Have you ever been in a situation that you believe is so unfair? I can tell you many stories that I feel I have been mistreated or a situation happened that just wasn’t fair! I am sure you can recall many situations that have been unfair to you.
Matthew 21:1- 16 is a parable that teaches around issues of unfairness and fairness. However, it is not a factual story and revolves around the equal rewards given to workers in the vineyard for unequal amounts of Labour.
In the context of Matthew, Jesus uses various events to communicate his vision of what the kingdom of heaven should be on earth, as it already is in heaven. And not surprisingly, it differs from the current ideas of it. Jesus says the last will be first, the first will be last.
Just before this parable, Jesus accepts the children, blesses them, and uses them as a model for how the kingdom is granted by grace and God’s mercy alone.
Then in the encounter with the rich young ruler, he indicates that it is almost impossible for anyone to be worthy of the kingdom based on their own actions, showing that it is only on God’s grace and mercy alone can we enter God’s kingdom.
This story is about a farmer who hires at regular intervals right through the day from sunrise at three-hour intervals to the ninth hour, which is mid-afternoon.
And the casual labourers are called together at the end of the day and beginning with the last hired. They receive a day’s wage, a denarius, considered enough to live for just one day. And here, the farmer pays the last ones first and the first ones last they all receive the same amount. The workers who have worked all day are agitated, and so they should be – we say. They were so upset by this apparent unfairness that they were outraged.
Jesus has a way of using outrageous scenarios in his stories. It upsets the hearers; it unsettles us, challenging our comfortable traditional ideas. Jesus uses shock tactics to get people thinking, and his storytelling turns what we consider typical values upside down.
At first glance, the scene is one of exploitation and decisions based on a whim and injustice. It’s not fair! We say, and yet the story opens new mental pictures for us to what the kingdom is like in heaven and should be on earth.
The story is unjust as we think as the farmer kept the contract he had made with the first hired and gave the last hired what they needed to live the just today.
The last men hired received their denarius. Viewed from this perspective, the practice comes close to what we understand as normal. For example, unemployment benefits were created to ensure that everyone has enough to live on in the short term without working for it. Likewise, the National Health Service in the UK provides medical care for free to all people regardless of income. Here, the standard is on need and not on earning rights, is emphasised.
Jesus promises in earlier parts of Matthew that he will supply all our needs according to his riches in glory and not according to our income.
And this upside-down kingdom should be reflected in the life of the Church. To accept this different way of thinking puts the question of justice into perspective for us today.
Interestingly, Jesus uses familiar imagery, familiar even to us some 2,000 years later. The images are of hiring people who wait about the town centre for work. We get the image of desperate people, local people battling unemployment, looking for just one day’s wage to feed themselves and their families. Things aren’t good for them. These are poor people.
Hanging about the town centre waiting for work is humiliating because they are at the beck and call of other people’s whim and be exploited and seen as an expendable resource. The poor are dehumanised in their poverty, and this to Jesus’ thinking is unjust – they are in need, the kingdom of God would make a significant positive change in their lives
There is a familiar cry today about human rights, but we have found that those who shout the loudest demanding their rights get accommodated while those who do not shout the loudest or cannot shout are marginalised, and their human rights are denied.
Through this story, Jesus is showing us that there are no favourites with God. The weak and the strong are equally loved and shown God’s mercy.
I believe that this is a story about what our earthly reality should look like. And it is more about equality rather than justice. Because without equality, we can have no true justice.
But I think it is also about what our spiritual reality should look like. What do I mean?
Well, Those who have accepted Christ’s saving grace early in their lives and have lived 70 or more years following him will have no particular advantage over those who have lived an unrighteous life but repents on their deathbed. But, nevertheless, they will have the same gift of salvation.
Far from exploiting anyone, God’s kingdom brings love and mercy, equality and justice based on the need for a saviour, the need to be saved from the power of sin and death, and not based on our own ability or status. Equality and justice look like in God’s kingdom because it reflects what is happing in heaven.
And for us, it’s the upside-down kingdom. But God is actually saying to us that our human way is upside down, and God’s way is the right side up!
Jesus is challenging our long-held ideas of what society should be and is bringing the idea of a new society called the kingdom of God. In so doing, God is showing us in picture form, through this parable of what Gods kingdom should look like here on earth, indeed in our day-to-day living.
This parable can unsettle us and raises a lot of questions because this is what Jesus wants, to unsettle us, so we will listen to the alternative.
Jesus uses this story to show us what the kingdom of God is like, and within that, what Gods mercy, equality, love and what true justice is.
In Jesus, we are learning that God is not working with purely human rights, but simply that Father God loves us all equally without prejudice; this is at the heart of God. It is God’s very being- God IS love!
the last will be first, the first will be last
And that is a challenge for us all to do likewise.
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Paula Rose Parish
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