Matthew 20:1-16 – Throw away the ledger and do what is right

A reflection by Dan Spragg

‘Do the mahi, get the treats…’ This is a well-known Kiwi saying. ‘Mahi’ is ‘work’ in Māori, so, ‘do the work, get the treats.’ Do the work and get the rewards. It speaks of something we hold as one of our cultural values in New Zealand. We value hard work and effort. It commands a certain respect from us. We tend to look at people strangely and criticise, if people seem to have gotten to a certain point in life without having to work their way there. How we get to and handle success is how we are judged. Do the mahi, get the treats. Combined with our other cultural values like egalitarianism, individualism, and self-determination we could be confused at thinking that this parable – the outrage at the unfairness, the seeming ridiculousness of the landowner’s behaviour – was set in Aotearoa! Perhaps on one of the vineyards in the Waipara Valley or the rugged landscape of Central Otago.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it? The way the workers all got paid the same despite some hardly doing any work at all. We might be a bit torn as to whether we admire the landowner for his tenacity to just do what he wants or to simply call him arrogant! I think our instincts around this parable are about a fair reward for work done. But, the question is, is this parable about our sense of fairness? Or, is it a parable about something else? If we understand this as a parable about fairness then we will jump to making statements about whether or not the workers were treated fairly according to the work they had done. However, what if we read this parable as a story about God’s goodness? If we understood this as a parable about God’s goodness, well, then it’s a different story altogether.

It could be helpful for us to connect this parable to the parable of the prodigal son. In that story, the older brother complains at having been the one to work hard day in and day out without any special treatment, while the brother who had disowned his father and squandered the inheritance had a party thrown in his honour. This is, of course, a parable of God’s grace towards us no matter who we are and what we have done and especially if we have gone down a troubled road but turned back to return home – our favour in God’s eyes does not change. The parable we have today is essentially the same story. This story of workers in a vineyard is not an example that points to employment relations, not something for the unions to get worked up about, nor is it fodder for a Fair Pay Agreements Act. It is talking about what it is to be valued, to be accepted, to be included in God’s life. It is talking about how God views the road to Salvation. This is what it is like in the Kingdom of God, the Way of God. God doesn’t care about effort and striving when it comes to salvation – it is just there for all. Jesus says with this parable that the idea of keeping score, of keeping a ledger, of bookkeeping when it comes to the road of faith and salvation and grace is simply irrelevant… There is simply no accounting software for salvation.

Now the word ‘salvation’ can often be a misunderstood word in the Christian family. Salvation for some has simply become making sure you know you are going to Heaven when you die. And as usual, I’m suggesting it has far wider implications. What’s interesting is that in Greek, the word for salvation, soteria, contains a wider meaning including physical safety and health. The Latin is, soterium, and is understood as the recovery from sickness. It reminds me of the word ‘salve’, as in a cream or ointment you apply to relieve pain. Salvation takes on a sense of being about healing. This is to say that in parables like we have today, where the emphasis seems to be on the idea of salvation, it can have far more meaning and relevance to our daily lives, not simply for once we kick the bucket! Here’s how I’d apply that to our parable today: When it comes to our salvation – which is: the preservation and health of our lives as found with God both now and in the future – God doesn’t keep a score of who has done what and for how long. God simply offers it in its completeness to us all. There is no general ledger, no bookkeeping, no salvation accountant waiting at the pearly gates. As far as God is concerned there is only grace – the free gift to us of God’s goodness.

We tend to hear this parable and react because it raises issues to us about fairness but really it simply shows us the scale and nature of God’s goodness. It appears from this that God is not fair! Now, God might not be fair, but God is most certainly good. God is Goodness, which is the scandal, the stumbling block of this parable. There is only God’s goodness and the gift of it to us. We stumble over it because it defies all our categories of who is in and out and who deserves what. The scandal of God’s grace is that it is completely out of our control!

It is fascinating, but not surprising how much our cultural values influence the way in which we assume God behaves. We see the world through ‘do the mahi, get the treats’ and automatically, without thinking, assume that this must apply to the life of faith and our salvation. It might seem obvious but perhaps we need reminding now and again that the Way of God doesn’t necessarily hold our cultural values! Personally, I love most of our culture. As I’ve said before, I believe we collectively as the human race contain the image of God and are essentially good which means that as we live our lives together in society, elements of The Good are always present. However, we have to also be open to realising that not everything about our culture is good or helpful. We have to be open to critique and that just because we’ve always done something one way doesn’t mean it is good, or that it doesn’t need to change. The trick, of course, when it comes to living as Jesus’ Followers, is for us to accept that God’s goodness and unconditional acceptance of us all is not a destination that we will one day reach, but rather it is God’s invitation for us while we’re doing our living which includes: how we organise ourselves as a society, how we do tax, how we do law and justice, how we do business; how we treat others, our family, friends, and strangers… and how we treat ourselves… Now isn’t this all quite relevant in an election season! We are all accepted unconditionally before God – grace is a gift given freely to us all – so can we let this shape how we now live?

Last week was te wiki o te reo Māori (Māori language week). Did you know that at the time of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, 75% of Māori could be found belonging to a local church? Māori have always been deeply spiritual people. Much of Te Ao Māori has a deep resonance with the Christian faith and so when Christianity came to Aotearoa 200 years ago there was a natural fit. As time went on and Pakeha embarked on our quest through land confiscation and ‘civilising the natives’ by enforcing British culture, that number steadily declined. British culture was at the time closely aligned with the church. It was understood, without question, that a ‘civilised’ society was a ‘Christian’ society. The statistic now stands at less than 5% of Māori in Church. The Gospel of Jesus has become defective and irrelevant to Māori by its association with Pakeha – what a legacy that is. It is still unfortunately quite common to hear statements spoken about Māori such as: ‘They’re lazy’, ‘Why don’t they just work harder?’ ‘Anyone else would just get a job’, ‘there should be just one set of rules for everyone’; ‘no division by race’… and so on and so on… perhaps there might be truth to these if we lived in an ideal world, where there was no selfishness or greed or cycles of violence or poverty or colonialism or racism or the simple fact that some of us are born into privilege; but the truth is we don’t live in that world. Unfortunately, the only thing we have to blame for the unequal status and existence of Māori in our country has a lot to do with Pakeha and not much to do with Māori. It is right and good I believe that we work hard to give Māori language, culture, and people a leg up because for the last 150 years we have been doing the opposite. It is interesting how this is perceived by some. It feels for some like Pakeha get ignored, in order to favour Māori. An unbalanced seesaw is a good analogy – more effort is required to bring it to balance if it has been weighted more to one side – more effort is required to raise the honour and status of Māori in our society because there has been unequal weighting for a long time. And so it feels to the ones who have been in the elevated position that things are going out of balance rather than simply coming to balance for the first time. It’s an easy connection to make to our parable! It certainly felt to some as if the landowner was unequally favouring some over others. But remember what the landowner’s promise of pay was? After promising to pay a day’s wage to the first labourers he makes a promise to ‘pay what is right’ to those who came later. The order is irrelevant for it is about paying what is right, not what is fair, but what is right. A promise from God who is Good to do what is right not what might be defined as fair from one point of view.

The invitation in this parable is to accept the gift of God’s goodness and get about living that in our daily lives with ourselves and those around us. If God’s life is here now, coming at us, drawing near, as Jesus taught, then shouldn’t we embody this as we live? As we accept the grace of God, our salvation now and forever, we, in turn, live this out towards those around us. We are to be witnesses of God’s salvation – God’s salve – God’s preservation of life here and always. There is no bookkeeping, no scorecards when it comes to the grace of God – we don’t earn it and neither does anyone else. A frighteningly relevant word to us as individuals, as a church family, and as citizens of Aotearoa.