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Comparing Salaries by John Shea


                        Matthew 20:1-16


     Jesus told his disciples this parable:


In this context disciples are those who, by following Jesus, are doing God’s work. In the metaphor of the parable to follow, they are laboring in the vineyard. The disciples are represented by Peter who has just asked Jesus a question that is never far from the human heart: “Behold, we have left everything to follow you. What can we expect?” (Mt. 19:27)


This juxtaposition of sacrifice and reward was prompted by the exchange between Jesus and the “rich, young man.” He left nothing and followed the lure of his possessions rather than the call of Jesus. But Peter and the disciples have left everything to follow Jesus. Quite frankly, what is the payoff?


In extravagant apocalyptic language Jesus assures Peter and the disciples that doing God’s work will bring them to the pinnacle of human fulfillment with every sacrifice being restored a hundredfold and eternal life flowing into them. If Peter is worrying about a poor payoff, Jesus overwhelms him with vision of gratuitous abundance. Yet there is something in Peter’s comparative attitude and his need for the assurance of reward that does not fit well with laboring in the Lord’s vineyard. The story tries to point out the problem and correct it.


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


This unrealistic social story attempts to express and communicate a basic spiritual truth about each person’s relationship to God. God is like a householder seeking people to work in his creation. People are like day laborers. Socially, day laborers are a vulnerable group. They do not have a permanent standing with a single employer, but are dependent everyday on a call. This reflects the spiritual condition of people before God. They have no claims on God, but each day God calls people to work in his world.


The agreement is: if people work for God day by day, God sustains their life day by day. This is symbolized by the fact the wages are the “usual daily wages,” what is necessary to sustain life in the present. The workers are not given enough for the next day. If they were, they might envision a life outside of continual divine support.


This reflects one of the phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. Disciples are encouraged to pray for “daily” bread. God does not give more and God does not give less. The economic acts of saving and hoarding are used to symbolically convey the delusion we are self-sufficient, capable of living outside God’s love. We cannot save and hoard and in the process become independent and move outside God’s sustaining life. God invites and sustains all people who do God’s work.


And going out about the third hour, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace. To them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is just, I will give you.” So they went.


Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.


The tension in the story begins with the householder going out and calling people at nine, noon, and three. He tells them he will give them what is just. But what is “just” to this householder? How will they be distinguished from the first group? Also, what he notices about the day laborers is that they are idle. It is this observation that spurs him to send them into the vineyard.


And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. He said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?


They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.”


He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”


The idleness theme is developed and deepened with the hiring that takes place one hour before the end of the day. The householder may be concerned about grapes rotting on the vine and so may be desperate for more workers. But the story does not talk about the need for harvesting.


Instead, it pictures the householder as concerned with unproductive people who are unproductive precisely because they have not been called to work. They do not answer the householder’s question about their idleness by saying they are lazy, indifferent, or unable to work. The problem is they have not been hired, and that situation is quickly remedied. “You go into the vineyard too.” No mention is made of wages.


This first part of the story suggests that the Divine Source is continually recruiting people into the work. Some (the first hired) have a detailed understanding of the contract. Others (those hired at nine, noon, and three) have a promise of justice. Still others (those hired at five) are not told the reward of their labors. The workers do not represent three different groups but three levels of understanding.


When evening came, the lord (kyrios) of the vineyard said to the steward, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last up to the first.”


And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received the usual daily wage.


This movement from last to first is the literary devise that will highlight the way the lord of the vineyard works. The last hired received the “usual daily wage” that the first hired agreed to. Something immediately strikes us as wrong. Conventional social dealings would dictate the eleventh hour hires would receive 1/12 of what the first hired agreed to. What could be the reason they received the “usual daily wage?”


Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received the usual wage. On receiving it, they grumbled at the householder, 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.”


The first hired are thinking in terms of standard social conventions and expect more. But they received what they agreed on. This causes them to grumble at the perceived inequality. But the way they state it is significant. What the householder has done is make all people who work in his vineyard equal, regardless of how long they have worked. The householder gives to all the same. Can he explain his actions?


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? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give this last as I give to you. Am I not free to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or is your eye evil because I am good?


The householder speaks to one in particular and by calling him friend signifies that the upcoming confrontation is meant for his benefit. Given the larger context of this parable, the friend is Peter whose comparative attitude about rewards occasioned the parable.


Peter and the disciples will get the usual daily wage because this is what they agreed on. In other words, it is assumed they have grasped the truth about God that Jesus has struggled to communicate to them. When people “seek first the Kingdom” (Mt. 6:32 -33) and pray to follow God’s will (Mt. 6:8), there is no need to ask for what you need. Your Father already knows and gives what is needed to those who work in the vineyard.


However, this bestowal of “daily bread” is not correlated to the amount of work done. It flows out of the nature of God as good and gracious. The householder told them he would pay them what is just. What is just for the householder is always the “usual daily wage.” This is what people need in order to work in the vineyard, and this is what is always given.


But when the first hired see the last hired receiving the same as themselves without putting in the same time and effort, the comparative mind of social convention takes them over. They have done more so they should receive more. The outcome is grumble. They are not happy with what they agreed on.


It is this unhappiness that the householder will use to force them into self-examination. They cannot argue with what the householder says. They have not been treated unjustly, and he is free to do as he likes with what is his. Therefore, the last question (“Is your eye evil because I am good?”) has to be answered positively. The goodness of God causes them to be envious.


So the last will be first and first will be last.


A word by word reading of this code phrase denotes reversal. But as a conclusion to the story, it signifies the inadequacy of comparative thinking when dealing with spiritual reality. First and last are social categories. When we deal with the heavenly Father of Jesus, the good God, another way of thinking and acting has to be considered. .



Comparing Salaries


In some corporations comparing salaries is forbidden. Usually the reasons for this prohibition are not spelled out. But the company, always eager to help, gives workers a comeback in case a fellow worker might indiscreetly ask, “By the way, what do you make?” The loyal employee is to respond, “That’s for me, the boss, and the taxman to know.”


Comparing salaries is considered volatile activity. Chances are it will lead to charges of unfairness, a sense of being discriminated against, a decline in employee morale, and, as the Gospel indicates, an epidemic of grumbling. Even if the employer comes clean and discloses the reasons for the discrepancy in wages, the grumbling will persist. No reason is good enough when we sense someone got away with something and we didn’t.


That is why this parable of the workers in the vineyard is arguably the most disliked parable of the gospels. Its unfairness is so overwhelming it edges out that other egregious Gospel conundrum – a welcome and a feast for the son who squandered the inheritance. Although the argument of the Lord of Vineyard is beyond refutation (“Am I not free to do with my money as I wish?), it makes no headway against our outrage. We instinctively feel a mistake has been made. There is a deep sense of unfairness when the last are paid the same as the first. And we, who are always quick to feel offended, identify with the weary, heat-beaten first.


This feeling of unfairness springs from a well-constructed mental tape. Its basic message is: “If someone gets what I am getting but hasn’t put in as much work as I have, I am being cheated. Is there any other way to see this?” Most of us have this tape running continually. This makes us, in the language of the parable, grumble-ready.


The truth of this tape seems obvious because it confirms our fundamental stance. We are the center of the universe, and we evaluate everything that happens from the point of view of our own comparative well being. If it protects or promotes us, we praise it. If it makes us vulnerable or demotes us, we, not to put to fine an edge on it, piss and moan. “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Outrageous!


To grasp the pervasiveness of this ego-centered attitude, we could play at midrash and extend this parable imaginatively. We might picture the last and first workers in a heated exchange. The first would continue to insist on the unfairness of it all, and the last would praise the generosity of the lord of the vineyard. Although first and last would appear to be at odds, they would actually be working out of the same self obsessed standpoint. The first would be lamenting salary difference because it did not benefit them. The last would be praising salary difference because it did benefit them.


To see these two in the same position, we would have to create a third group. “The lord of the vineyard went out at 11:30, and found even more strays still without work. “Get going,” he said. And they went. At the end of the day the 11:30 group got the same as the 11:00 group. The 11:00 group grumbled and joined ranks with the first hired. They insisted on more equitable contracts. They wanted the daily wage to be broken down into an hourly wage and the hourly wage be broken down into half hour increments.” Ah, justice at last.


It depends, as the man said, on whose ox is being gored.


But if the story knows our ego-centricity, it also knows another possibility. It suggests seeing things from God’s point of view. But this is a real stretch. In fact, it is difficult to even entertain this possibility because our ego-centric point of view is so entrenched. When we move outside it, we are in such a strange world we immediately reject it. But let’s venture out of our identification with the first hired and try to see it as the Lord of Vineyard sees it.


From the Lord of the vineyard’s point of view, what really matters is not what you get but that you work in the vineyard. The real problem is idleness in the marketplace. You do not know or comprehend that a larger reality permeates your physical, mental, and social life and calls you to join with it in harvesting a new human reality. Therefore, you stand around waiting. But this lord of vineyard will have none of it. He visits the marketplace often and sends everyone off to his vineyard. He is shameless in the diversity of the ways he calls people. What is paramount is the work.


Once in the vineyard you are in his domain, and the rules change because of who he is and what he is about. The work itself is the reward. The joy is in the contribution, in the ecstasy of joining with the lord of vineyard in the creation of the world. Remember, you are now in a consciousness called the Kingdom of Heaven and not in a consciousness that could be called Comparative Status or Fear of Not Getting What You Deserve. You do not need to worry and look out for yourself for the One for whom you work knows what you need and is only too willing to supply it.


You begin to value the full heat of the day because, as Gerard Manley Hopkins intimated, you “burnish in use.” You no longer live in the envious world of comparison, but in the abundant world of God’s goodness. In this world God’s goodness gives you a good eye. This eye connects your soul to the expansive world of Divine Spirit. The soul, in turn, works and flows like liquid light, each effort a response to grace, each effort releasing grace.


The Lord of the Vineyard has no choice. He has to give you all he has. Which, of course, is one day’s wages.


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