It is one of the most troublesome of Jesus' parables for most people I know. Matthew 20:1-16, a landowner goes out to find laborers for his harvest. Harvest time was a pressure time. There is suddenly much more work to be done, gathering each fruit, and there is a window of opportunity. The time between unripe to overripe is not long.
The day laborers were no doubt similar to the men who do such things today. In Memphis many are out of towners, if you will, people of limits lacking in the right contacts. For those desperate for work, it is common to literally earn one's daily bread. That is what the "day's wages" is in the parable. What one needs to live for another day.
We all know the story, every few hours the owner comes to find more unemployed men standing around. Each time he offered them a chance to work. "I will pay you whatever is right," he promised them. Grace. Faith.
What is right for a partial day's work? We tend to pay by the hour, it is the purchase of 'time', but even among us there is a practice of measuring output, production, what is concretely accomplished. One senses that this was not the case here, it is a day's pay for a day's work. Yet, we must keep in mind, time spent working is not always the best measure of the amount of work done. Even if it is true that the one in the hot sun all day has a prolonged experience of the work....
The story ends and the landowner has given each man the same pay, whether for all day or a brief few hours. We know that anyone who is paid "enough to live one more day" can hardly survive on less than that. If the local kitchen offers a meal for ten dollars, offering a man two or three is not going to make the difference. The landowner knows this, these men will return home at day's end and their hungry families will want food for the day. He is generous with them and provides it.
Those who work all day are right, it is not fair. We have no reason to doubt they worked hard. So what is their sin? It is the same sin which Jesus constantly emphasizes, the sin of indifference to the plight of others. The sin of not loving the neighbor. Every workman knows the struggle of life. Everyone knows the precarious nature of things. In he face of difficulties, they fall prey to competition. They see the other as enemy, not companion. So rather than rejoice that the owner is kind and many families can eat, they band together and want more than the agreed wage.
It is also not fair to make a contract and complain. It is also not fair to wish ill on others, who because of things beyond their control (no one would hire them when they were willing to work) are in difficult situations. But most of all, and this is from God's perspective, it is unfair to expect grace and mercy for yourself and hold others to a different standard.
Treat others as you want to be treated. The measure with which you measure out is the measure with which you will be measured. These are divine principles governing God's interactions with us. The parable is really about insiders (faithful Jews) and outsiders (sinners and Gentiles). The latter are the late arrivers, those who do not belong to the ancient people. Jesus made clear to His opponents that the Kingdom was open to all, and any who respond, even later, are welcome to full membership. You and I can count pennies and harbor offenses. We can decide God is not fair and we can gripe about the slights we suffer from Him, but in the end, He is the owner and His fairness is a mercy to us all. Because, in the end, in truth we are all the late arrivers enjoying unmerited grace!