The Parable of the Non-Unionized Laborers

The title is facetious.

I’m the son (and son-in-law, too, for that matter) of a union man through and through. My dad worked all his adult life as a coal miner and was a confirmed believer in the value of labor unions to protect the rights of “the working man.” After his forced retirement due to disability, he remained active in leading the local union in his hometown of Nauvoo, Alabama, until its declining membership ended its viability.

As a young pastor completely indoctrinated by my father’s philosophy, I can recall reading this parable and almost being offended by it.

In the story Jesus tells, a landowner hires workers for his field throughout the day, even as late as 5 o’clock, and at quitting time pays them all the same wages. His explanation was simply that, “These are the wages you agreed to work for; I have done you no wrong.”

A far better title for this story would be “The Parable of the Generous Landowner.”

There is a large and not-to-be-missed point to this story Jesus told and one that slips past us if we’re not careful.

The obvious and major point of the parable is that God’s reward is for faithfulness, not for early arrival, seniority position or time clocked.

That’s a great lesson. No one arrives in Heaven expecting to be given the greatest reward because “we got in early and stayed late,” as admirable as that trait is.

The faithfulness of a worker is what the Lord looks for and what He rewards.

One wonders if the Lord intended this as a mild rebuke to His disciples who may have been lording it over the johnny-come-latelies to the movement. The writers of various commentaries think so.

If so, Jesus didn’t entirely cure the disciples of the problem. In Acts 1, after the Lord’s ascension and before Pentecost, the disciples–not just the twelve, but the entire group of 120–decided to fill the vacancy left by Judas. In establishing the qualifications, they agreed that the candidates would all have to have been with them from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and to have witnessed His resurrection. That narrowed the field considerably, to only two in fact, Joseph and Matthias.

It amuses me to see how they prayed after they established the criteria for God’s next apostle and presented the Lord with the choices: “Now, Lord, show us which of these two….”

Don’t we pray like that? Instead of saying, “Lord, what would you have me to do?” we say, “Okay, God, you have only two choices, either this or that.”

They flipped a coin (basically) and it came up on Matthias. He was the man, he was ordained, and he promptly dropped off the pages of history. Clearly–to me at least–he was not God’s choice as the 13th apostle. That honor would fall to Saul of Tarsus, God’s choice (and we might add, seemingly, no one else’s).

In fairness, I confess to have run this theory by several distinguished Bible teachers and have yet to find one who agrees with it. Warren Wiersbe told me he felt the disciples did the right thing by choosing Judas’ replacement. I still insist that it feels like they were filling time and decided to run ahead of the Lord.

Even today, two thousand years after Jerusalem, we continue to see the occasional church run its programs and choose its leaders on the basis of seniority.

A deacon was resisting my populist approach to church affairs. What that means is that I was treating every member the same, whether they joined last Sunday or had several generations in the church cemetery. He said to me, “Those people are not the First Baptist Church!”

My face surely registered my surprise. I stammered, “Okay, I’ll bite–who then is First Baptist Church?”

He said, “Those who have been here through the years and have given the money to pay for all this. They are the true First Baptist Church.”

I said, “That is the most elitest thing I have ever heard.”

That philosophy was foreign to everything the Lord stood for and taught His followers.

Drop back into the last part of the previous chapter–Matthew 19–and it becomes clear that the Lord is speaking of rewarding faithfulness. The “rich young ruler” did not qualify, but those who have “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake” composed a special group to the Lord Jesus. They were the elite, the faithful, the ones He felt the Father had special blessings awaiting.

In the story, the workers were upset, not because the landowner had not kept his part of the bargain, but because they had begun comparing pay envelopes with each other. That’s always a risk a generous boss takes. Ask one.

Today as I write–December 10, 2009–Louisiana’s state leaders have decided that government workers will no longer receive an annual across-the-board pay increase of 4 percent, but in the future will receive merit raises. You don’t have to have a long history in this state to figure out why they went to the present system of 4 percent for everyone, every year. They grew tired of the competition, the strife created when workers doing the same jobs were being paid unequal wages. So, now, we’re headed back to that system.

It took me a long time to see that this parable was not given to establish wage-standards for employees. It has nothing to say about unions pro or con. It is about the kingdom of heaven, Jesus said in the opening verse. That is to say, “This is how things are in the spiritual realm.”

An equally important but less-than-obvious truth in this parable is found in His final statement: “The last will be first and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

Earlier, Jesus said the owner instructed his foreman to pay the workers beginning with the last ones hired and working backward to the first group (vs. 8). He was illustrating the principle.

What does all this mean?

One hates to belabor the obvious. (But, hey, I’m a preacher–belaboring the obvious is what we do best!)

God rewards faithfulness, humility, and mercy. He resists pride, aggression, and self-promotion. God wants childlikeness in His disciples. (Matthew 19:14 puts it as clearly as it’s possible to state.)

To see this principle on display, look no further than later in this 20th chapter where the mother of James and John asks Jesus for her sons to be awarded the chief places of honor in His kingdom. (In Mark 10, it’s the sons who do the asking. Whether these are separate instances or accounts of the same event, we have no way of knowing.)

The other disciples are irate. “The very idea! Who do they think they are!”

Some have noted the disciples were upset because James and John got there first.

Either way, Jesus would have none of this. “You know how the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them. Their high officials rule with power and authority. But, in the kingdom, it will not be that way.”

We’re not playing this game.

“Instead, whoever wants to be great must be a servant. Whoever wants to be first must be last.”

He Himself was the prime example of this. “Even as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (20:28).” He was the last and the least, but God made Him the most, the best; He made Him the greatest, the highest.

“He humbled Himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name….” (Philippians 2:8-9)

This is clearly a story about the generosity of God. He welcomes the person who comes in just as the gate is closing and, if He chooses, rewards him or her as though they had labored all day long.

And why does God do this? The simplest answer is the best one: Just because He wanted to.

“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (20:15)

Jesus prayed, “Father, I thank you that you have hid these things from the wise and the know-it-alls, and have revealed them unto babies. And you did this for no other reason than that it pleased you to do so.” (My paraphrase of Matthew 11:25-26)

You can resolve a lot of mysteries regarding God by the simple statement, “It pleased Him to do it that way.”

“It pleased God that in Jesus all fullness would reside.” (Colossians 1:19)

“It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe.” (I Corinthians 1:21)

What kind of body will we have in the resurrection? Whatever pleases Him. (I Corinthians 15:38)

Psalm 115:3 “Our God is in the Heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”

I love that. It explains so much that is otherwise inexplicable.

Jesus said, “I do always do the things that please the Father.” (John 8:29) You too? Good. Me? I’m trying. Long way to go.

I pray to be faithful. That’s what He wants and what He rewards.

“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things….” (Matthew 25:21,23)

2 thoughts on “The Parable of the Non-Unionized Laborers

  1. The point of not giving God a vote on your two favorite options really hit home with me. I am just learning to wait on the Lord to lead and the value of not “instructing” the Lord on how to act. The model prayer is a clear example the level of our advice necessary in prayer. God always works in my life in a way that was totally impossible for me to anticipate anyway so why bother stuggle to forsee what He will do. He always does the most amazing things when I am at my wits end and keenly aware of my total dependence on Him.

    I resolve to follow Henery Blackaby’s advice and keep an eager eye out for the signs of where He is already at work.

    I just finished the story of the prodigal son and am always convicted by the heart story of the older son. What a radical, yet burden free life God calls us to!

    Anytime you ever think a critical thought about another person turn it into a prayer for them and for you. If you are anything like me you will be praying with out ceasing and given a more tender heart.

  2. I relate to Kellie. God never led me to a church I thought I wanted. It was always a surprise,and at least twice to places I had said clearly I didn’t want to go. Had a ball both places. I have one problem about joining God where He is already at work. How does He start new work? On Joe’s article, a deacon related to me once that when he was a young deacon, and older man told him to be quiet and listen. Then one day when he was older, he would be ready to “run the church.” Huh?

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