The Justice of God (Matthew 20: 1-16)
by T.V. Philip
T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Matthew 20: 1-16:
The Kingdom of Heaven is like this. There was once a land-owner who went out early one morning to hire laborers for his vineyard; and after agreeing to pay them the usual day’s wage he sent then off to work. Going out three hours later he saw some more men standing idle in the market place. "Go and join the others in the vineyard," he said, "and I will pay you a fair wage"; so off they went. At midday he went out again, and at three in the afternoon, and made the same arrangement as before. An hour before sunset he went out and found another group standing there; so he said to them, "Why are you standing about like this all day with nothing to do?" "Because no one hired us", they replied; so he told them, "Go and join the others in the vineyard" When evening fell ... those who had started work an hour before sunset came forward, and were paid the full day’s wage. When it was the turn of the men who had come first, they expected something extra, but were paid the same amount as the others. As they took it, they grumbled at their employer ... But he replied... Why be jealous because I am kind? Thus will the last be first, and the first last.
This is what justice means in the perspective of the kingdom of God. In Matthew chapter 18, the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a king who decided to settle accounts with the people who served him. In chapter 20, it is compared to a householder who went to hire laborers. Both are about the character of God and the nature of his kingdom. Peter asked Jesus, how many times he should forgive others. Jesus’ reply implied that we cannot put a limit to the love and generosity of God.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers. He hired some and agreed to pay a day’s wage. He went out three hours later, then at midday and then at about three in the afternoon, and hired laborers. Yet he seemed to be restless lest someone might still be unemployed. He went out again before sunset and saw another group standing and waiting for employment. He asked them why they were waiting all day long without doing any work. They answered, ‘Because no one hired us’.
It was a sad situation. It is an irresponsible society which does not care for all its citizens; an unjust society. These people had been waiting from early morning till evening, waiting and hoping that someone would hire them, for, if not, their families would go hungry. They were desperate for work. The landowner went again and again searching for the unemployed, because no one else was interested in them. He understood what it meant to be unemployed, he understood what it meant not to be wanted by anyone. Their reply was: nobody wanted us, nobody noticed us waiting, nobody asked us why we were waiting all day long, and nobody cared for us. Unemployment, not being wanted, is not only an economic problem but also a spiritual problem. It demoralizes people. It destroys the very personality of the unemployed.
It is a sad judgement on our society when human lives are wasted because we do not care for them. In this parable, what is important to note is that the landowner went again and again and hired the laborers.
Do we not live in a society where we constantly hear it said that taxpayers’ money should not be wasted on the unemployed, on the Aborigines, on the refugees, on the disabled?
The landowner knew very well that they were in that situation because the powerful in society, the wealthy and the influential, even the educated and the religious, had created this terrible situation where millions of people had no work.
In the Gospels, Jesus criticized the religious leaders, the political leaders and his own disciples. But he never criticized the masses. He knew very well their faults, their weaknesses. They were not saints. But he also knew their predicament. He had only compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
In the Kingdom of God there are surprises. Those who worked the whole day got a full day’s wage. But those who worked only for one hour also got a full day’s wage. This is the righteousness of the kingdom. This is what justice means.
In the society in which we live, those who have a good start in life, those who are influential and well educated, they get more. Those who run faster will be rewarded. Those who are strong will exploit the weak. This is the righteousness of the world.
In the perspective of the kingdom, those who are powerful and influential will not get more. A society is just only to the extent that the underprivileged, the disabled, the poor and the oppressed receive special care. God who does not forget the sparrows will not forget the least in our society.
God’s arithmetic is different. He does not add or calculate wages as we do. He does not fix wages according to the number of hours we have worked. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says:
My thoughts are not your thoughts,
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah SS: 8-9)
According to the psalmist: ‘The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down’. (Psalm 145: 14)
This is the new thing about the kingdom of God. Those who worked all day complained -- not because they did not get their wage, for they got it. They protested because others also got the same wage. They were sad and frustrated because the landowner made those who came last equal to them. ‘Are you envious because I am generous.’ God’s justice is this generosity of God.