Proper 20 Exodus 16: 2-15 Psalm 105: 1-6, 37-45 Phil. 1:21-30 Matthew 20: 1-16
“Pick me, pick me, pick me” echoes form a fleeting memory of choosing sides for a childhood game. Faces pressed against the fence, a sea of anguish yelling, screaming to be chosen as a day laborer from depression era movie. All you can see or hear is the despair in their eyes and in their voices. The day laborers who are chosen have hope and those not chosen only have hunger. It’s not fair.
I was here at day break waiting for the landowner to pick his workers. He didn’t pick me, my stomach growled in protest. Salome came to get me after that saying our little one, Ruth was sick. She is just six years old and hasn’t eaten since yesterday breakfast. On the way back home, I stopped at a neighbor’s house to ask for some bread and goat’s milk to give her. Joseph, my neighbor, has children too. So, he kindly gave me a little to eat. I crumbled some of the bread in two cups of goat’s milk and gave it to Ruth and Jesse. I cradled Ruth in my arms and sang to her until she stopped moaning. She fell back to sleep. I was tired too and I slept.
I got back to the marketplace looking for work. The sun was high in the sky, it was about three o’clock. Praise Yahweh, the landowner picked me and I headed to the vineyard to work. The sun was hot on my shoulders and sweat and tears burned my eyes. An honest day’s work – that is all I wanted – for an honest wage. More workers joined us at five o’clock.
When evening came, the manager called us to come and get our wages. Hot and tired, we gathered around him. He paid the ones hired at five o’clock the usual daily wage – one denarius. We mumbled that we should get more and grew excited. The manager came to me and gave me the daily wage. I was shocked, I had already planned how I could provide for my family with the extra money. I thought of Salome, Ruth and Jesse. The ones who began the day working grew louder in their protests. They shouted, “It’s not fair. You promised us a fair wage. It’s not fair that the others got the same as we did after toiling all day long. It’s not fair.”
The landowner stepped forward and said, “Didn’t you agree on the wage you received? I have not done you wrong. I have chosen to be generous to those who came to work later in the day. That takes nothing away from you.”
In our lives, we struggle for fairness – to see our bosses, our spouses, our parents as being fair in their dealings. Like most people, we have an innate sense of what is fair and what is not. Equal pay for equal work is fair; equal pay for unequal work is not fair. Rewarding those who do most of the work is fair; rewarding those who do less is not fair. Treating everyone the same is fair; treating everyone the same when they are not the same is unfair.
Jesus further clarified the membership rules of the kingdom of heaven – entrance is by God’s grace alone. In this parable, God is the landowner, and the believers are the workers. It speaks especially to those who feel superior because of heritage or favored positions, to those who feel superior because they have spent so much time with Christ, and also to new believers as reassurance of God’s grace.
One of the most curious things about this parable is where we place ourselves in line. The story sounds quite different from the end of the line, than it does from the front. It is interesting to think that 99% of us hear it from the front of the line. We are the ones who have gotten the short end of the stick; we are the ones who have been cheated. We are the ones who got up early, worked hard in the blistering sun, stayed late and all for what? So that some backward landowner could come along and turn the whole system upside down. It’s not fair!
That is what most of us hear in this parable, but it is entirely possible that we are wrong about where we are in line. It is entirely possible that, as far as God is concerned, we are halfway around the block, that there are all sorts and conditions of people ahead of us in line, people who are far more deserving of God’s love than we are, people who have more stars in the crowns than we will ever dream about having.
They are at the front of the line, and we are near the end of the line for all sorts of reasons. No one told us about the line in the first place. We didn’t get the memo. We forgot to check our email and didn’t even know that there was a line until late in the day. But even if we had, we might not have done anything about it. There are so many things that we intend to do but never get around to doing and so many things that we don’t intend to do that we do. Paul reminds us of that. Even when we manage to do our best, things get in the way: people get sick, we lose things, businesses fail, relationships go down the drain. There are a lot of reasons why people wind up at the end of the line, and only God can sort it all out.
The parable about the workers in the vineyard, found only in Matthew, comes after Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man and especially Peter’s reaction. Jesus demonstrates how serving him and the kingdom of heaven to be able to receive rewards and gain personal prominence is the least noble of motivations for a disciple. The paradoxical statement about the first and the last declares that those who serve to receive a reward will be the last, and those who serve only in response to obedience to Jesus’ call will be first.
“So the last will be first and the first last,” said Jesus, scrambling the usual order of things, challenging the sacred assumption by which most of us live our lives. Namely, that the front of the line is the place to be, that the way to win God’s attention is to be the best person, the hardest worker, the first one into the vineyard each morning, and the last one to leave each night. Only according to today’s reading, where that will get you is absolutely nowhere. According to the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, those at the end of the line, will not only be paid as much as those at the front of the line, but they will be paid first. It’s just not fair.
It helps to know where the parable fits in Jesus’ teaching with James and John and Peter jockeying for position…pick me, pick me! Have you ever done that? I remember seeing the long line of folks waiting for the new iphone to come out. Some people waited hours - or some other new technology being sold starting at midnight – with people standing in line since early morning so they can be first. You can feel the intensity, the excitement as the crowd huddles together, but in an orderly single file line. I’m before you in line, so that means technology means more to me than to you. Our friends arrive and we shout for them to come join us in line where we had saved them a place. The crowd behind us complains bitterly and so would we if we were in their place.
Everyone of us wants to be right there in the front of the line. That’s the best place to be, not only because you will be the first one inside, but because you would be there when the moment came when the doors open and the blast of cool air blows over you with unimaginable excitement.
According to today’s story, the landowner just feels like being generous. Those are his grounds. He can do whatever he wants to do in his own vineyard, and what he wants to do is to let the last be first and the first be last. Everyone will be paid; no one will go home empty handed. He wants to reverse the order and pay all the workers the same thing, regardless of how long they have stood in the sun.
That is when the landowner reminds them of their agreement. He paid them exactly what they had bargained. What business is it of theirs what he pays the other workers? The vineyard is his, the money is his. Isn’t he allowed to do what he wants with what belongs to him? “Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
You bet they do. It just isn’t fair. Life is so often not fair. The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is not about judgment or justice. It is about goodness. It is about grace. Payment is made not on what is deserved, nor even what is needed, but on what the One who is good gives. Our sense of fair play is absolutely violated, because when thinking about God’s kingdom, we apply human standards. The harder you work, the more you get. Only those who have suffered and served for a lifetime deserve to enjoy the goodness of God’s kingdom. One-hour workers don’t belong any more than deathbed converts, and if God insists on letting them in, they at least should not have seats as good as ours. This parable is not about rewards but is a strong teaching about grace, about God’s generosity.
God is not fair. For reasons we may never know or understand, God seems to love us indiscriminately and seems also to enjoy reversing the systems we set in place to explain why God should love some of us more than others. By starting at the end of our lines, God lets us know that his ways are not our ways, and that if we want to see things his way we might question our own ideas of what is fair, and why we get so upset when our lines do not work.
God is not fair, but depending on where we are in line that can sound like wonderfully good news. Because God is not fair, there is a chance we will be paid more than our worth, that we will get more than we deserve, that we will make it through those doors, even if we are last in line – not because of who we are but because of who God is.
God is not fair; God is generous, and when we begrudge that generosity it is only because we have forgotten where we stand. We shouldn’t begrudge those who turn to God in the last moments of life, because, in reality, no one deserves eternal life. On any given day, when the sun goes down and the work is done, and we are standing with our hands out to the steward, there is a very good chance that the cheers of appreciation, the bursts of laughter and gratitude that greet him will turn out to be from us. May we focus on God’s gracious benefits to all, and be thankful for what we have. Amen.