“These men who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made the equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”
After college, I spent my first decade of employment falling into jobs offered to me. One put me in a university dean’s office. Let’s just say it didn’t sit high on my list of exciting jobs. The only suspenseful stretches came in the weeks leading to the tenure committee meeting, as professors jockeyed for one or two appointments. A blizzard of forms, reprints, and research blanketed my desk and my phone rang constantly with requests to see the dean. Following its sequestered deliberations, like cardinals leaving a conclave, the committee dropped a sealed envelope containing its choices on my desk so I could type the dean’s congratulations to those who “made tenure” and better-luck-next-time notes to those who didn’t. For a week or so, the halls buzzed with speculation about the choices. Once, while talking to a department head, I referred to tenure as job security. He immediately corrected me, saying, “Tenure isn’t a right of seniority. It’s a reward for service.” I still didn’t get it, and can’t say I do now.
Jesus’s story of vineyard workers (Matthew 20.1-16) may be what he tried to explain, though. Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to an employer with staffing issues. He goes out early one morning to hire day laborers for his vineyard, promising to pay each of them one denarius—a day’s wages in Roman times. About nine o’clock, he hires more laborers, does this again at noon, and finally adds more workers around five p.m. He promises every worker the same wage. At the end of the day, those who worked 12 hours expect more than those who worked less and they’re outraged when they watch the foreman give every worker the same pay. “You’re paying those who worked only an hour the same wage you’ve paid us,” they protest. The owner answers: “I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (v13-15) Jesus caps this story with a moral: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (v16)
Too Much Work, Too Little Time
Christ’s teaching focuses on two kingdoms—the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. Both areas deserve rigorous exploration. For our purposes, however, we can delineate them broadly as responsibilities and rewards. Any time we hear Jesus speak of “the kingdom of God”—“Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6.33; NKJV); “The kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17.21)—He’s speaking of our duty to embody the presence and love of God here on earth. When He talks of the kingdom of heaven, as He does with the vineyard story, He’s discussing eternal rewards for service. In other words, the kingdom of God is more like our job description, while the kingdom of heaven is God’s tenure policy. And this story may surprise some of us, because it confirms that God’s tenure is based entirely on service without regard for seniority. He rewards all of us equally, despite respective length of service. And there’s a good reason for this.
The landowner looks at his vineyards and sees there’s too much work to do with too little time to get it done. The laborers he hired at dawn are doing an excellent job, but they need more help. He continues increasing the staff through the day, right up to the last minute to help them. Yet if he only offers latecomers a fraction of the day’s salary, he’s less likely to get the service and commitment he needs to finish the job. So he wisely decides to offer everyone equal pay—not for equal time or results, but for equal service. The first worker and the last one receive the same reward by meeting the same standards. When Jesus says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” He means we should expect to be judged equally no matter when we answer His call to serve. He needs all of us to finish His work.
The Burning Pier
I make my living as a communications consultant to sales and marketing leaders. In the process, I pick up a lot of business metaphors. One of my favorites is “the burning pier”—an analogy for urgency to respond to shifting business conditions before it’s too late. It’s wise for all of us to adopt this mentality regarding our commitment and service to Christ. It’s urgent we act on our duty to love God and others without reservation. Our “vineyard” is ripe with people who need to know God’s love and forgiveness. Lives have stalled in shadows of darkness we can eradicate with our light. Waiting for believers with more seniority and experience to arrive may end with services we were called to provide undone.
In Ecclesiastes 9.10, we’re told: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” When we leave this life, each of us will be evaluated by how well we fulfilled our duties to the kingdom of God. If we do our best with what we find to do, we’ll be rewarded the same as any other worker. In the vineyard story, the landowner tells the second group of laborers, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” (Matthew 20.3). He says the same thing to us. We can’t afford to do less on the premise we’ll receive less than those who’ve been on the job longer than we. He will pay what’s right. Tenure trouble doesn’t exist in God’s vineyard. Everyone who answers His call is granted immediate tenure. Everyone’s job security and rewards are ensured on par with everyone else’s. Worrying about time on the job wastes time we need to get the job done.
Everyone who answers God’s call to service receives immediate tenure; He rewards all equally, regardless of time on the job.
(Tomorrow: The Grace Correlation)