Our notions of justice usually cannot help but be influenced by our own circumstances and by our opinions about what we and others deserve. We insist justice has to do with equality, but a lot of the time it's a word we toss around to keep people and things we don't like at bay.
And then along comes Jesus, eager to mess even more with our regular attitudes about what's right or fair.
It's A Story About Generosity
Maybe no other words attributed to Jesus cause as much offense to ethical calculations as his Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). He likens "the kingdom of heaven," or the way things are when God sets the standards, to a situation in which hardworking, reliable people get shafted. Or do they?
The story goes like this: Early in the morning, a landowner (who seems to represent God in this parable) hires people to work in his vineyard for the standard daily wage. He hires additional people at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and again at 5 p.m., telling each of these groups that he will give them "whatever is right." When the hot workday ends, he first pays the folks who labored only a single hour the standard daily wage, the same amount he pledged to those who worked nearly sunup to sundown. When the members of that full-day crew get to the front of the line, they receive the same amount, exactly what they were promised.
The full-day workers are understandably resentful. We aren't told how the one-hour shift responds. Maybe they had hustled back to their homes thinking the landowner might have a change of heart.
Meanwhile, dismayed accountants back in the vineyard probably start updating their resumes.
The actions of the landowner are all kinds of crazy. They make no sense, at least from an economic perspective. Yet that's the point. Jesus' parables often include absurd behavior to deliver their message, which in this case is a characterization of what it means to call God "righteous" or "just." When the landowner promises to pay "whatever is right," his words mean "whatever is just."
It's A Parable About God's Graciousness
So excessive is God's propensity to give and care, it violates our instincts about fairness. Such justice looks rash. It almost makes God out as inattentive to the kinds of people who, just by going about their usual business, easily exceed humanity's lowest common denominators for effort, morality and piety.
But, then again, the landowner does give the complaining workers exactly what he promised them.
It's A Story About People In Need
We learn more about God when we travel deeper into the world the parable imagines and consider its other characters.
We have to ask about who receives extravagance from the landowner. Some readers spiritualize the parable by saying that working in the fields is an allegory for serving God or toiling away in the ministries of the church. But those who are hired at 5 p.m. suggest to me types of people other than those who sleep in on Sunday mornings.
After all, this parable draws all its force and illustrative potential from the dynamics of economic life. Whom, then, should we think the landowner encounters when he's looking for workers late in the afternoon? What kind of people are the last to find jobs, added to the rolls only when there's no more labor available? Nothing suggests that those characters in the parable are irresponsible or lazy. More likely, they are unwanted.
Who spends the whole day waiting to be hired but doesn't find success until the end of the day? In Jesus' time, these would be the weak, infirm, and disabled. Maybe the elderly, too. And other targets of discrimination, such as criminals or anyone with a bad reputation.
A God who is "just," then, is inclined to show special generosity to the poor and outcast. No wonder the respectable people get anxious.
Don't stop there. If we're composing a list of "people who have to wait all day long to get hired" in our current setting, we need to expand it. Add the unemployed and underemployed to the list. At a time when the total unemployment rate in America exceeds 16 percent, suddenly those who cannot get hired until 5 p.m. aren't necessarily just people wearing rags or talking gibberish to themselves. Many are college graduates, highly skilled manufacturers, loyal, capable.
Undocumented immigrants also belong on the list, for who hires them these days? The parable's landowner might be at risk of prosecution in Alabama, depending on the outcome of a battle over that state's new immigration law. It's a severe law allegedly spurred by the national unemployment crisis, but one legitimately wonders how the law's rough justice squares with a Bible that repeatedly commends hospitality and compassion toward refugees, strangers and other aliens.
WATCH The Immigration Debate: Alabama Bishops Unite to Fight Tough New Law:
The parable doesn't dissolve these intractable issues that plague us. Nor does it promise that tomorrow the landowner might send all the laborers home to new mansions and in perfect health. We're not looking at that kind of generosity.
But the parable does make us pause to consider questions about what kinds of people are in need of "whatever is right." Who needs benevolence the most? How might a society that promises "justice for all" stop vilifying, shaming and neglecting the precise kinds of people to whom God most desires to express unusual generosity?
It's A Story About Value
In the end, it's not about unfair payments. At the parable's conclusion, the full-day workers don't moan that they have been cheated. They complain instead to the landowner, "You have made them [the one-hour workers] equal to us."
It's not the generosity or the extravagance that makes them angry. Rather, the issue is this: By dealing generously with a group of people that no other manager in town considered worth the trouble of hiring, the landowner has made a clear declaration about their value, their worth.
The landowner's undue kindness thus denies the full-day laborers the bonus they think they can claim: a sense of privilege or superiority.
You don't have to read much of the Bible before you notice that it is God's preference to show uncommon compassion to those who don't have it so good, who have been denied a dignified place in the system. We get that. What chafes me about it, especially in response to this parable, isn't that I want extra doses of compassion for myself. Rather, I wish that God's modus operandi didn't make me and countless others look so cheap in comparison, through our own sad inability to allow benefits to go to the people who need them the most.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.