There is an on-going political conversation in our country, and around the world, about the relative value of a weak central government versus a strong central government. Each side of the discussion justifies their position on the basis of the benefits to citizens, although the lists of benefits differ between the two positions.
The people who heard Jesus tell the parable in this Sunday’s Gospel would have been familiar only with the social situation of a weak central government. The Roman Empire was assiduous about collecting tribute taxes from its vassal states, but the Empire provided very little in return for those taxes.
The Empire maintained a system of roads for the purpose of enforcing borders and collecting taxes, but there was only a rudimentary court system, limited policing, no banking system and no social protections for the poor and unemployed. The day laborers in the parable had only two lawful choices: hope to be hired for the day or watch their families go hungry.
This difficult situation would have been very familiar to those who heard Jesus tell this parable. They were accustomed to the fact that, in the absence of a strong central government, political power was distributed on a local basis, and concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. Landowners, like the one in the parable, were among the elite few who had economic and political power.
In a society like ours, with a strong central government, the landowner’s choice to give equal pay to those hired early in the day and to those hired late in the day might be considered unjust or, at least, capricious. In Jesus’ culture, the landowner’s seemingly discriminatory behavior was perfectly acceptable, and even expected.
The landowner wasn’t being unfair to those who had worked all day. Rather, he was exercising his prerogative to define relationships as he pleased. In the story, it pleased him to act as employer to those who were hired early in the day, but to act as patron to those who were hired late in the day. When he was challenged by those who had worked all day he responded, “Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:14-15)
Jesus’ original hearers would have understood perfectly the prerogatives of wealthy patrons. They didn’t need to be instructed about politics. Rather than speaking about the relationships between employers and employees, or between patrons and clients, the parable conveys a lesson about the relationship between God and the world.
If we read the parable from the point of view of our culture, it conveys the rather disturbing message that God is unpredictable and possibly unjust. However, if we read the parable from the point of view of Jesus’ culture, it conveys an even more disturbing message; it suggests that God might treat us the same way we treat God.
The landowner kept his employment agreement with those hired early in the day; he paid them the usual daily wage. Out of the goodness of his heart, he chose to act as a patron toward those hired late in the day; he paid them a full day’s wage even though they worked only one hour.
Keep in mind, the parable’s lesson isn’t about employment or recompense. Rather, it is a metaphor about how one should approach God. Those who enter a contractual relationship with God should expect to have the terms of the contract honored. Those who enter a familial relationship with God should expect to be treated like family. The practical application of this lesson is slightly unnerving.
There are numerous proposals and schemes that claim to guarantee grace, salvation or eternal reward in exchange for completing a certain number of prayers, pious acts or good works. Every week the parish office receives mail from at least one group which is willing to guarantee me eternal salvation if I make a particular donation to the group or their cause. These schemes are very enticing because they define holiness in very simple terms, but they put God in the position of being a provider of consumer goods.
On the other hand, the Scriptures and the Creeds describe God as offering a familial relationship of adoption to those who put their trust in Jesus. The parable in today’s Gospel indicates that God relates to us in exactly the same way we relate to God. It is our choice whether God becomes a vendor to us or a Divine Father.
If the only goal of your religious practice is to get a particular item or result from God, then it might not matter to you whether God is a vendor or a Father: either way you’ll probably get what you want. I would offer one word of caution about this: contractual relationships usually end when the contract is fulfilled, but familial relationships never end.
Jesus said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16) This isn’t a statement about how long we’ll have to wait in line in order to get what we want from God. Rather, it’s a statement about the consequences of how we structure our relationship with God. Those who view God as a provider of benefits will receive a certain number of benefits. Those who view God as Father will receive adoption as daughters and sons of the Almighty.
There is much too much attention given by organized religion to the act of securing one’s personal salvation. If this sound like a strange concern, please consider the following. To direct one’s primary attention to receiving a particular benefit requires that other things get less of one’s attention. Jesus said that the highest value for his disciples was the quality of their lives rather than the quantity of their benefits.
There is a choice to be made between “getting” and “being.” Getting a particular benefit, even if it is an eternal benefit, is a choice to be a consumer. Being God’s child by adoption is a choice to live in a familial relationship with God. The former of these two things deserves our least attention, while the latter deserves our constant and utmost attention.