Beyond Equity

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 

3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 

5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 

8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 

9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 

13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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Reflection: Beyond Equity

This is one of many parables that Jesus teaches his followers about what God’s Kingdom, God’s governance, God’s re-ordering of social structures, and ultimately, God’s justice looks like. This particular parable is one that maintains its jolt— what justice is this that those who worked for a full day are paid the same as those who worked for an hour? Though this parable can stand on its own, it is made all the more poignant when put into the context of Matthew’s gospel account. 

Just before Jesus tells this story, a rich young guy comes to him, and when he hears Jesus’ call to leave behind his wealth to follow Jesus, he walks away saddened. The disciple Peter then points out to Jesus that he and the other disciples have left everything to follow him. So what will their reward be? And Jesus tells him that they will inherit more than a hundredfold what they left behind— ultimately eternal life, which in the New Testament has a connotation that it just doesn’t in English. It is life that goes on past this current age— the idea of life in the Kingdom of God (a more earthly concept at that point) and life after death— AND a present possession of God’s life here and now. Jesus ends by saying, many who are first will be last and the last will be first.

It is very possible that Peter heard this as the reward is living to experience Jesus as ruler and God’s Kingdom overthrowing the current systems (probably militarily), and also being in a position of power within God’s Kingdom. It’s even more likely that the other disciples thought this, as right after Jesus’ parable of the vineyard owner—even though Jesus again says he will die in Jerusalem—the mother of two disciples asks Jesus to declare that her sons will sit at his right hand and his left hand in Jesus’ Kingdom. Following this, Jesus gives a more straightforward teaching that in the current kingdom, people try to rule over one another. But in his, those who want to be great will be like servants not tyrants.

So back to the parable. There are people hired at the start of the day, who agree to work for a fair pay. Then the landowner keeps going back out to the marketplace, hiring more workers every couple of hours, until eventually it is only one hour until the end of the work day, and the landowner comes across those still left without work. “Why were you idle all day?” He asks. And they respond, “No one has hired us.” Those hired later in the story jump on the opportunity to work, only being promised to be paid, “What is right.” The Kingdom of Heaven looks like a landowner who keeps going back out until everyone who wants to work in the vineyard is working. 

This is odd enough, but then the major plot twist. The landowner makes the last to show up, the third to show up, the first— everyone— equal to one another. The landowner takes a system that is not equal in opportunity—it is set up that some do not get work, and some do—and goes beyond “fixing” that problem to making it equal in outcome. Whether those who came later in the day woke up later, were slacking in some way, or were passed over— they still were given an equal outcome to those who were chosen early. And those who were first, though angry at their lot by the end, were not sent away with nothing. The promise of a full day’s pay was kept by the landowner. Their anger came not from what is owed being withheld, but from issues of status and money and fairness— but in this Jesus seems to say that fairness is not the hope, equity is not the end goal, but generosity. The Kingdom of God goes beyond equity and fairness, beyond equal opportunity to abundance and liberation for those most passed over WHILE including in that abundance those who have been first. 

The great reversal in this parable is not that the last take everything and the first are left with none, rather that the first and last are given the same provision. To those in last, this seems like unfathomable generosity. To those in first, it seems unfair. Productivity, output, privilege of being chosen, or luck do not change the outcome. The talented, the entitled, the passed over, and the slackers are all called. Might this be about God’s grace? I think so. And it may too be about God’s justice and mercy, God’s economy (meaning tangible, here and now provision), God’s gathered community of the church, even God’s imagination for our current society and systems. If our vision and imagination is capped by getting in charge and then demanding fairness and equity (be that in the material, relational, or spiritual), we are missing it. This parable instead jolts our imagination to expand beyond fairness to generosity.

I want to emphasize that word beyond. A fair wage is the foundation— whether that be metaphorically grace and inclusion or very literally a living wage for work— generosity goes beyond fairness to abundance. It goes beyond inclusion to celebration. It goes beyond an hour’s pay for an hour’s work, to provision for a full life. Generosity is the measure of God’s right ordering. And to his disciples, Jesus teaches, they get there by seeking to be servants, not tyrants.