words of today’s hymn contributed to the organization of society and to help the less fortunate.  Scripture calls them aliens, orphans, and widows.

For most of us today, the harvest of our hard work is money.  Not corn, soybeans, grapes, or apples. Yet, like the Israelites, we give up part of our harvest to organize society and to help the less fortunate. Fairness means that all contribute so that all benefit. The individualist argues that it is not fair for me to have to pay for other people. But the community minded person replies that you did not acquire your harvest alone. You had God-given skills and abilities (and probably good luck too).

An uncomfortable reading of Psalm 80

Earlier, I mentioned that psalm 80 uses Jesus’ vineyard metaphor. When I re-read it, verses 8-9 made me uncomfortable. “You brought a vine out of Egypt. You drove out the nations, planted it, and made room for it. When it took root, it filled the land.” Translation: “The Israelites escaped from Egypt (last week’s Scripture). They pushed out the Canaanites who already lived there and filled the land.”

My discomfort was the parallel that one might make for Canada. “Many of us came from Europe. We pushed out the First Nations to make room for us. We filled the land and made First Nations people live on remote reserves.” That probably seemed all well and good to Victorian-era leaders. They may even have thought that it was God’s will.

The hymn Once to every man and nation was originally written to promote the abolition of slavery.  The words are equally relevant to injustice against First Nations.  They remind us that “Time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth.”

Times change.  So do values. Our government and our Church have offered apologies to the earlier inhabitants of this land for the wrongs we did to them. We seek reconciliation.  That word means coming together again in a spirit of harmony. The French word rapprochement says it best.  But offering apologies is only the first step. Making meaningful restitution is still ahead of us. As I’ve said before, true reconciliation will take a long time.

To sum up

Jesus had a clear sense about fairness and our dependence on each other. His parable of the labourers in the vineyard sets the values of the world against the kingdom of heaven. That sense of fairness explains why all the labourers were paid the same wage. But it ran counter to the usual ways of society and of individualism.

Our harvests, of either agricultural produce or money, are not exclusively ours.  They are all “harvests of the Spirit.”  e can’t just use them for our own pleasure. So, as we try to bring the kingdom to reality in Canada, we have obligations towards the many communities of which we are part.  Family, workplace, church, street, town, province, nation.  Even the whole world. As Christians, our baptismal covenant says that’s who we are and what we do. In essence, it’s all about discipleship. Amen.