Like many people, I was surprised and confused the first time I heard The Parable of The Workers. You know which one it is; a landowner ends up giving equal pay to workers regardless of how long they worked, thereby angering those who had worked all day who felt that they had somehow been treated unfairly.
As the story in Matthew 20:1-16 unfolds, the landowner asks the angry workers, “Are you envious because I am generous?” and concludes by affirming his right to do with his money as he pleases. I must admit that upon hearing this tale, I questioned if the landowner was a wise employer and even thought that he might want to improve his PR strategy. Certainly, paying people as one wished without regard to actual time worked seems to be a prescription for trouble and even revolt!
The problem with my reasoning, of course, was that I was judging the landowner's actions by this world's standards of “fairness” and “public relations”. The first lesson of this parable is that our society's reward system, our worldly paycheck, is very different from God's reward system, His spiritual paycheck. Our society is obsessed with numbers, pay scales, punch clocks and labor laws designed to calculate and enforce what people feel they deserve.
Abuses of laborers led to labor unions, which have not eliminated all abuses and have added some of their own. Regulations multiply along with contracts and negotiators and lawyers. Not so with God's system, based on generosity, mercy, and love rather than following some strict reward code, scale, or formula. We have become so obsessed with levering advantages, precise calculations and looking good to others that we have forgotten the love found in imprecise humanity and that God does not see as man sees.
The second lesson of The Parable of The Workers is that we cannot focus on God while comparing ourselves to others. Our main concerns should be to follow God's commands, accept and trust in His Will, and reach out to others in love and concern, not stare in envy and jealousy. We should worry less about what others have and more about what others need.
We should trust in God's justice, mercy, and fairness toward us and not try to balance our blessings with those of others. We will never be happy if we compare ourselves to others, for there will always be people with less and more than we have. In a society obsessed with the lives of celebrities and getting the latest bigger and better this and that, we are called to live simply and gratefully with what God has given us.
Lastly, The Parable of The Workers reminds us that mercy and charity cannot exist by force, for they are based on freedom and a voluntary giving of oneself. Just as the landowner freely gave his money as he wished, God gives His blessings as He sees fit. When we give of ourselves because we are compelled to by the law or public pressure, the giving loses its value.
We would not call the landowner generous, for example, if a law ordered him to pay his workers in a certain way, since his free will would play no part in the giving. It is precisely because the landowner gave according to his own will and even beyond what was expected that we call him generous.
Charity cannot exist by public pressure or societal expectations. We cannot call the landowner unjust to those who worked longer hours since he did not deviate from the original agreement to pay them a given amount. Just as the landowner is not obligated to pay according to what people expect of him or think is right, God is not obligated to us according to our standards.
In the long run, our spiritual paycheck is what really matters. The Parable of The Workers, then, is a call for us to disconnect ourselves from the lenses and measures of this world and to trust in the mercy, charity, and ultimate justice of God Almighty.
© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange
Gabriel Garnica is a licensed attorney and educator with over 20 years teaching experience at the college, business school, and middle school levels. He has a BA in Psychology from St. John's University in New York and a J.D. from The New York University School of Law. Mr. Garnica writes extensively on spiritual and educational issues and conducts seminars on time management, leadership, and personal development.