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Income Equality and Grace

Income inequality is a hot political topic these days. Jesus stirred things up by telling a story about income equality.

Matthew 20 contains one of Jesus’ most interesting and upside down parables. The kingdom of heaven is compared to the owner of a vineyard who hires day laborers early one morning. He agrees to pay them a denarius. At 9:00 a.m. he hires others and tells them he will pay them “whatever is right.” At noon, 3:00, and 5:00, he does the same thing.

At day’s end, the owner’s foreman pays the workers, “beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.” Each worker is paid a denarius. The early hires complain that the owner is being unfair. The owner disagrees: “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 one who was hired last the same as I gave you…[A]re you envious because I am generous?”

It’s a safe bet that the Fair Labor Standards Act was not in effect at the time. When I was practicing employment law, the vineyard owner’s compensation structure wasn’t in use.

Jesus doesn’t explain this parable as he does some others. We’re challenged to figure it out on our own. It’s easy to conclude that the vineyard owner represents God and that his generosity represents God’s grace. God’s system is not merit-based.

But is there more? Are we to show grace to others as God does? To our employees, co-workers, bosses, friends, acquaintances? Colossians 3:12 instructs us to “clothe [ourselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Sounds like a heavy dose of grace to me.

Perhaps we should adopt the vineyard owner’s final words: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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