The Compassionate Employer


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All of human history is anchored in a story: the stories we receive and the stories we tell. A story is the best way of talking about the way the world actually is. Our lives are lived within a narrative. It’s the story of our lives because: story is central, story binds us, story creates connection, story creates emotions and story shapes our reality.

The stories we tell reveal not just who we are, but who we hope to be. Many of us have inherited a false narrative about God that goes like this, “God is good, we are bad, so try harder.” When we uncritically marry this false narrative about God with all of the striving that Empire demands — our hard work, our excellence, our performance — we create a distorted picture of God that Jesus would find completely unrecognizable.

Jesus tells this odd story about a landowner and some workers. This is a kingdom story. On the surface, as Jesus opens, you just assume you know what’s going on in the story, there’s a landowner, apparently without a manager, who needs some workers.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. (Matthew 20:1-2)

Those who are ready, willing, and waiting will be hired, and everyone else will be excluded, and that’s how the parable opens. In exchange for a day’s wage, he expects a day’s work, or so you think. Then something odd happens, the owner goes out again at 9am, 12pm, 3pm.

Initially, we are taught to assume he just underestimated the effort needed to complete the work that was needed in the vineyard. But that’s when the story is focused on the workers. If you think about the story from the landowner’s point of view, is it possible that he already has all the workers he needs? Pay attention to something that you may have missed, this time, when he engages the workers, he doesn’t promise a day’s wage. He says, “I will pay you whatever is right.” Each time, the workers are told, “I will pay whatever is right.” it raises a question of what is justice, but the question isn’t answered. What does justice look like for someone who is standing at a gate, hoping to work, in order to feed themselves and/or their families?

Jesus is trying to tell us a story about the kingdom and about God. As each of the five groups of workers get paid the same wage, those who have worked all day are starting to get frustrated, angry, even. Isn’t this supposed to be a story about the Kingdom of God? How is it fair to pay those who worked less the same as those who worked longer? Why embarrass the workers by paying them all in front of each other? Doesn’t the landowner realize what he is doing and how it provokes the others? Does he care? What’s going on?

Finally, one of the workers speak up, now realizing that they will all be paid the same, and he declares what we are all thinking, this isn’t just. The landowner explains and defends his right to be just, merciful, and compassionate because mercy and compassion are found in justice. In telling this story, Jesus defines justice as more than an equal application of the law. He includes respect for and the dignity of those in need as a part of justice. The Kingdom, Jesus says, “Is where costly grace is offered to those who need it.”

I see that Jesus is trying to help the disciples and us understand how the kingdom works. There are competing kingdoms at work in our lives: the world of merit or performance with the world of grace. This story is striking because the culture teaches us that we earn what we get. That’s how the workers measured themselves and their self-worth. They were what they earned. They worked hard, and expected to be rewarded for their efforts. Into this picture of how the world works, “Jesus reveals a God who does not demand, but gives; who does not oppress but who raises up; who does not wound, but heals; who does not condemn, but forgives.” Jesus reveals to us the good and beautiful God who is generous, compassionate, full of grace and mercy.


If you have an audio bible select Matthew 20:1-16, re-play this scene a couple of times and pay attention to the different voices and dynamics at play. Alternatively read through this account slowly three times.

  • Whose side do you naturally gravitate towards? Is it the workers who were hired earlier in the day? Or do you feel more drawn to those hired at the end of the day?
  • Take a moment to consider why this may be so, why did you identify with who you selected?
  • Come before Jesus in prayer with this identification and ask him to reveal to you what this might mean.
  • How do you find Jesus towards you, and also those who were “hired” earlier or later?

Feel free to share your experience with others who have also tried this prayer exercise by commenting below or emailing:

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