The Hess Report


Monday, July 25, 2005

The Parable of the Vineyard, or, God Is Not a Leftist 

From Matthew 20:1-16 (verse numbers stripped and put into modern paragraphs by me):

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, "You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went.

He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, "Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?"

"Because no one has hired us," they answered.

He said to them, "You also go and work in my vineyard."

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, "Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first." The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.

"These men who were hired last worked only one hour," they said, "and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day."

But he answered one of them, "Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?"


Not one of the most quoted or popular passages from the Bible, but it's one of my favorites. The point that I (and most people) take from it is that we each make our deal/pact with God, and we don't have the right to comment or complain about the deal that He has made with others. It's none of our business.

The reason I bring it up in the blog is that it came up at work today. I was looking at the vacation board on which everyone's scheduled vacation time is indicated, trying to figure out who from my department was going to be out when, and what I would need to do about it. Our one customer service rep, who works in the room where the board resides, commented that I hadn't taken much vacation this year, and that other people from my department seemed to be gone much more frequently than myself. I acknowledged that fact, and she indicated that she thought I was perhaps more deserving of extended vacation time than other people in my department.

I started to gripe about it, just a bit, when my brain served up this parable to me.

So I said: "I shouldn't really complain about it. If I think I'm being treated badly, I should try to get myself a better deal. [The boss's] deal with other people is his deal with them."

Of course, I can use his deals with others as a negotiating tool, but the basic fact was that in the end, I had to work out my own contract with the boss.

My coworker kind of boggled at that point of view, and I gave her the brief synopsis of the Vineyard story.

Her response: "That's not in any Bible I ever read."

Well, it could just be that you haven't read it as well as you thought you did.

I said "It's pretty much a direct quote from Jesus."

"But that doesn't sound fair."

I tried to explain to her what I keep trying to get my girls to internalize: Fairness resides in everyone playing by the same rules, not in an equality of outcome. In the parable, everyone plays by the same rules: they each form a private contract with the vineyard owner to perform a certain amount of work and receive a payment that gives them, at the very least, a just compensation for their labor. It's a good deal for the people who worked all day; they received a full day's pay. It's an even better deal (ostensibly) for the people who only worked a single hour and received a full day's pay.

"That's just not fair," the CSR repeated. "In that story, you have the right to complain to the boss that everyone else was paid more than you." Which just shows that she missed the entire point. Oh well. I wouldn't say that anything I can think of gives me the right to complain to God about the terms of my salvation, vis a vis the terms of someone else's. Waaaaah! I got a gift that I would otherwise be perfectly happy with, but she got a better, more generous gift, and now I'm upset! Waaaaah!

Modern liberalism, through Affirmative Action, progressive income taxes, minimum wage, etc., desires "fairness" through an equality of outcomes, not through a baseline of shared rules. To me, a person's regard for this notion is a good litmus test to figure out if a person really believes in self-determination, or if they're an unwitting socialist. Obviously, the CSR falls into that last category. Someone else might get more than her, so she's pissed. Nice.

Of course, one could argue that, Dude! God paid everyone the same, so he's like a communist or something! On the other hand, you could say that God's goal was to institute full employment, and that as time passed, greater incentives were required to attract workers, as those who were more motivated to work had already found employment earlier. Or, you could say that God's goal wasn't full employment, but to gather as many crops as he could before the end of the day, and so the labor that he brought in later in order to maximize the harvest before the deadline was in fact more valuable to the end cause on a minute for minute basis than the all-day labor, and therefore deserved more pay. But that would indicate that God had done some less than stellar labor planning and harvest estimation earlier in the day, or that the original workers performed more poorly than they had advertised themselves, and the only conclusion you can really draw then is that you can stretch a parable only so far before the useful comparisons start to break down.

Or, to take the modern art tack, maybe that was God's whole point! To get us to overanalyze the parable and realize that you can only intellectualize for so long before it becomes useless, highlighting the contrast between mental inaction and taking to the streets! Instead of sitting at home, endlessly considering stories about people picking grapes, we should actually be out picking grapes. Or something. Okay, I was just being silly, and it turns out that it's a valid point anyway, just not the one being made in the parable.

My final take it that God chooses to work with us each individually, in a private transaction that shouldn't be scrutinized by others, and that's just fine with me. That's the nature of the boss/worker relationship. I don't think God will be paying out good wages just because you're part of a collective bargaining agreement, if you know what I'm saying.

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