Ezekiel 34:11-16; Matthew 20:1-16
I think it’s only fitting that we end our series on “If Grace is True” with this parable about the Landowner and the Laborers of the Vineyard. This parable that Jesus tells tends to get under people’s skin, perhaps in much the same way as the book did for many of us. We have a sense that justice is being snubbed in this story because the people who only worked the last hour get paid the same those who worked all day. We want things to be fair and just. Even though, growing up, my Father always said, “Life isn’t fair.” I never wanted to believe him. We want things to be fair, especially when it comes to God. We want God to be fair and just— to recognize our accomplishments, our heart, our intentions. And so this parable pokes at our sense of justice. So often when we read the parables of Jesus there’s a lot of explaining to do so that we understand what he was trying to say; but not in this parable. This one is a bit too blunt. We often want to water it down a bit. We feel tricked, in the same way that Jesus’ hearers would’ve felt tricked. In fact, I think we probably feel even more resentment than they would have.
Think about our cultural norms around work. In our culture we believe that you get what you work for. That hard work pays off and you can always get ahead if you work hard enough. But when we begin to look at our country, we can see that this isn’t always the case. I think of my grandparents who worked their tails off to make farming work in rural Iowa and could never make a go of it. They moved into town where my Grandfather, who had dropped out of school in 8th grade to work on the farm so that his 13 brothers and sisters would have something to eat, didn’t have many skills to work in town. He still worked hard, of course. He mopped floors and cleaned up after little kids in the elementary school. But he never had a lot. He didn’t get what he worked for. And I see so many people today who are doing the same. College graduates who can’t get jobs in their fields; day laborers who can’t make enough to ever retire; people working 3 jobs and still finding it hard to make ends meet; others who are taking the time to care for children or for the elderly and have little time to care for themselves. I also think of the refugees I have met here in St. Cloud. How they were living normal everyday lives in their home country when war broke out and even though they had worked hard to make a life for themselves there, they had to leave everything— their home, their clothes, their friends, their career, their bank accounts— and flee to live with thousands of others in refugee camps. How they worked hard in those refugee camps for very little and for years scraped together whatever they could in a place that was foreign to them, with people who were foreign to them, until they could afford to go through the screenings and pass the tests and find themselves in a new country with a new language and a new culture and new weather and people who don’t want them here because they got here at the last hour, but are being offered the same benefits as the rest of us.
You see we come to this story and see it as unjust because we have come to believe two lies that our culture feeds us. The first lie that we buy into, is believing that we actually deserve whatever we have. For those of us who don’t have as much, when we believe this lie, we often feel shame— shame that we can’t seem to get ahead or even break even; shame that we aren’t able to provide for ourselves and our children as we’d like to. For those of us who have more, however, in order to believe that we have what we deserve, we conveniently forget that all that we have— our bodies, our brains, our hearts, our wisdom, our language— everything we’ve used to be “successful” in the eyes of the world, all of it comes from God and without God, we would have nothing. It’s easy to forget how much we’ve been given.
On YouTube awhile back I saw a study out of Berkeley about how our mindset changes with privilege. They studied this in a lot of different ways, but the most mind blowing one was a simple study in which two people play the game Monopoly. One of the players, chosen by a dice roll, was given twice the amount of money to begin with; the opportunity to roll both dice while their opponent could only roll one; and when they passed go they got $200 while their opponent got $100. You might think that the person who had twice as much money and more advantage in their plays would be a bit humbled at having received more; but the opposite was true. When the advantaged player began to win, as they of course always did, they immediately began showing physical signs of dominance. They would sit up straighter; they would eat more of the snack food that was provided them; they would cheer louder when they got a good card or were able to buy properties. And they began to attribute their success to themselves. At the end of the game, when asked whether they believed their success was their own, they overwhelmingly said yes.
And this was just a game. How often do we attribute success only to our own merits, and then ask God to be more fair.
The second lie that we have come to believe wholeheartedly, is that humans are a commodity. That we are only worth as much as the money we can make, or the ways we can contribute to society. This is, of course, ingrained in us since we have a history of buying and selling people, and still do in many ways.
So with those two lies in hand— we get what we deserve; and human beings are just a commodity, we hear this parable and see the vineyard owner as being unfair. Because from our standards, with the lies that we believe, those who work more deserve more, no matter why it is that they are able to work more; and those who work less deserve less, no matter the reason, no matter if it means they will go hungry.
But in God’s Kingdom, those lies are exposed for what they are— false narratives about who we are and who God is. Those are lies that separate us from each other and from God. In God’s Kingdom, God’s grace extends to all of us. And I think we can see this most clearly by focusing on the landowner instead of the laborers. Early in the morning before sunrise the landowner goes out to find laborers and when he finds them, they heckle a bit until they’ve decided on a fair wage for the day, and they go to work. But something isn’t right. Because at 9am the landowner is back and hires more laborers. And then three hours later he comes out at noon and hires more; and then a few hours later he comes back and hires more. Don’t you find that a bit strange? The landowner uses up a ton of time and energy to keep coming back. And then, when it’s time to rest, he pays each one not according to the same hourly wage, but pays them each what is needed. A fair wage for a day’s work, a denarii, was just enough to make sure the basics are covered— each one, no matter how much they worked, would now be able to pay for the roof over their head, and a hot shower after they’ve worked, and food for their family, and a place to rest their head. That’s God’s Kingdom. That’s God’s economy. That’s God’s justice— that everyone have enough.
Maybe it’s not fair. Or maybe, we’re not that great at knowing what fair is. Maybe this parable shows us that our sense of justice has been warped for more than two thousand years. Maybe God’s Kingdom has a higher sense of justice, where God offers us more than we deserve because that’s what we need to live this life. That God offers us more grace than we have worked for, because without it we will starve. That God’s grace can’t be based in what we think is fair, because we’ve already forgotten that everything we have has come from God. Instead, God offers us enough grace for today; and tomorrow, enough grace for tomorrow. When we keep our eyes on God, the focus goes away from what is fair, to what is good; what is gracious; what is loving; and that’s when we’ll see that this God is a God who will keep coming back for us, and not just us. This is a God who keeps coming back for God’s children. Who keeps inviting all of us to work in the Kingdom, to find our true dignity, and to be in full relationship with Christ. And God never gives up— not even in the last hour.
Frederick Buchner said, “The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”
Preaching to the Baptized by Will Willimon YouTube video of Berkeley’s study of Monopoly and privilege (YouTube.com) Interpreter’s Matthew Commentary