The day laborers in today’s parable were the lowest class of workers in Jesus’ day. They lived on the edge, always “at the mercy of chance employment; always on the brink of want.” And so unemployment for even one day would mean hardship for a man, his wife and hungry children. And the setting? It’s probably the grape harvest when the fruit had to be picked, before a coming storm or over-ripeness would make it all useless. This explains why the landowner keeps going back looking for help. He’s desperate to get the crop in. Even at about five o’clock with only an hour or so of daylight left, he goes back to the town square to hire. He can use the extra help even for a short time. And so we hear about five sets of hired day laborers. And our landowner has promised each one whatever is just as payment; this is probably one denarius, a decent day’s pay at the time.
So it is that in the final scene when the foreman doles out the pay, that we are witness to the extravagant compassion of the landowner, (a cipher for the extravagant mercy of our God.) All the workers, even the last ones who worked for only one measly hour, receive a whole denarius. Aware of their need and the desperation of their situation; the landowner knows that less than a denarius will be not enough for a man and his family for a day. And he wants them all to go home happy and satisfied. Now that’s not fair; it’s excessive. But if we were part of that last crowd who had worked for only an hour, we’d be overjoyed at the landowner’s outlandish generosity.
How often we murmur because things aren’t fair. And true enough it’s the constant plea of psalmist and prophet, “Why is it Lord that the way of the wicked prospers? Why is it that you let the sun and rain and all good things come to the just and the unjust?” It’s not fair. But the good news is God’s Kingdom is not about fairness or entitlement; never about “confidence” in our own accomplishments or sacrifices. It’s not ever about rewards but grace - not something earned but a gift freely given in love. God is not fair. He is abundantly, incomprehensibly merciful, way beyond our imagining. He knows we don’t always do enough, don’t always pull our weight or labor long and hard enough, that sometimes we loaf and dawdle and wait too long and make bad decisions. He sees it all, and he is merciful. It doesn’t mean that everything’s always OK, not at all. No, we mess up, and God is merciful. We may sometimes be unkind, impatient, stingy, and God is merciful and gives us another chance.
Just imagine if God were only fair. Imagine if he gave us only what we really deserve. We’d be in big trouble. Certainly God looks into our hearts and notices the good we do, but the kingdom is all about his mercy, never about payback for a job well done. It is, on the contrary, completely, utterly, totally gift; gratuitous, absolutely surprising, way beyond what we are “entitled to.” Simple gratitude is the only response. For what gift or blessing do we have that we deserve? No, God is not fair, but all loving, all giving, all forgiving. The truth is we’re all latecomers, and God is always switching things around. It’s called mercy.
Insights from The Gospel of Matthew, II, William Barclay, and from Matthew: A Commentary, Robert Gundry.