Extra Pay for Me; Equal Pay for Others (Matthew 20:1-16)

Has there ever been a culture so oriented to counting hours and worrying about pay scales as is our own? Prior to the industrial age and the time clock, this was not particularly the focus as it is today. I know my dad did not count the hours he worked on pappy’s farm, nor did pappy with his father and so on, all the way back to the ancestors in Switzerland. But we are interested in working wages, equal pay, the length of the workday, minimum wages, etc.

I had to laugh at a report I heard last week about the debate circulating on the issue of raising minimum pay for fast food workers, and perhaps my political bias comes through with this. But, the push for raising the pay to something like $15 per hour is that the current lower pay is deemed insufficient to sustain a family. However, the early returns on the research related to tracking this kind of change where it has been made is that those who are now receiving the higher pay are, in some cases, now asking to have their hours cut back. Since they are making more money, they no longer qualify for certain assistance programs and find themselves further behind.

Yes, Americans think a lot about what is fair.

Rather than reprint the passage yet again, recall the main elements of the parable – that workers were hired at various times throughout a 12-hour day, and when the time came to be paid, the latter workers were given the same salary as the early workers negotiated. And when the all-day laborers did not get more, they were offended. They were then chided by the owner who asked why they felt any right to be offended about his use of his own money and his generosity.

Yesterday, we made the application point that we should not look toward rewards for serving God. And today, let us add two more negatives: Don’t look at yourself when serving God, and don’t look at comparing yourself with others when serving God.

Being impressed with oneself and one’s own work is what the Pharisees and the religious leaders did. And though this was not in the immediate context preceding the parable, that background was always nearby and around Christ and the disciples.

The Pharisees and religious leaders just knew they were in really good shape with God – they had to be. They worked really, really hard at it, constantly sizing themselves up, taking the commands of Scripture and writing volumes of legalistic applications of what that looked like, etc. And then with great public fanfare, they lived out those details to the extreme.

We forget that these people were held in high regard by the masses. We see the name “Pharisee” as a bad title – but not so in that day. So they had reasons to believe – both from the mirror and from the riffraff masses of sinners around them, that they were in good standing with God.

In the parable, the morning workers believed themselves to be in a good position also. Seeing the payment of the shorter-termed laborers, they just KNEW they were in for an exceptional payday. After all, they were the ones chosen at the beginning – probably because they were the most gifted and desired workers in the market.

How might we be like this?  We might look back at how long we’ve been in the faith and in church, counting how many years we have tithed and been faithful to serve. Those who are gifted to serve in prominent and powerful ways may believe they are able to do that because of their own smarts and abilities and work. They just know that in all the measurable ways that mark faithfulness in a local church in America, they’ve really done it well and worked at a high level. But don’t look at yourself too highly, as Paul said in Romans 12:3 – For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

And additionally, don’t spend a lot of effort looking around at others in the vineyard. The workers in the parable vineyard did a lot of looking around. There was a lot of work to be done. The owner had to keep getting more workers – perhaps because the first guys were too often too distracted about what others were doing (or not doing) around them!

The first set of laborers were thinking, “I’m 2x better than the guys at noon, 4x better than the guys at 3:00, and 12x better than the guys at 5:00 ….. so my compensation is justly going to be just that much better!”

God, in his wisdom and grace, and on his own schedule and time, calls and places each of us at different places in His vineyard

I confess it is difficult to not look around the vineyard where I work – near and far – and not be affected by seeing what appears to be fruitful harvesting being done by workers who are not truthful about who they are and what they really believe … or others who are applauded by men for their work and verbal skill, when I know it has all been stolen from some other place without attribution. And all along while fussing in my mind about this, I should just be thankful that so much fruit is being harvested for the Kingdom. It is difficult, as it also was with the Apostle Paul, to say, “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

We all have our unique calling – the place in the Lord’s vineyard that God has uniquely put us to labor faithfully. We have very different gifts as well. It is not about being prominent or successful in obvious ways; it is about being faithful to God in ways that He alone sees and that He alone rewards in His own way and time.

Questions for thought and discussion groups: Do you find yourself comparing your work for the Lord with others around you?  Does it ever seem to you that you are not getting appropriate credit for what you are doing when seeking to serve God?  Have you ever felt overlooked in serving?  Are there other Scriptures that come to mind about God’s promise to be faithful to remember our service for him?

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About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed 3-4 hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and am the editor of a Baltimore/Maryland sports blog called "The Baltimore Wire." My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with a Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

2 thoughts on “Extra Pay for Me; Equal Pay for Others (Matthew 20:1-16)

  1. The scripture passage of the landowner who hired people throughout the day is a difficult one to come to grips with. Yet when I finally came to understand it — it was a great help for me. See we do compare ourselves with others sometimes and keep track of what we should be getting in relation to other people. It is a very disruptive selfishness.

    Keep in mind we easily get gready or envious when others are generous. Maybe it is embarrassing to relate this but I wrestled with this passage for months before I finally understood the point of it. Now this was probably a couple decades ago that I had a fixation on this scripture and so I can’t lay out exactly what was troubling me about the scripture at the time. The answer though is given right in the scripture. We get envious when others are generous. It is “greed” or covetousnes cloaked in the guise of fairness.

    When I finally understood the scripture I had a greater sense of peace about many things. A person may invite certain other people to an event but not me. When I finally broke out of the “me too” thinking I could concentrate more on serving God despite what is happening around me.

    Employers often see things or have perspectives that employees don’t have.

    Regarding the minimum wage I can say “Don’t get me started.” There are times that it would be good to have a low paying deskjob to read while at a desk. The purpose for reading isn’t just to “read” for entertainment, but might be to study something new, do coursework, improve knowledge, multitask home issues while also serving a purpose at a company. However when the government comes in a says the wage paid must be higher, fairness demands that output should be higher. The company may then try to maximize employee output to match there costs. They may say “No reading”. Go polish the furniture or do something when nothing is happening. Any employer with sense shelling out more money wants a greater return on their investment. Many jobs have a “learning curve” where for a period of time so much energy goes into training that it isn’t economically worth it to hire someone. However, if there is a slow season a company that isn’t making that much money at that time, might be willing to hire on a young person while they have some time to train them. Instead, mandated higher wages make it unreasonable to have these “apprenticeship” type of arrangements in play. Instead the government give colleges money to train people, and young peope must also go into debt to get the skills they need to enter the workforce. The natural arrangement of letting companies train people is made unfeasible by requirements laid on the companies. The companies now are told they must pay medical insurance to those they hire. They must provide this and they must provide that. They must fill out lots of forms. They pay taxes and insurance on employees that employees never even realize. So yeah, this attitude of greed causes headaches that people don’t even realize.

    There are probably many jobs that employers would be willing to offer for less money. Teenagers in particular find it difficult to get jobs because they don’t have experience. With the government setting a mandatory pay for a job, most businesses that are then obligated to pay more money will want the best employee they can get for that higher amount of money. They will hire a proven commodity (someone older with a work history). Teenagers and young people living at home could get by being paid less and gain experience, but in such a case business economics takes that option off the table. Also, making a little money in a low cost of living area is a suitable arrangement for many people in those poorer rural areas. However if politicians are pandering to their local constituents they may want to brag about how they raised income for people. They won’t tell about the number of jobs that they kill or employment arrangements that get made “under the table” and then the government even loses tax revenue.

    I have had some conversations with people who have hired young people. They often lack a work ethic and often (if allowed to have cell phones) spend an immense amount of time on their smart phones, texting or calling while on the clock. You can also toss in cigarette breaks that many smokers like to take frequently. When companies find it in their interest to raise wages they often do so. They need to do this sometimes to keep good workers.

    Sinfullness in government, whether in dictatorships or democracies creates problems. A lack of a sense of righteousness in politics leads inevitably to exploitation. Generational theft was warned about by Thomas Jefferson. Spending now or making promises now that people in the future will have to pay for is stealing from people yet to come.

    Sorry for “going off”.

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