Some people have been working all day, while others show up later and later, right up to the last minute. At the end of the day their employer decides to pay everybody for a full day’s work, even the latest of the latecomers. How is that fair? It’s not. But that, says Jesus, is what the God’s beloved community is like.
What if your professor let some latecomers enroll in a course the last week of class, didn’t require any makeup work, and then turned around and gave everybody an “A”? The students who did all the work would rightly complain. That’s no way to run a course, much less a business. So let’s face it: As a model for any kind of group leadership, this employer’s a disaster.
But we’re not really talking about how to run things. We’re talking about the “kingdom of heaven,” the reign of God, the communion of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ. And don’t compare it with employers in general but with one strikingly eccentric employer.
Maybe the short version should read, “The kingdom of heaven is like an employer with no business sense.” It’s like an employer who wants the laborers more than their labor, an employer who wants to see people get what they most need—their “daily bread”—regardless of whether or not they earned it, an employer who can afford to give this to them without worrying about the bottom line. Think of Oskar Schindler courting bankruptcy in order to keep his Jewish employees out of the Nazi extermination camps.
Scholars tell us that in a parable you shouldn’t automatically equate anybody with God. But we do find ourselves thinking of this employer as God. And one of the things our tradition teaches us is that God does not have to worry about the bottom line. God’s love is not in danger of running out. So God can always afford to give each of us what we most need. St. Augustine once said that God is “caring for each one of us as though the only one in [God’s] care, and yet for all of us as for each individual”—Confessions, 3.11.19. An employer can’t do that. God can.
This parable also provides a clue to how we should read the last sentence “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Jesus had already said this right before this parable, only in reverse order—19:30.) On the face of it, it sounds as though the haves and the have-nots simply switch places. But what good would that be? We would still have the division between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” But what this employer is doing is abolishing that opposition. In God‘s beloved community, we’re all “haves.”
So the “kingdom of heaven,” God’s beloved community, is like an employer who’s free to break the rules, but who always breaks them for the sake of welcoming each and every one of us without prerequisites.
In God’s communion, handing out honors always takes a back seat to meeting needs, and those moments when we likewise focus on the needs and forget the honors are moments of sheer, unearned grace.
The employer asked the hardest workers, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Are we envious? Let’s not be, but even if we are, we’re just as welcome.