“And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they murmured against the landowner” (Matthew 20:9-11 NKJV).
“Equal pay for equal work” has become a mantra of the feminist movement in America, but it is by no means new, nor is it limited to any particular nation or region. From my observation, there is no more common pastime worldwide than looking to see what the other person is being paid, unless it is complaining if my salary is not equal or greater.
This is not limited to wages for labor or services either. In this day of government and charitable assistance to those in poverty or who have been afflicted with natural disasters or other misfortune, it is expected that if anyone else receives money or goods, I am entitled to my share as well, even if I am not in the same need.
In Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the field (Matthew 20:1-16) he addresses this attitude from the other side. A landowner went to the labor pool early in the day to hire harvesters and agreed with them on a daily wage. Later he saw the need for more workers and returned, hiring additional helpers right up to one hour before quitting time.
When he paid everyone off, he paid the original workers what he had agreed to give them; however he also chose to pay everyone else the same amount, even though they had done less work. Not surprisingly, those who worked all day were offended and felt cheated.
The land-owner’s response was simple and straight-forward: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?”
Admittedly, this would not play well in the modern labor market. An employer who practiced this policy would quickly run afoul of unions and would face severe morale problems. But Jesus is not really recommending this practice to employers. Rather his parable begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who . . .” In other words, the landowner in the story represents God. The primary lesson is that our heavenly Father treats his servants on the principle of grace, not merit.
What a wonderful truth. When judgment comes, we will not be compared with the apostles or the martyrs or any other notable Christian of the past. Nor will we be compared with our contemporaries, and rewarded on some scale determined by what others did.
When I was in University there seemed to always be some student in every class who was notable for “setting the curve.” That is, he or she could be expected to make the highest grade on every test, thus determining the necessary percentage for an “A”. Few others could expect to meet the resulting stringent requirement.
Many Christians assume judgment will be like that. Paul, Peter, some martyrs and a few notable “Saints” will be given special places in heaven and the rest of us will settle for the fringe neighborhoods.
Not so. Jesus makes it plain that God will give generously to every servant, regardless of length or quality of performance. Our salvation is not a wage, earned by hours of difficult labor. It is a gift of God, awarded on the basis of faith (Ephesians 2:8-10).
This does not mean that there is no effort required. Even the last servants hired worked in the field. Every Christian is called to serve God faithfully, according to the gifts given to him (skills, resources, time, etc. – Romans 12:3ff). But our reward is not determined by how much, or how long, or how well we labor in his kingdom. It is set by our obedient trust in God and in his Son, Jesus Christ and by their gracious love for us.