What if the last several years, or decades, of your Christian life have been wasted? What if you haven’t been changing much at all? Or what if you came to Christ later in life, and you are filled with remorse over all the years that were lost?
I think the most encouraging words in the Scripture for such a case is a parable Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-16. I’m retelling it here with my imagination.
It’s about a set of unemployed fellows waiting around on Main Street for a job. Some of them look eager—suit and tie, slicked back hair, briefcase in hand. But others look like they hardly expect to be hired at all—tattered blue jeans, cigarette in hand and one on the ground under scuffed boot.
Then out comes the president of a multimillion dollar crop industry. He owns all the land the eye can see and he’s got a monopoly on the market for all the wheat and corn grocers in town. No one can compete with the quality of his crops, and anything at all that’s made in the nearby factories with corn or wheat all use his products. He’s the most successful businessman in town and everyone aspires to work for him.
And yet here he is, going out on the street looking for the everyday unemployed.
He starts first with the men in suits. (The guys with the cigarettes went off for a while to get another pack and missed their chance.) The men in suits jump at the offer for a job, briefcases trembling in their hands. They can hardly wait to get started. They nearly have conniption fits when they find out how much they’re going to be paid. Already they can picture themselves at their kitchen table talking it over with their wives and bragging to their children that night.
Off they go, into the fields, rattling off a long list of their qualifications and education to ensure they get the job. The president listens to their blathering boasts, but doesn’t make any comment. Instead, he leaves them in his field to crop dust and goes back out in his limousine.
He drives right back to Main Street, and now he finds the down-and-out unemployed. (They came back from Kum-n-Go with fresh cigarettes.) They’re unskilled laborers. They did graduate high school, and some of them have a few years of college experience, but they just can’t seem to get it together. Their past is checkered with jobs that didn’t work out. But now, they assure him, they’re changed. They want to do better. They wear nice clothes they got at the secondhand shop, and they’re really trying to impress him—though they’re a little embarrassed they’re not wearing suits and ties like the first men he hired.
Nevertheless, he extends an unbelievable offer to them. They too are hired on the spot. They can come work in his fields. It’s a bit later in the morning, and he doesn’t promise what he’ll pay them, he only assures them of this: they have a job and value with him. They LEAP at the offer. More humble than the first crew, they get to work quietly, hoping to somehow make up for their lack of experience by their dedication to him.
He smiles at them and gets back in his limousine for another trip to Main Street.
This time he sees the drop-outs. They’re easy to recognize with their tattoos and body piercings—so that’s where their college fund went. These guys never had a hope of higher education. They either flunked out, got expelled, or simply gave up on the educational system. Some of them have learning disabilities, some are chronic underachievers, others just never got why they were supposed to pay attention to any authority.
They are not particularly trying to get a job. They’d like one, sure, but they’re too cool to look needy. They share lights with each other, and not all of them are smoking nicotine. They tell coarse jokes and cough a lot and wait for something to come along worth capturing their attention. They haven’t met the president of the crop industry so far because they’ve been in the movie theater watching an R-rated movie.
The president comes back—for them. And they are so shocked to hear this, that this fact alone changes something very deep inside of them.
He came back to the middle of town, a third time, looking for them? He wants them to work in his fields? No one reputable has ever asked them such a thing before, or even hinted that they were worth the time of day.
They get to work in his field and have all kinds of responsibility? He is giving them the opportunity to showcase their responsibility (they didn’t even know they had responsibility!) and their integrity (what’s that, they ask him?).
You better believe they have a change of heart! Cigarettes are tossed to the cobblestone and stamped out. Packs are put in front pockets. Wild, long hair is suddenly combed back with fingers. Skull and serpent tattoos are halfway covered by shirt-sleeves. Coughs are made, and the troop is ready.
(Of course, the question comes up from one man who’s just learned the meaning of integrity, “You even want me—after you know I’ve been smoking weed?” One nod of the president, and a look comes over the man’s face that no one’s ever seen before. Tears stud his eyes, his hands shuffle in his pockets, and he brushes at his arms as if the explicit tattoos might just fall right off. The president offers to drive him back, since he’s more than a little high and having trouble walking.)
This group of men is the rowdiest yet. But they’re not rowdy anymore in a crass way. Rather, their laughter is downright contagious. The other men in the field look up in shock to hear joy so loud it’s almost frightening. The first men, with their suits and ties, squint their eyes for a few minutes as if they can’t be seeing correctly. Then they straighten their ties, mumble something, and get back to work. The second men smile in wonder, heads cocked to the side, trying to figure out what is going on. They wave back when the newcomers wave at them.
But the president is off again.
It’s late in the day now, almost dusk, and it’s time for the daily release of prisoners. They’ve just come out on Main Street and they have absolutely no idea what to do. Most of them aren’t wanting to serve any more time, but they sure don’t see anyone hiring them. They have not a clue what they are going to do. They don’t know if their family—what’s left of it—is still in town, or if they’ll even be welcome back home. They sit down at the fountain on Main Street with heavy hearts, wondering if they should try to fish around in the fountain for change even though a police officer’s watching them like a hawk.
They see the president in his limo, and cries of scorn and curses ring from the group. One man spits on the ground in contempt. They roll their eyes, rub their noses, and sneer.
Imagine their shock when the president walks towards them.
They have absolutely no idea what he’s doing, and they’ve never seen this kind of behavior out of the elite before. They don’t know if he’s gone crazy or if he’s coming to tell the police officer to have them re-arrested. But then he’s right in front of them, not one ounce of fear in his face. And he invites them; he asks them; he really wants to know: Do they want to come work for him?
At first there are chuckles and peals of laughter. Then there are smart-alleck words and curses as the silence gets uncomfortable. Then they, each one of them, look at the man, and they all know. They absolutely know. He is, in purest form, serious.
Suddenly the regret and agony of how they have just acted washes over them. These are not men that cry, but their faces grow chalk-white. They shuffle their worn tennis shoes and wipe their nose on the sleeve of a shirt they haven’t worn since they first served their sentence so long ago.
And then one man says, in a voice nobody has heard from him before, “I’ll go.”
And another man stammers, “I’ll go, too!”
None of them care about the money they may or may not be making. They don’t care at all if they make a single penny. It’s the honor this man has given them. That’s why they go. That’s why a few of them swallow a lump in their throat. That’s why the walk over is totally quiet and absolutely reflective.
You’d think because they were hardened criminals that they’d go all scattered out, broad shouldered. But they walk close together like scared kittens, not sure what the other workers will think of them, sure, but mostly because they are in utter shock. These are men who believe dreams don’t come true. And yet here they are, working for the wealthiest man in the county, because he believes they can do his work. Because he wants them, specifically, and no one has ever wanted them, generically, much less as the individual souls they are somewhere underneath the burden of all their regrets.
They start to work shyly, without a sound. This time, the men in suits have eyes that grow as wide as saucers, and they shrink back in terror. They decide it’s time to go inside the headquarters building and add figures. The second workers, the ones who haven’t made much of their lives, are a bit more understanding of what’s been done for them, but they are equally worried about their personal safety. They work in another part of the field and hope the distance between them is respected.
The third set of workers, the drop-outs and the one still hazy from the marijuana, stand totally still for a minute. Then, suddenly—and some say the high one started it—they burst out in applause.
The day is almost over. The released prisoners know they don’t have a moment to waste. They work like machines. They don’t really know what they are doing and yet, somehow, their productivity and skill is absolutely eloquently astonishing. They do what they never even knew they could do as if they were born for it. And that’s exactly what they are beginning to believe.
The loudspeakers on the telephone poles blast a closing tone, and then a reminder for everyone to come to the office for their pay.
The men in suits rush out of the building and brave their way past even the prisoners so they can get to be first in line. As scared as they are of these prisoners, they are ecstatic to rush home and tell their families what an amazing day they had, and how they can afford that new dress for her and that new swing set for the kids and maybe even that new platinum TV for themselves (a.k.a., ‘the whole family’) they’ve been dreaming about for so long.
No one is pushing to get in front of them. Rather quietly, and more respectfully, the second group of workers walk up to the president’s office and line up behind the suited men. These workers have always felt they couldn’t find their place in the world, until today. They sigh in satisfaction, text their wives and mostly girlfriends (because they can’t wait to tell until they get home) and think of all the popcorn and candy they are going to be able to buy their kids. They glance at the prisoners, to make sure they’re not getting too close. (They aren’t.)
The third group, the drop-outs, come out just plain grinning. They’ve had the best day of their lives. They stand in line talking about how they’re going to come to work tomorrow better prepared. They straighten their shirts and talk about things they’ve never talked about before, like Where does someone get a suit anyway? And, when someone from the second group answers, What is Dillard’s?
A few of the drop-outs turn around to see if the prisoners are coming over, but not because they’re afraid. They just want to talk to them, pat them on the back. The prisoners, however, are still quietly in the field. They’ve respectfully stopped their work, but they stand lingering, looking around awkwardly at everything except the other workers.
“Good job today,” one of the drop-out calls out to them. He quickly drops his head when a man in a suit and tie glowers at him.
And this leaves the prisoners alone. They end their day like they started their day. They have absolutely no idea what to do. They stand around waiting for further instructions. They want to just leave—they certainly know they’re not getting any pay for the little bit of work they were able to get down in such a short time. But they also don’t want to disobey the orders of the loudspeaker. After all, there is no one in the whole world they respect or revere like they do the president, their president.
There’s an unspoken longing in their eyes. Did they possibly do enough to get to come back to work tomorrow?
The president steps out of his office, and there is a wad of cash in his hands so thick everyone’s knees shake. To top it off, his assistant is holding a large cloth bag, and everyone is sure it is more cash.
The suited man first in line immediately steps forward and extends his hand, grinning deliriously.
But the president turns away from him, and looks right straight at the prisoners.
Every worker’s mouth falls open as he invites them to come stand before him. To be first.
The only justification the prisoners can think for this in their mind is that he must be going to either tell them they can come back the next day or fire them, but he’s certainly not going to pay them. They struggle to get in an orderly line. None of them wants to be first. None of them feel worthy of looking the president eye to eye.
When they finally get in a line (and the other “line” has completely broken up as everyone is reeling from what is happening), the president hands the first bundle of cash in his hand to the first prisoner. He nearly falls over. Suddenly, tears he’s never cried come to his eyes as he bows his head and shuffles away—not ashamed, but totally humbled.
The second prisoner falls to his knees when he gets his bundle of cash. The third drops his and fumbles to pick it up. One by one, they each take more cash than they’ve ever even seen in their lives. All their drug cartels and every bit of pimping they’ve done in the past began fading away the moment they started work for this man. Now, even the memory of it is gone. This cash is far more than money to them. They are holding onto their new lives.
The high school drop-outs suddenly collect themselves and burst into applause. A little clumsily and quite humbly, the prisoners begin to bow and beam. The high school drop-outs are still talking about what happened, slapping each other on the back, and wiping tears from their eyes as the president calls them up next.
The president reaches in the cloth bag for more money, since he’s all out. While they are paid, high fiving each other, jumping up in the air, and forgetting all about how they were trying to cover their tattoos, the men in suits begin to fidget. Things certainly haven’t gone how they expected.
“This has been one weird day,” one of them murmurs to another.
“You’re telling me.”
“But can you imagine what we are going to be paid?”
This thought hadn’t crossed most of their minds. Nothing, in fact, for the past few minutes, has crossed their minds other than total confusion. But now that the man mentions it, they begin to think. Who, after all, was in the financial office budgeting earlier that day? Only them. Who, after all, are the only college graduates of the group? Wasn’t it them? Who, after all, had the only real job experience of the crew? Wasn’t it them? Who, after all, really knew what they were doing that day? Wasn’t it them? Who had been the most productive? Wasn’t it them? And who had worked the longest? WASN’T IT THEM?
Suddenly their shock is replaced by glee. They begin rubbing their hands together, calculating figures in their head, and shuffling their feet in impatience. Surely it will be their turn soon.
The second group, who has found their purpose in life, is invited up next.
“Of course,” the man in the suit and tie murmurs. “Of course we’re last. We’re getting the most.”
The men in the second group are beginning to get the picture of what’s going on. They tilt their heads a little as they accept their pay but then each and every one of them goes over to congratulate the prisoners.
And now, at last, it’s the men in suits turn. They form a fighting line, each one zealous to be first. Finally, they are all poised, straight as an arrow. Once again, the man first in line steps forward and extends his hand.
The president gives them a smile they don’t understand, and then . .
He hands the man the exact, precise, perfectly same amount of cash . . as everybody else got.
The men in suits are stunned. They gawk. They gripe. They snort. They growl. They cross their arms.
And then the president asks them questions that pierce their arrogant bubble.
Didn’t he promise this exact, precise, perfectly same amount of cash to each one of them?
Were they resentful that he could do whatever he wanted with his money?
Were they angry that he wanted to boost the reputation of the criminals?
And then there was the secret question that thudded in their hearts.
Hadn’t they been unemployed, too?
We don’t know what happened next.
I think the men in suits stood still for a very long time.
And then I think they tightened their loosened ties, straightened their suit jackets, brushed off their shoes, and went over to shake the hands of the prisoners.