“…To Do with As I Will?”


Jesus tells a parable in which a wealthy landowner goes out and starts hiring folks to work.  Some get hired with the whole day to go, others get hired in the late morning, still another group get hired to work starting at noon.  One group get rounded up to begin in the mid-afternoon, and a final set of workers get hired with one hour before quitting time.  They work for one hour.

These are day-laborers, so when the final whistle blows, it’s time for everyone to get paid.  The very last workers to arrive get paid first, and to everyone’s shock, they are paid a full day’s wage.  Those who started work first, way back at sunrise, get very excited.  After all, they worked many times longer than these late-comers.  If one hour’s work equals a day’s pay, imagine how much a whole day’s work might earn!

It earns them a day’s pay.  They receive exactly the same as everyone else who worked for the landowner.  The first to work, who put in ten plus hours in the hot sun, receive identical recompense to the last ones to enter the field.Parable+of+the+workers+in+the+vineyard-1024x768-19487

The excitement turns to anger.  “That isn’t fair!  We worked ten times longer than they did!  If you are going to pay them for a good day’s work, when they barely even started, why don’t we get…?”

The landowner seems genuinely confused.  He had paid them what he promised.  He had not broken his word to them or underpaid them.  “Friend,” he said, “Did I not do what we agreed?  I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.  Is it not my money to do with as I will?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?:

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The answer, of course, is that they most certainly do begrudge his generosity. [/pullquote]
The answer, of course, it that they most certainly do begrudge his generosity.
The answer is that his generosity is beautiful and open-handed but not so much for them. For them, the landowner is merely fair, keeping his word, fulfilling his agreement.  But even his fairness seems a bit tainted now.  Someone else received much better at his hands; someone else experienced extravagant generosity, but not us.  We just got the regular treatment.  The regular treatment now feels almost chintzy.


Jesus does not fit in the boxes that we like to pull out.  I don’t know how many times I’ve seen explanations on Facebook about how socialism doesn’t work, because the people who work hard don’t receive the full reward for their work, while others who barely work receive what they didn’t work for, and in the end everyone realizes that working hard makes us no better off, so we all just sit on our butts and the whole system falls apart.

But those are just stories.  My neighbor works very hard.  He repairs motorcycles.  He has held his job for several years and he is good at what he does.  He works for a motorcycle repair shop in one of the mercados.  He has a wife and two small children.

Last week, he came home after a full day’s work having received only eighty cordobas.  The exchange rate is currently almost 30 cordobas to the dollar.  He made less than three dollars for his full day’s work.

He’s trying to decide now whether he can make a go of starting a repair shop out of his home.  His family is going hungry.  He can’t allow that.

Now, instead of reading the parable through the lens of “welfare cheats,”–which many seem haunted by but I’m not certain how many of us actually encounter in the flesh or know by name–consider it through the experience of our friend.  We’re sharing meals with them and trying to offer a little work to help them earn enough to get through this.  If our friend were in a parking lot with an hour to go before the workday ends, it wouldn’t be due to laziness or some cunning that “perhaps I could get hired late and still get paid the same.”  He would be there out of desperation that even a couple bucks or whatever an hour’s work might get him would help a little and be worth it.

If he were asked, “Friend, why are you still here so late in the day?” he could easily answer, “No one would hire me.”

Try to imagine his response to getting hired for that one hour, just to do anything it takes to buy food this week, but instead of receiving one hour’s pay–or the couple bucks he was underpaid for a full day–he is handed a generous day’s wage, instead.  How much do you earn for a day?

“So the last will be first, and the first last.”


I’m pondering several things about this passage.

First, are we offended when others receive grace?  We’re smart enough to know that standing out in the field like the elder brother of the Prodigal with our arms crossed and refusing to come in to the party looks bad, but does it piss us off when someone else gets a better deal than we do?  Does it ruin what really was a perfectly fair deal for me when I realize that someone else received greater generosity?  Or can I rejoice in God’s extravagance when it’s for someone else?[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]   Can I rejoice in God’s extravagance when it’s for someone else?[/pullquote]

What was Jesus trying to tell us?  What if God is kind and forgiving to people who have screwed up more than we have?  What if, while we were trying to do good, someone else was just pulling all kinds of crap, and we were secretly hoping to see them get theirs–not in the nice way–only to watch them treated just like we are?  When I pull more than my weight on the “volunteer” committee and someone else pulls less, but we are equally recognized?  When someone else’s lesser effort earns the same bonus that busting my butt gets me?

Second, have we come to hold our economic views higher than the words in red?  I really mean this.  Does Jesus inform our economic principles, or do our economic principles shape our understanding of Jesus?  Do you know a person in your life who cheats the welfare system and gets benefits unfairly?  The only person I know who might qualify for that description used to work half a year at a very hard job and then sit around and play video games or go hunting during the winter and receive unemployment checks.  He was very conservative in his politics and saw no inconsistency in what he did.

Our Nicaraguan neighbor is much more typical of the people I have known, who struggle against poverty and try to keep their children fed.

Finally, do we have empathy?  Not pity for “those poor unfortunates,” but genuine empathy, in which we put ourselves in others’ shoes by relating their suffering to our own.  I think when grace offends us, our imaginations have failed…or maybe they have worked too well.

dirty handsWe fail to imagine that we could be going hungry, that our children might come to us and we have nothing to give them.  Or else we imagine that we are never going hungry because we are more righteous, because we have earned God’s favor and that’s why we were born to well-off parents and received a sound education and enjoyed security and privilege.  What does it mean when we have all we need and most of what we want, yet we’re deeply offended that we might have to give up a little to benefit people who are hungry or sick.  Tonight.

When Jesus says, “The last will be first, and the first last,” and we are currently the first, that demands a response.

“For the kindgom of heaven is like…”

Don’t mistake Jesus for one of the politicians promoting a fanciful economic system.

Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this.

We aren’t debating whether this is a nicer way to treat workers, or a more equitable means of disbursing profits.  Jesus says the kingdom of heaven works like this.  Are we trying to advance this kingdom in our world?

Or are we offended by its generosity?

Something I Hate


All names and a few contextual details (location, time frame) are changed.

Our friend Maria is a beautiful thirty-eight year old woman.  She has three children.  She has a charming husband, Ezequiel.  We like them both very much.  But he is a severe alcoholic.  We didn’t really know that–I should say we hadn’t seen that and thought he was further into recovery–when we first knew them.  The other day, I said to Kim, “I know all kinds of people suffer from addiction, but he seems like such a great guy, when he’s sober.”  Yes, a lot of addicts are great people, or appear to be great people, when they are sober.

But Kim told me the story.  Maria met Ezequiel when he was out visiting her little pueblo in the campo.  They fell in love.   After a few months of visiting her, he proposed to her and she said, “yes.”  They celebrated their wedding in her little church, then she left her family and moved to Managua to start a family with him.

Maria had been in Managua, in her new home, for about two weeks when a woman approached her.  The woman walked straight up to Maria and slapped her across the face, knocking her backwards.  Maria had never seen the woman before in her life.

But this woman was Ezequiel’s wife.  Not his ex-wife.  His wife.  I don’t know if they were legally married, but he had two children with her already.  And when Maria told him what happened, he told her, “She’s my wife, they’re my family, you’re just going to have to live with it.”

She’s nineteen.  Her parents had not really approved of the marriage, though they went along with it because she convinced them.  Maria didn’t feel she could leave him after two weeks and move back home with them.  So she lived with it.  And not long after that, she found out that Ezequiel had, and has, a drinking problem.  He may go a couple of weeks sober, but then will disappear for three days, five days, two weeks, and when she goes to track him down, she will find him filthy, in urine-stained clothes, maybe covered in his own vomit, unable to stand.

Maria is a strong woman.  She has started her own businesses.  She provides for her children.  When Ezequiel is sober, he works two jobs and does his share.  The problem is, when they get ahead, he they get money, sooner or later he takes it and begins to drink.

We didn’t know this pattern because Ezequiel was sober for the first six months we knew him.  He had survived a horrible, near-fatal accident and was forced, during his rehabilitation, to sober up.  When we heard he had a drinking problem, we thought he had been sober for some time.  But the near-fatal accident occurred because he was drunk.  Of all the tragedies of this story (and don’t even think of saying it’s not a tragedy because he has made his choices–for Maria and her children, it certainly is), I think the worst is that he had gone six months clean and had a real chance, maybe the first in twenty years, to live a different life.  But then he got a chance to work for a month at a very high paying job (relative to our context) outside the city.  They really needed the money, so he took the job…and came back without a cent.  He drank it all.


My friend Jacqui, who I have known since my first visits to Nicaragua, seemed to have a great marriage.  She and her husband Huberto have one son, whom they cherish.  He struggles to stay employed, but that is the normal state of life here, where there are more people who need work than jobs to hold.  I love them both.  She is more extroverted, so I would say I know her better.  They’ve had me over for dinner many times.

I thought they had a wonderful marriage.  But one day, she told me that Huberto had begun to rage at and threaten her.  He kept accusing her of having an affair.  Jacqui is one of the most determined people I have ever known.  She is working her way through high school as a thirty-something, which means all day school every Saturday, on top of her regular job as an empleada (cooking and cleaning for another family).  She has committed to learning English so that she can find a better job and help her family.  She wants to become a teacher.  She is deeply involved in the life of her church, leading worship, teaching, reaching out in her community.  She was not having an affair.

However, Juaquin was.  His irrational and increasingly threatening accusations began causing their son to have nightmares, then health problems due to anxiety.  Finally, after months of this, it came out–not through his confession–that he had been carrying on an affair for at least two years.  At one point, I was on call for Jacqui to help her flee if she decided she was in real danger.  I offered to find her somewhere safe to stay, but she refused.  I remember asking a friend here–a much bigger, stronger friend–to cover for me when Kim and I were going to be away for a long weekend.  That’s a serious favor: “Can you intervene in this case of domestic abuse?  Can you respond immediately if she calls and get her out of the home before her husband does something horrible to her?”  I have some amazing friends, and this one said “yes.”  Jacqui didn’t call.

This story has a hopeful current chapter, if not conclusion.  Jacqui’s husband became a Christian last year.  Juaquin ended the relationship with the other woman.  Their son has healed a lot and has grown close to his father again.  They appear stable and she seems happy.  I pray. but I can’t help holding my breath.

Third story.  Our friend Beatrice has been married since she was 17.  She and her husband, also a friend, tried to conceive a child for six years.  That’s a long time here.  Poor Nicaraguans don’t have the resources to try alternatives when they face infertility.  They finally were able to have a baby boy, and treasured him.  They threw him a huge, blowout birthday party, on a scale we have never approached nor considered.

Nine months ago, Beatrice found out that her husband was cheating on her.  He had been coming home very late from work, disappearing without explanation for long stretches, and finally started not coming home some nights.  When Beatrice confronted him, he acknowledged it, but let her know that he planned to continue in both relationships.  She was five months pregnant with their second child.  Beatrice can read at about a second-grade level.  She has run a small business out of her home, but really does not have the means to support herself, especially with a toddler to care for and a baby on the way.  Her husband simply decided that she didn’t have a choice.

To Beatrice’s great credit, she said “enough.”  She told her husband if he chose the other woman, he could have her, but even though she loved him, she didn’t want him back home.  He callously said, “Oh, that’s Beatrice.  She’ll come around.”

Those were hard months.  We shared our meals with Beatrice and her child and Kim spent hours listening to her and crying with her.

Again to her credit, she didn’t “come around.”  She took her stand.  Finally, he asked her forgiveness, committed to ending the other relationship, and came back home.  Again, so far, so good.

I know people commit adultery in the U.S. and the divorce rate is high.  But I heard it expressed this way by a Nicaraguan: “When you get married, you are competing with every other woman to keep your husband.”  Implicitly, when you get pregnant, the competition gets harder.  A friend in ministry here for many years told me that she asked her women’s group, “Which of your husbands have had affairs.”  Every hand went up.  They then asked her when her husband had cheated on her.  When she told them he hadn’t, they didn’t believe her.  They felt a little sorry for her; she was still in the dark.

Living in a different culture, one of our biggest challenges is to embrace what is different, rather than judging it negatively.  Driving in Nicaragua is different than driving in the U.S., and that will be worth it’s own discussion at some point.  It’s very easy to say–okay, shout, “Why do they do it this way?”  Meaning, of course, whey do they do it wrong?  A crucial step in clearing the hurdle of culture shock is when we stop feeling angry, disoriented, or both that they do everything “this way,” and start to adapt to life the way it is, not the way it should be.

But just like the U.S. has some monstrous, God-denying aspects to its culture, so does Nicaragua. We have to oppose the degradation of women here.  I haven’t lived in other impoverished countries, so I’m only assuming that anywhere women have so much financial stress and food insecurity, they also suffer from these ghastly choices.  Do you want to have money to eat, or do you want to take a stand against your husband’s infidelity? “If I keep providing for you and our children, I’m also going to keep cheating on you.”  Nicaraguan culture is highly machismo.  You could argue that other manifestations are even worse, like the selling of little girls, often by family members, or the fact that the average girl begins being prostituted here around the age of nine.  I think these problems are related.  They are rooted in poverty.  They are rooted in a view of women as being powerless–ironically, since often the women are the ones keeping the homes together–and of having to accept their treatment because they have no choices.  They are, fundamentally, rooted in a view that women are lesser.

I’ve described three cases, all of close friends.  This by no means describes all of our friends here, but these three are not the exceptions.  These are individual anecdotes of a problem that is rampant, even systemic.  What are solutions?  Girls being taught their own value? Girls being educated?  Improving the educational system overall?  Increased employment opportunities?  Job training for women?  Boys being taught to value girls?  Boys seeing models of men valuing women?  Marriage upheld throughout the churches, meaning confronting rampant adultery and ministering to husbands and wives to help them strengthen their relationships?  Recovery ministries for people in addiction?

I’ve seen seedlings of all these things.  There is a long way to go.

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”  He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”