This is one of the most difficult of Jesus’ parables to unpack, partly because in this world, it seems so unfair. We naturally identify with those who were hired early in the morning, worked through the heat of the day, and found themselves thrilled at the idea of being paid more than they had been promised. We understand their grumbling. The mistake we make here is thinking that Jesus is talking about this world. Instead, we must remember that Jesus is talking about a different world – a different kingdom – the kingdom of God. Notice that the person in the position of hiring and rewarding is referred to as “landowner” up until his conversation with the grumbling workers. In that exchange, he calls them friend.
In his commentary on this passage, David Lose says this: “I think this parable invites us to imagine that for any conversations about fairness to have meaning, we have to start with relationships… We enter into these conversations recognizing that we will fall short. That our biases and preconceptions and lack of understanding and inherited fears will all get in the way. That even when we operate with good intentions, we’ll make mistakes. But thankfully, this strange, hard, and important parable reminds me that, at the end of the day, it’s actually not about deserving, but rather about being known and accepted and loved and redeemed, not because of who we are or what we’ve done or not done, certainly not because of the color of our skin, our accomplishments or lack thereof. But simply because that’s who Jesus is – the one who surrenders all titles and claims and calls us – each of us – ‘Friend,’ and then invites us, first, to see those around us as friends and fellow children of God and, then, to work for the world of equity God desires, praying as we go, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’”
May that be our prayer today.