Three lessons from Jesus about life in God's economy

During the revolution, the animals threw the human owners off the farm and established their own agribusiness based on seven rules, the last being “all animals are equal”. But this curious democracy evolved and went the way of so many revolutions; a lust for power gradually overtook democratic ideals and ended with one rule: “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”.

This story comes from George Orwell’s classic novel Animal Farm, a chilling, dystopian political satire on the totalitarian state, chronicling the progression of an egalitarian post-revolutionary society to the unabashed elitism of a self-interested power group. We’ll come back to this as we consider Jesus’ parable about labourers in a vineyard, told in Matthew 20:1-16 as he journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem.

The parable was prompted by Peter’s impetuous response to an earlier episode in Matthew 19, when a wealthy young man asked Jesus how to find eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the law, sell everything and follow him. Sadly, the young man just couldn’t do it; he was too attached to what he owned. It was a bit like asking a merchant banker to give up his job and his new BMW, get a bike and run a refuge for the homeless.

Seeing this encounter, Peter’s response was “Well, we’ve left everything and followed you. What will we get?”

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Instead of rebuking Peter for his mercenary question, Jesus used the opportunity for his lesson about the workers in the vineyard.

Hiring casual labourers on a daily rate would have been a bit like modern backpackers working as casual fruit-pickers. What would have come as a surprise was people being hired whenever they turned up, then paid exactly the same wage whether they’d worked through the heat of the day or only been there for an hour! Unsurprisingly, those who’d worked all day were very unimpressed that others who’d worked for just an hour got the same payment as they did.

Fortunately, this story isn’t intended as a model for modern industrial relations practice. The point of Jesus’s parable is to illustrate that God’s economy is not remotely like ours.

In the Kingdom of God we are rewarded solely as a result of God’s grace.

God’s generous economy

The vineyard owner is like God in two important ways:

1. He provides work for everyone who wants it, unlike our world, where some are left out for various reasons.

2. He gives the same reward to everyone, regardless of the scale of their efforts.

Jesus uses this parable to explain that in the Kingdom of God we are rewarded solely as a result of God’s grace. Our own efforts can never win us the reward of eternal life and a perfect relationship with God. If we could, then Jesus died for nothing.

When some workers grumbled, the vineyard owner pointed out that the full day workers had agreed to come and work for the going rate, while the others were simply promised fair treatment.

This parable teaches that the reward of reconciliation with God and eternal life is the same for everyone. The worst sinner who repents on their deathbed gains the same redemption as the lifelong servant of God.

As a church we can easily set unspoken rules.

Equality in God’s economy

The problem for the grumbling vineyard workers was that they were jealous of the vineyard owner’s generosity.

There’s a vital lesson here for us. We must learn to treat each other as equals and learn to be humble in the service of our Lord.

The Kingdom of God doesn’t operate like human kingdoms; we are members of God’s Kingdom by grace alone. Our membership of God’s Kingdom comes solely because God, our ultimate employer, sent Jesus as our Saviour.

We will only be the Christian community that we should be if we constantly return to the humility and equality this parable illustrates.

As a church we can easily set unspoken rules with preconceptions about behaviour, lifestyle, education, dress, social attitudes, taste in music, length of church membership – you name it – and then use them to judge the value of our neighbours.

I look back now on my days in our local church youth group with mixed feelings. The “in” crowd valued academic achievement above almost everything else, and if truth be told, we didn’t always feel at home with those whose aspirations were different.

As a church we need to remind ourselves continuously of the danger of labelling people. When we do this, we always risk making some people feel like outsiders, and can even be an impediment to Gospel ministry.

The bottom line is simple: we will only be the loving and caring Christian community that we should be if we constantly return to the principle of humility and equality this parable illustrates. And we have every reason to be humble, because we bring nothing of worth to our relationship with God.

We must never embark on Christian service with an eye on the comparative worth of our spiritual bank balance.

We don’t chalk up spiritual frequent flyer points by fame, wealth or having a string of university degrees. There’s nothing in the Bible suggesting that company directors, lawyers or university professors have any particular claim to spiritual fame or insight. But the sad fact is, even as Christians, we are tempted to measure others by their human achievement.

Nor are there bonus points for what we might judge to be our spiritual productivity in God’s economy. We do all these things gladly in obedience to God’s word, to make the best use of the gifts God has given us. We do these things for the sheer joy of sharing the unsearchable riches of Christ with others. And we must never embark on Christian service with an eye on the comparative worth of our spiritual bank balance.

We probably all agree with these principles. But human attitudes which don’t reflect Christ-like humility and equality can subtly creep upon us, a bit like rising damp.

God forbid that we should treat some of those around us, including our fellow Christians, as being “more equal than others”.

Life in God’s economy

Three important lessons from the parable of the workers in the vineyard are:

1. We live and work to the standards of God’s economy, not any human economy. God’s standards about our worth and the worth of those around us must always prevail.

2. We are all equal in God’s Kingdom. Our place in the Kingdom is bought by grace alone through the shed blood of Jesus. Our position, our wealth, achievements, and apparent spiritual track record don’t give us rights to prominence in God’s Kingdom.

3. We must, as individuals and as a church, reflect God’s standards, and treat each other as equals deserving of equal love, concern and care.

The farm revolution began with high ideals as a democratic collective enterprise. But Orwell gave his animal characters the basic human flaw of self interest and pride. There was no eternal standard (as we have) for the society they constructed, so from origins of equality the elite group consolidated their power and finally declared, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”.

God forbid that we should treat some of those around us, including our fellow Christians, as being “more equal than others”. God, as the vineyard owner, showed equal care for everyone, and so must we.

Professor John Clark is a retired lecturer, university researcher, and university president. He has co-authored several books, including His Workmanship: Reflections on Living in Christ.