Parenting with the Parables – The Workers in the Vineyard

Today’s parable found in Matthew 20:1-16 starts with, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out to hire laborers…”  Let me summarize the story.

A landowner has a lot of work that needs done in his vineyard.  Most likely, he needs workers to gather the harvest.  He goes out at six in the morning to the place where the day laborers congregate.  He hires a group of them and agrees to pay them one denarius, the going daily wage, for a day’s work in his vineyard.

The landowner goes back to the gathering place at three-hour intervals; i.e. at 9 am, noon, and 3 pm.  Notice the agreement he makes with the later workers, “You go to the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give to you.”  The “denarius for a day’s work” agreement is only with the first workers.  Finally, at 5 pm, with only an hour left in the working day, he goes back to the gathering place to find some unemployed workers still standing around.  Assuming they have been without work all day, they may have been the most unpromising workers.  At any rate, he hires them also; probably more out of compassion than for what they can accomplish in only one hour.

Now it is paycheck time.  Beginning with the last (one hour) workers, the master gives each laborer a denarius, no matter how long they worked.  Of course, this looks quite generous regarding the later workers so those first hired are expecting even more.  However, the first workers also receive a denarius and immediately grumble about it.  The master explains that they are getting a fair wage, exactly the wage they agreed to.  They protest that it is not fair, but the landowner kindly reminds them that, in fact, it is exactly fair.

Verse 15 and 16 is the climax of the story, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?  Or is your eye envious because I am generous?  So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Mt 20:15-16).  In other words, the landowner said, “Do I have a right to do what I want with my money?  Or are you envious because I am being generous?

This parable is focused on the incredible generosity of God’s grace.  God’s generosity has surprising upside-down effects even extending to “the last shall be first, and the first last.”  The coming of God’s kingdom was good news to the outcast, and bad news to the rich and powerful.  God’s grace is extremely generous.  And sometimes when we are already in the “in crowd”, we think it is too generous.

As you read the gospels, are you surprised by Jesus’ response to the prodigal son or the sinful woman who anointed His feet?  In these and many other instances, there was no thought of a probationary period to see if their repentance was real before Jesus extended His forgiveness.  Shouldn’t we wait and see if they prove their sincerity by their actions?  No, God’s grace is beautifully unfair in its generosity.

What about a lesson here for kids?

If you have more than one child in your family, you will run into the fairness issue about a million times in your child training years.  As parents, it is easy to get caught up in the fairness trap.  But it is a time, emotion, and energy drain.  It is not the way God treats us.  God has no commitment to our idea of fairness.

How does this work in practice?  I call it parenting with generosity, not fairness.  First, let me tell you what it is not.  Parenting with generosity is not parenting with favoritism or partiality.  We tried to make things as fair as possible in giving Christmas gifts, assigning jobs, in giving an allowance.  And we made every effort to celebrate the value of each child and build a relationship with each one, just as God does with us.

What parenting with generosity is is saying yes to individual opportunities without excessive worry over fairness repercussions.  If fairness in our number one goal, it is easy to say “no” to things over a worry that if I say yes to this, it will only force me to do this for the others as well.  Generosity frees us up to say “yes, we can do that” in a variety of situations.  And since saying “Yes!” as often as possible was one of the core values of our family, a generous spirit plays right into that.

In our family, it looked like this.  One of our children, who shall remain nameless, had a habit of complaining if we went out to lunch while they were occupied at class or at someone else’s house.  They viewed it as unfair that Mom and the other kids had a lunch out without them.  If the complaint made it to me, I kindly asked if they were envious of my generosity to the others.

Or how about this egregious unfairness.  We had a weekly schedule that included two hours of house cleaning on Friday or Saturday morning that all the kids participated in.  They loved to make a chart – in which they tried to take up half the two-hour time in preparing it – of who was going to clean where.  Somehow it seemed that Elizabeth, the fastest worker, would end up with the whole upstairs while the remaining kids divided up the down.

On paper it appeared unfair, but it accomplished the task that was fastest for all.  We honored Elizabeth for using her gift for the benefit of her siblings.  If she had insisted on fairness in dividing up the square feet, it would have taken longer for all.  She demonstrated a commitment to generosity over fairness.

This concept played itself out over and over in our family.  Our kids did not get their driver’s license at all the same age.  We focused on what was right for each child.  They did not all take the same classes in school.  They did not participate in the same extra-curricular activities.  They did not all go to the same college, and we were not bound to spend exactly the same amount for each child on their college expenses.  Some contributed more of their own money commensurate with very different job opportunities.  The important part wasn’t the amount, it was the principle that they contributed what they could.

I hope this gives  you a taste of the freedom that parenting with generosity gives you.  Not only is it a blessing to your children, but it is following God’s example of how He treats us.  And it gives your children a better chance of going through life without a chip on their shoulder about getting what they deserve.  They learn the wonderful balance of being thankful for what they receive while at the same time being a generous friend to others.

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2 Responses to Parenting with the Parables – The Workers in the Vineyard

  1. Sue Harness says:

    Thanks for the reminder….and the encouragement!!! :) Sis

  2. Stephanie says:

    I love your statement , “God’s grace is generously unfair in its generosity”! Amen!
    Your family has been such a great example to me of enjoying the differences in children, esp. through schooling choices. Rhonda encouraged me to look for the right type of schooling for that one child, for that one year, and to constantly reevaluate. God made each of our children unique, and as such we should parent them uniquely, toward their natural “bent”.

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