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God Distributes His Grace and Mercy as He Wills


The Shop Steward of the National Union of Vinedressers and Fig-pluckers was an angry and easily irritated man, but he liked to think he was fair. He believed firmly in the modern dogma of equality, and had even sat for a spell on the Equality Commission’s Horticultural Investigations Sub-Committee. He represented the lowest paid workers in his local region, and was determined to get them the best and fairest deal he could, even in the face of scheming and ruthless vineyard owners and managers. In his chapter of the union, most of the members were casuals, men who were on minimum wags, and zero-hours contracts, a device he swore had been brought in to cheat honest workers out of an honest day’s pay.

Every morning before sunset his members would rise and go down to the hiring-fair, where the vineyardmen would come with a list of the men they needed for work that day. They would go along the lines of labourers, poking at their muscles, looking at their teeth, pulling at the rags they wore, to make sure that would be fit for the full day’s work ahead, then they would make their decision, pull out the handful of men they selected and the bargaining would begin. The price would be agreed, and the Shop Steward would do his best to make sure that every one of his men was treated the same. After all, equality is important for the working classes, and we all have to stick together, and be united. It’s the only way to ensure fairness, after all, as he often reminded them, the only thing a working man has to sell is his labour.

And labour they did. From daybreak to sunset, with no breaks, no food provided, no rests, in the most difficult conditions. Their backs ached with the weight of the heavy baskets of fruit. They lost buckets of sweat in the blazing temperatures in which the grapes thrived. Their fingers and hands bled as they scraped along the rough branches; attacked by the resistance of the vines against their labours. Yet many of them knew no other life. They had been sent to work in the vineyards as boys and laboured there till they could labour no more, and when their working life was over they simply died of sheer exhaustion. But they were proud men, willing to work for their pittance, wanting only fair treatment, and the shop steward was proud of them too. He would always represent them, fearlessly and without favour.

So it was that his ire was particularly raised by the actions of one of vineyard owners. That morning he had made his way down to the labour exchange well before dawn, to be there to demonstrate solidarity with the workers as the men gathered to be hired out for the day. The vineyard owner, who had a strange, Greek sounding name, Mr Oikodespotes, had looked like a fair man, and he seemed happy with the men he had hired, and took them off to spend the day working in the field. He had agreed to pay the union rate, and didn’t seem to need coaxing, as some others did. A dinar a day, for a full day’s work. The Shop Steward hadn’t gone with them. By all accounts Oikodespotes run a tight enough ship, and the Stewart felt he would be probably he better staying back in the labour exchange and watching the proceedings of the rest of the day.

But something else was going on. By nine o’clock, the Shop Steward saw Mr Oikodespotes browsing through the labour exchange again, and going away with another batch of men. It happened again at twelve o’clock and at three pm, and every time the vineyard owner came and took away a fresh batch of men the Shop Steward became more intrigued, and his suspicion more aroused. Then came the close of day, only an hour of daylight left. The workers out in the fields would be feeling a sense of relief as the sun began to set, and would look forward to receiving their earnings for the day. But in the town square, where the labour market was held, those remaining potential workers had stood around most of the day now and not been employed by anyone at all. No work would mean no pay, no food for crying babies; hungry children meant complaining, irritable wives. They stood in small groups kicking the dust with their feet and looking down with dejected and humiliated eyes. It was that time of the day when depression and despair really set in. But wait. Oikodespotes was back! He went over to that small knot of dejected men. “Why are you standing around here doing nothing? You go have been here all day”. They must have thought he was mocking them, for the answer was obvious. “No one has hired us!” “Well, there’s still an hour of work left before dark, get yourselves away out to my vineyard, and spend an hour and I’ll pay you for it”. Eagerly they grabbed their tools and ran up to the vineyard and joined in the work, and as they went, the Shop Steward followed in their wake, the mingled emotions of curiosity and professional interest now at their zenith.

Six o’clock in the evening, the bright orange sun setting in the west, and the long heat of the day now giving way to the cool of the dark night. The sun sets quickly in these sub tropical latitudes, so Mr wanted to get the accounts settled before the darkness made holding large amounts of money on-site impractical, and often dangerous. He called the foreman, Sam Epistatis, and asked him to take charge of the wages payments. The men lined up in reverse order, according to their hours worked. Each received a dinar. The one hour workers, the three hour workers, the six hour workers, the nine hour workers… All received a dinar. Then came the turn of the twelve hour workers. They were ecstatic! If these short term workers were getting a dinar, how much more would they get, for their long hours of sweat and toil. They made their way up to the desk, and each one was given, a single dinar.

It was then that the Shop Steward saw red! This is so unfair! Worked by the hour, those who have worked all day should have more pay than those who have laboured only for an hour. This pay scale violates natural justice, and is totally contrary to the union rules. He voiced his concerns to the farmer, and he did so colourfully and stridently. He made his point forcefully; this is a wrong that must be put to right – this was a matter EQUALITY. Strangely, Mr Oikodespotes didn’t seem at all phased by his onslaught of outraged leftist invective. He made his point calmly. He referred to the ship steward as his friend. He pointed out that the men’s labour contract was fully fulfilled as agreed between both parties, and that justice had been done. His rational was devastating. I have money. I have a vineyard. They are mine. I am not unjust if I distribute my largesse in the manner that I so determine. Everyone here got justice, – some got justice and mercy! They got something they hadn’t worked for, and they got it as a free, unmerited gift. Mercy that can be earned would no longer be mercy! His final word to the workers, was ‘do not begrudge my generosity.’

It’s just a story! But Jesus told a similar story in Matthew 19-20:-

19:30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
20:1 For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

8And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the labourers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first last.”

The story is bracketed by the statements that the first shall be last and the last first. (The chapter division is quite possibly in the wrong place here – the word ‘for’ at the start of verse 1 indicated that the parable belongs with the teaching content in chapter 19). Jesus has been teaching about the kingdom, – about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom and Peter add as a supplementary question:

27Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

Matthew Henry seems to suggest that the parable refers to the Jews, who were ‘first’ in the sense that they were brought within the covenant purposes of God prior to the Gentiles. However, Calvin (Commentary on Matthew) writes:

He does not now compare the Jews to the Gentiles, (as in another passages) nor the reprobate, who swerve from the faith, to the elect who persevere; and therefore the sentence which is introduced by some interpreters, many are called, but few are chosen, does not apply to that point. Christ only meant to say that every one who has been called before others ought to run with so much the greater alacrity, and, next, to exhort all men to be modest, not to give themselves the preference above others, but willingly to share with them a common prize. As the apostles were the first-fruits of the whole church, they appeared to possess some superiority; and Christ did not deny that they would sit as judges to govern the twelve tribes of Israel. But that they might not be carried away by ambition or vain confidence in themselves, it was necessary also to remind them that others, who would long afterwards be called, would be partakers of the same glory, because God is not limited to any person, but calls freely whomsoever He pleases, and bestows on those who are called whatever rewards He thinks fit.

None of us deserve any reward from the Master. We are all unprofitable servants, and any reward we receive in heaven will be given by the grace and mercy of God alone. Some of us will labour for many years in the vineyard, some for just a short time. There may well be surprises in heaven. When we get home to heaven, we may find that some whom we have thought of a a great leaders in the church, great preachers, great pioneer evangelists, may not first, as we thought they would, but may be last! Some poor saint who faithfully prayed, fulfilled his or her vocation, loving and serving his neighbour, perhaps taught in Sunday School or drove the church bus, may well be first.

© Bob McEvoy

From → Editorial

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