For two thousand years, the story of the vineyard workers in the Gospel of Matthew has confronted its hearers with an implicit question: Is God fair in the way we expect him to be?
The parable (Matthew 20:1-15 NKJV) tells of a landowner who hires laborers and sends them into his vineyard. He gathers men all day until “the eleventh hour” (v. 6), when he discovers a group of idlers and commands them to work for him with the promise that “whatever is right you will receive” (v. 7). At sunset the laborers come to get their wages. The “eleventh hour” group receives one denarius, a Roman silver coin worth about fifteen cents, the typical pay for one day’s work. The first hour’s group expects a greater reward, but they are given the same. When they complain to the owner about this inequity, he dismisses their demands. “Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as you” (v. 14).
Clearly Jesus was not teaching an economics course on how businesses should salary their employees. He used the story to attack a lie many of us believe without realizing it: we think the nature of our choices and actions is what makes God’s love for us possible.
How often have you viewed a bad day—inconvenient weather, unproductive work, illness or exhaustion, arguments, moral regrets—to be a manifestation of God’s retribution for your wrongdoing? God loved me less today, we tell ourselves, usually unconsciously. I’ve got to do better. The opposite applies, too. When we work “in the heat of the day” (v. 12), when we feel proud about a commendable choice, we’re more willing to feel God’s love for us. I really earned it today, we think. I can feel good. Everything’s okay with me and God.
When we follow this attitude, we submit to legalism—the ledger balancing the accounts of our right and wrong actions to see what we’re worth to God. We deceive ourselves and deny the contentment that grace can bring us. “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins…who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3 NIV). No human alive could ever claim God owed him a blessing. Likewise, it’s impossible to argue with God’s right to give us more than we’ve earned.
So don’t yield to the superstitious ups and downs of legalism. Forget about complaining that “these last men have worked only one hour” (Mt. 20:12 NKJV) when you think you deserve better. Refuse to feel suspicious when God opens “the windows of heaven” (Malachi 3:10) and gives you far more than you could ever hope to repay. He allows the hard days for his purposes. He gives us free gifts to remind us he’s good. He’s not just impartial; he’s radically fair. No matter our inadequacies or how persistently we do good things, our outcome still hinges on our answer to his most important question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15)
For generations, books like David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined and A.N. Wilson’s Jesus: A Biography have assaulted the Gospels and convinced the public they are legendary—fabrications engineered by the church. In the age of CSI and murder trials broadcast on TV, the world has ceded its mind to these claims. We have developed a cultural unwillingness to trust eyewitnesses without a hair, a hard drive, or a half-eaten ham sandwich to support them.
While it may be true that people lie (for whatever purpose) and that we don’t have the nails from Jesus’s cross, the Gospels provide their own defense. The truth is in the text.
Only a terrible writer would think that the narrative of Jesus’s death and resurrection would make good propaganda. If the aim of the early church’s leaders was to gain power, they wouldn’t have spread the story that the Messiah had been hung on a wooden cross—a form of execution reserved for terrible criminals “accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23 NKJV), not the foretold king of scripture.
Likewise, no one would easily accept a savior whose followers “forsook Him and fled” at the moment of his capture (Mark 14:15). The man appointed to lead the early church, Simon Peter, is recorded as denying three times that he is a follower of Jesus (Luke 22:55-62), after which he recalls Jesus’s prediction of this betrayal (v. 34) and weeps with guilt. Why would the church devise a forgery that tarnishes its first leader? The earliest Gospel, Mark, was composed by a scribe loyal to Peter, under the direction of the apostle himself. Peter had no motive to carve a terrible lie about himself into the record; if anything, being a weaker man, he might have tried to conceal his failure. The only reason he would have insisted on that incident’s inclusion is if it was true.
Jesus’s resurrection produced another conflict for the first Christians. There were two camps in the Jewish establishment in Jesus’s day: the conservative Sadducees, who believed “there is no resurrection” (Mark 12:18), and the Pharisees, a group that in the last two centuries had formed a tentative belief in a future resurrection. Until Jesus came, however, no religion admitted that a man could be raised from the dead in the present day. That’s why the disciples “did not understand what He was saying, and were afraid to ask Him” when Jesus taught them that he would be killed and rise the third day following (Mark 9:31-32). Beyond Judaism, the Romans who ruled the Jews in the first century found the idea of a resurrection offensive because they considered the material world evil and the body a prison. The first Christians’ radical new theology endangered their lives by offending every major authority of their day. Nobody hoping to preserve his life, much less gather followers, would write the story this way.
These facts have persuaded some of the Gospels’ former critics. A.N. Wilson, the biographer mentioned before, converted to Christianity after decades of atheism. He writes a wonderful essay here about the doubts that led him to faith. The power of the Gospel to enact such a change in the human heart is a great testimony. But perhaps the greatest witness to the Gospel is the lives of the apostles. Peter, according to tradition, was executed by the Emperor Nero. The apostle Thomas, famous for his doubt, was killed while preaching in India. Paul was imprisoned in Rome for two years and executed. John, author of Revelation, was exiled to the island of Patmos. None of them received wealth or glory for their missionary work; indeed, their commitment cost them. That kind of testimony is unanswerable—because nobody is willing to die for a lie. We can either ignore that challenge, as millions do, or we can yield to the truth.
“Classic—a book which people praise and don’t read.” – Mark Twain
If you went to a normal American high school, then you probably sat through normal American litorture—that’s my horrible hybrid word of “literature” and “torture.” Maybe you listened to Faulkner’s Sound and endured his Fury, or said Farewell to Hemingway’s Arms. Maybe you read The Great Gatsby (I couldn’t come up with a pun for that). If you love books as much as I do, then you might have felt puzzled, or even ashamed, if you happened to think the hallowed canon didn’t live up to its laurels.
But isn’t it heresy to frown at the work of these dead, bearded, alcohol-tolerant men? (Yes, I know, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s face was as smooth as a doll. But still!)
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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