The collect and reading for today may be found here. The appointed gospel is Matthew 20:1-16.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, `You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, `Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, `You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, `Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
We could all tell our own version and experience of this parable. We know people who, in our not so humble opinion, neither earned nor deserved what they got; a job, a promotion, a raise, recognition, happiness, success. That we worked longer and tried harder seemed to make no difference. More often than not we view the world, ourselves, and others through the lens of fairness rather than grace, the exact opposite of how God views the world and our lives.
We’ve been taught from an early age that fairness matters. Watch a bunch of children play and it won’t be long before you hear someone say, “That’s not fair!” So it wasn’t fair the night my grandmother gave me twelve lima beans and my sister got only eight. That I actually counted the beans on our plates and that I still remember that night suggests how deeply ingrained within us is the concept of fairness. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so. I am willing to bet that you too in some way have counted lima beans!
It’s not just children. Adults want fairness too. Too often, however, fairness rather than love, acceptance, mercy, forgiveness, or generosity is the measure by which we act and judge another person or life circumstances.
We like fairness, I think, because it give us some assurance of order, predictability, control, and hierarchy; even if it is a false assurance. Fairness is based on what you deserve, how hard you work, what you achieve, the way in which you behave. Sometimes it is fair to give a reward other times a punishment. We live in and promote a wage based society in which you earn what you get. You deserve the consequences, good or bad, of your actions.
What happens though when divine goodness trumps human fairness? You get today’s parable. Today’s parable suggests wages and grace stand in opposition to each other. They are two opposing world views. The degree to which this parable strikes us as unfair is the degree to which our life and world view is wage based. A wage based world view allows little room for grace in our own lives or the lives of others.
Grace is dangerous. It reverses business as usual. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” That’s not how a wage based society works. The world says the last are last and the first are first because they deserve it. It’s what is fair. Our understanding of fairness, however, does not seem to have priority in the kingdom of heaven where grace is the rule not the exception. Grace looks beyond our productivity, our appearance, our dress, our race or ethnicity, our accomplishments, our failures. Grace recognizes there is more to you and who you are than what you have done or left undone.
Grace reveals the goodness of God. Wages reveal human effort. Grace seeks unity and inclusion. Wages make distinctions and separate. Grace just happens. Wages are based on merit. The only precondition of grace is that we show up and open ourselves to receive what God is giving. When we do we begin to see our lives, the world, our neighbor differently.
Many of you know that before going to seminary I practiced law for about fifteen years. Every month the score sheet would be distributed to all the attorneys in the firm. It listed the name of every attorney, the number of hours they worked, the number of hours billed, and the number of dollars collected. It was the basis for our wages and the incentive for our comparison, competition, expectation, and judgments. We knew who had begun work at dawn, who slept in until 9:00 a.m., who came in at noon, who showed up at 3:00 p.m., and who dropped in at 5:00 p.m.
One day several associates, the attorneys who are employees of and not owners of the firm, were reading and talking about the latest numbers. One senior associate whose numbers were higher than most, including some partners, said, “That’s not fair! I am going to demand they pay me what I am worth.” This went on for several days. Then he got quiet and didn’t say much about it. After a few days I asked him, “So have you talked to the partners?” “That was the dumbest idea I’ve ever had,” he said. “What if they agree? What if they actually pay me what I am worth? I’d be taking a pay cut!”
Grace reminds us that we are not nearly as self-sufficient, deserving, or independent as a wage based society would like us to believe. Neither is our worth determined by our productivity or usefulness to another. Grace does not justify or excuse discrimination, unfairness, or oppression. To the contrary it holds before us the truth that each person is more than their behavior, their looks, their accomplishments, or their failures.
The tragedy of a wage based life is that it blinds us to the presence of grace, the life of God, in our own life. It can make us resentful of grace, goodness, and beauty in the life of another. It separates and isolates us from others. Eventually we set up standards and expectations not only for ourselves and others but for God. That’s what happened to the first hired in today’s parable. They saw themselves as different from and more deserving than the later hired. They grumbled against the landowner saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.” The truth is they are not that different from each other. Neither group owned the vineyard. Both groups needed a job and both groups were chosen, invited in, by no effort of their own doing. There is, however, something that distinguishes the first hired and the later hired.
The distinction is not what time they showed up to work. The real distinction between the first hired and all the later hired is the terms under which they entered the vineyard. The first hired entered the vineyard only after agreeing to the usual daily wage. They settled for too little. They shortchanged themselves. That’s often what happens in a wage based society. Apparently the landowner is willing to pay more than the usual daily wage. A full day’s wage for less than a full day’s work. “That’s not fair,” we might say. No, it’s not. That’s grace.
The first hired got what they bargained for. The later hired workers, those who come at 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 p.m., even 5:00 p.m., did not, however, negotiate for the usual daily wage. They entered the vineyard trusting they would be paid “whatever is right.” Whatever is right is not determined by the first hired or by a wage based society but by the goodness of the landowner. These later hired workers received more than they earned, more than they deserved, more than they had a right to ask or hope for. That’s just what God does. “Whatever is right” isn’t about fairness but about grace.
Why settle for the usual daily wage when God wants to give you “whatever is right” for your life, your needs, your salvation? “Whatever is right” will always be more than fair, more than we could ask or imagine. Yet we sometimes trust a wage based life more than we trust grace. In so doing we deny ourselves and others the life God wants to give. So how might we begin to move from a wage based life to the vineyard of grace?
Stop comparing yourself and your life to others and you will create room for grace to emerge. Refuse to compete in such a way that someone must lose for you to win. Trust that in God’s world there is enough for everyone. Let go of expectations based on what you think you or others deserve. Give God the freedom to pay whatever is right knowing that God’s ways are not your ways. Make no judgments of yourself or others. That is the way of grace, the way of God.
Imagine if we all let go of those four things; comparison, competition, expectation, and judgment. Your life would be God-filled, you would make space for the life of another to be God-filled, and the world would, the parable tells us, look a lot like the kingdom of heaven.