The parable of the workers in the field exposes an attitude and way of thinking that gets in our way of knowing and understanding God and our relationship to Him. This parable is confusing and nonsensical to our naturally prideful and selfish inclinations.
The parable of the workers in the field begins with some people at the break of day who agree with the owner of a field to work for one denarius (a day’s wage). Throughout the day, the owner went out and solicited more workers to work in his field.
Workers began at different times during the day. Some workers didn’t even begin to work until late-afternoon. When the day was over, the owner of the field paid everyone the same wage (one denarius), regardless of when they started.
The workers who labored all day were upset. They challenged the owner, saying “Why are we being paid only one denarius when the workers who didn’t work the full day are being paid the same?” Some of them didn’t work more than a couple hours!
The owner’s answer to their question is something that typical Americans have a hard time understanding and accepting: he said, “I paid you what you agreed to work for. If I want to be generous to everyone else, what is that to you?” (See Matt. 20:1-16)
But, it isn’t fair! Right? Isn’t that the natural response we have? Nothing gets the blood rushing to the head like someone getting more than what I got! Especially, if they didn’t earn it like I did!!
As a person who grew up Catholic, these things did not make sense to me either. People should get what they deserve, right? Naturally, people should earn their own way. I would not ask for more than what I deserve, but I have a hard time with people getting the same as I do when they work less than me.
We think this way generally as Americans with our rugged individualism, labor unions, and the American Dream (which may have more to do with hard work than dreaming to hear someone tell of it).
The message that comes through this parable load and clear is that God doesn’t think like we do. God does what He wants, or (at least) He seems to have a different measure of fairness than we do.
Romans in the day of Jesus weren’t completely different than modern Americans, though they valued power and might, perhaps, more than we do. They despised the poor and vulnerable. The people who were able to exert their power and influence over other people were valued (and envied) most. This parable wouldn’t have made sense to romans either.
The Jews in Jesus’s day were proud of their heritage. They earned their status with millennia of adherence to the Mosaic Law. They bristled at the idea that upstart Gentiles might come along and gain some interest in God’s kingdom.
This parable made little sense to First Century Hebrews also. Maybe we all have our cultural barriers to this kind of message.
I image Jesus was a favorite son. He was the good young man, mostly polite, and obedient He was keenly interested in Scripture and all things pertaining to religious life that was the heartbeat of any Jewish community.
He was also not quite like the other young men, a bit odd, maybe a bit too into his heritage, if that is possible. They were all good Hebrews, but he seemed to take it a bit far, even for them.
Maybe they couldn’t put their finger on it, but people seemed to agree that he made them feel as if he thought he had an inside track. He sometimes made them feel like outsiders.
Jesus traveled one day to Nazareth where he grew up. He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. (Luke 4:16) He stood up in front of his lifelong friends and neighbors, asked for the Isaiah scroll, and read from it:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When Jesus finished reading from the Isaiah scroll, he rolled it up, handed it back and sat down without immediate comment. All eyes were on Jesus during that pregnant pause. Then Jesus concluded:
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Mic drop moment. Followed by a moment of stunned silence. We might say they were flabbergasted. At least at first.
Jesus had a remarkable way about him that made people wonder about him, even if they were not completely comfortable with him. He had always seemed older than his age, but he spoke with insight and certainty like an elder of great age, experience, and learning.
They knew Jesus, though. They knew where he worked. He did not have the credentials fit for his seeming attitude. Nazareth was a forgotten, insignificant place in the Hebrew community, though it wasn’t far from more beaten paths. Jesus was always the enigma.
They knew Joseph was a quiet and simple man. He never called attention to himself. Mary always glowed with the pride of a mother who sees more in her children than anyone else on earth, especially in Jesus. No one could blame her.
As often was the case with Jesus, they didn’t know quite how to take him. “Good news to the poor”, “freedom for prisoners”, “sight for the blind”, and “the year of the Lord’s favor”: this was a good word. All good Hebrews have a hopeful expectancy for these things, even as they always seem just out of reach.
Still, they always hope. That’s what they do. They cling to God’s promise
That Joseph was always so quiet highlighted to them all the more how remarkable Jesus was that he seemed to have such a grand, if not slightly delusional, perspective. They were polite and appropriately appreciative, but they didn’t even have time to wonder what the elders had planned for Sabbath that day, when Jesus interrupted their thoughts. This time he dropped a grenade:
“Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’” (Luke 4:23)
What… is… he… saying? “Is he talking about himself? … Really?!
They were well aware of the zealots who riled people up in their area in recent years. Those trouble makers caused serious problems for good Hebrews just minding their own business and trying to get by.
Their minds played over the words Jesus just read: “The spirt of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me.” …. “Don’t tell me he believes he is God’s anointed!” This guy has a messiah complex!
As if that were not provocation enough, Jesus really pushed them over the edge with what he said next:
“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:24-27)
Not only did Jesus appear to be claiming he was God’s anointed one; he seemed to be claiming that God cared more about the Gentiles than his own people! What else could be the point of referring to the Elijah visiting the foreign widow and Elisha healing the foreign general?Continue reading “God, Work Ethic, and the Children of God”