Note 2: This parable is loosely based on/inspired by/a retelling of/a response to Matthew 20:1-16, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard:
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. 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. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This is what the kingdom of heaven seems like: On a certain day a wealthy landowner went out into the marketplace. This landowner was preparing to leave for a journey of several months and wanted to be sure his land would be well looked-after during these months. The landowner gathered a group of workers and said to them, “Tend to my vineyard while I am gone, and when I return I will pay you whatever is right. You must make sure to hire other workers as well, so that all the work will be done. I want as great a harvest as possible, so plant as much as you can. Recruit as many people as you need, and I will pay all of them.” They agreed, and so the landowner led them to the vineyard. Now all the vineyards in that region were located on one side of town where the soil and conditions were best, so he made sure to point out to them which was the correct vineyard. The landowner left that night.
The next day the twelve original workers went back to the marketplace to hire more workers. One sought out cooks to serve lunch to the other workers, another searched for smiths to make tools, a third recruited harvesters, and so on. All were promised that the landowner wanted many workers, and so as many as worked would be paid a fair wage.
Naturally, people told their friends and family about the wealthy landowner who would pay literally anyone who showed up. The news spread, as good news is wont to do, but as it spread it also evolved. Some were told that the landowner would only pay the very best workers; others were told that he was so generous that people would be paid regardless of whether or not they had worked. Others were given bad directions to the vineyard. One dishonest man charged people money to be led to the vineyard, and purposefully led them astray.
And as the weeks passed, the situation changed further. It started when some of the original twelve left because they no longer wanted to supervise such a disorganized group. Then part of a fence collapsed, and some of the workers--reasoning that the owner wanted a great harvest--began to start planting in a small area outside the original vineyard. Taking advantage of this, one of the original twelve broke into an unoccupied neighboring vineyard and convinced people to work there so that he could make some extra profit. As one of those who had actually spoken with the landowner, his word was trusted. It did not take long for several more vineyards to fill up with workers who were convinced they were doing the owner’s will.
So when a new worker showed up after the owner had been gone a few months, he was astonished to see several different vineyards in use. He walked up to the fence and called to the nearest laborer, “Which vineyard is the one everyone’s talking about, where the master’s gone but he’ll come back and pay everyone who works in his land?”
The other laborer wiped the sweat off her face, smiled a little wearily and said, “Unfortunately, no one has seen the owner in months. Everyone says they’re working in the right vineyard. Everyone says they’ve talked to someone who’s actually met the owner. We really...don’t know for sure. But the harvest will happen in a few months, and we all figure that as long as all the vineyards produce and bring profit, the owner will be generous enough to pay us all.”
“So the owner is a generous person?”
“That’s what we’ve been told. Of course, we don’t know for sure what the owner’s like--like I said, the owner hasn’t been seen for months. Even before leaving town the owner was kind of a mystery to everyone else.” She leaned closer to the fence and whispered, “Some people are even saying that the owner is a woman, but that the men want to keep that a secret. I don’t know if it’s true, but I kind of hope so.”
“So how do you know what to do?”
“Like I said, we figure if we produce faithfully, the owner might be generous. And if she’s not, some people say that no one was using the other land, so they figure we don’t really need a master--we can work our own land and eat our own food. Of course, I’m loyal to the owner.”
“How did you decide where to work?”
“I just found a place where the people were doing good work. Like, over there they’re just kind of sitting around or partying. Some of the supervisors have weird ideas, like that women aren’t allowed to do some of the work, but most of them try to take care of the vineyards. Since we don’t know for sure, it didn’t matter as much to me which one is ‘right’. I mean, one thing that everyone agrees on is that the owner wants a huge harvest, and the extra land’s not being used, so does it really matter where it comes from?”
The new worker shrugged and got to work.
More weeks passed, and as the harvest approached, the workers began to anxiously await the return of the landowner. When he finally arrived, it was with fanfare and excitement, in a procession including his steward, guards, and other employees. Even though they didn’t recognize him, his imposing presence was unmistakable. The workers, hundreds of them, flooded to the road, still in smaller groups. Some looked suspiciously at other groups, but many looked eagerly toward the owner. When he spoke, he did not smile. He raised his hand toward the group who had stayed in the original vineyard, and intoned, “Well done, faithful servants. Come and receive your reward, and then enjoy the harvest with me.”
There were murmurs of relief; the landowner was generous after all. He had kept his promise. The group of workers quietly lined up to receive their wages from the steward. When they had finished, the owner turned, still unsmiling, to the other groups. “And what have you all been doing here?” he asked.
One worker, braver than the rest, stood forward. “Please, sir,” she said, “We didn’t know which vineyard to work in. Everyone told us something different. We wanted to work in your vineyard, and if you had been here, we would have followed you.”
“All of the vineyards are mine,” the landowner declared. “But if I wanted people to work in these other vineyards, I would have hired workers for them. As it is, all of you are trespassing. You must leave, and if you don’t cooperate, I’ll have you thrown into prison.”
Now uneasy murmuring started. The worker spoke up again. “But sir, the harvest is just around the corner. We have done sacrificed and done good work all this time--the vines are blooming--if you’ll let us stay a few more days, we would be glad to harvest it all for you--”
Now the owner was angry. “If you wanted to work for me, you should have followed my instructions and worked in my vineyard. Leave me; I don’t know you.”
“He told me to work here!” someone accused, pointing at one of the original twelve, now standing nervously in the group of those who had been paid. “He said you told him to!”
“Silence!” shouted the landowner. “Yes, my servants have made mistakes, but I have forgiven them. It is my money, my vineyard and my right to do what I want with it. You have no right to be envious of what I do with my own possessions.” And he ordered his soldiers to drag them all away to be punished for trespassing.
Some explanation may be necessary: It is indeed legal and fair of the landowner to do this. He does have a right to do what he wants with the land, and his verbal contract with the first workers did say that all those who worked in the right vineyard would be paid. He does have the authority and the right to do this.
However, his actions are not in keeping with his self-described character or goals. If he owns all the vineyards and, as he stated, wants his workers to produce as much as possible, it doesn’t make sense to punish or reject those in the wrong vineyards. Limiting his workers to one vineyard, but not giving everyone enough information to know the right one is like a bait-and-switch, a trick to trap those who guess wrong. They are not punished for not working, they are punished for being incorrect.
If humanity’s salvation is to depend on us giving intellectual assent to the correct set of propositions, instead of on us working faithfully for good, then a just deity must give us--each individual person--enough information to prove which is right, and the mental ability to overcome our biases and reason rationally, to correctly evaluate this information. But we have neither that information nor that ability. There is no definitive proof of the truth of any religion, and few of us are able to objectively consider the evidence that exists.
Personally, I do believe that God can and will do what he wants regarding salvation. If, as I believe, God is the creator of everything, the world and we are literally God’s, and God has the power to make that decision. And I don’t have all the answers, nor would I dare claim the authority to lay out a set of guidelines showing exactly who’s in and who’s out, or how much of a curve a person is graded on for being born into certain circumstances. But the way Team Hell describes their salvation, their deity and their kingdom of heaven, I think is accurately depicted in this parable, and I believe it is slander to say that God is like this landowner. It is certainly not a deity I want to serve.
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