September 24, 2023 ~ 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Beckie Sweet ~ Cultivating God’s Love in Humanity
Most of us have been taught from an early age that fairness matters. Just watch a bunch of children at play and it won’t be long before you hear someone say, “That’s not fair!” My parents tried to model treating me and my three siblings fairly. At Christmas time, we all received gifts of equal value. For each birthday we had the choice of a party or a larger gift. If one received an allowance, we all received an allowance. If one was expected to do chores, we all were expected to do chores. It was fair.
But I can clearly remember when I was a young teen and one of my brothers accused me of receiving preferential treatment because I spent more time with my maternal grandparents than anyone else. Within that accusation came the implication of blame being placed on me, even though the arrangements for frequent visits with my grandparents was not within my control. So, rather than taking delight in being the “favored one,” I was made to feel guilty for a close relationship. It was quite a while before even I could rub it in that I was their favorite!!
We’ve all been in situations where we felt short-changed, envious of those with more, passed over for a deserved promotion or award, and so on. That concept of fairness becomes a measuring stick for a successful life. And it’s certainly 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 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, things. 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.
So, what happens when divine goodness surpasses human fairness? You get today’s parable. This parable suggests that sometimes 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 lives and in 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, including those currently embroiled in contract negotiations, says that those at the top of the heap are deserving of a boat-load of compensation, while those far from the top may hardly earn enough to support a small family. Our understanding of fairness, however, does not seem to have priority in the realm of God, where grace is the rule, not the exception. Grace looks beyond our productivity, our appearance, our dress, our race or ethnicity, our sexual orientation, our accomplishments, our failures. Grace recognizes there is more to you and who you are than what you have done or left undone.
But Jesus is a master storyteller. He is able, with a few words, to remind hearers to consider the opportunity of the vineyard owner to express generous gratitude to the workers hired throughout the day. You see, there is often an urgency to harvesting the grape crop. Perhaps one knows that weather is coming which will spoil any of the fruit left on the vine. Harvesting quickly is imperative to realizing maximum yield from the crop. Those hired first were told they would be paid the usual daily wage. But as the day goes on, and conditions begin to deteriorate, more workers are hired who are desperately needed to help with the harvest, even if only for a little while. The owner of the vineyard has the means to be generous, is grateful for each worker, and compensates as he chooses.
Many biblical scholars write that this parable is about salvation ~ redemption. They pontificate that there is no difference, in the eyes of God, between faithful Christians who have lived a holy life since childhood and those who make a deathbed confession of faith. Other scholars disagree, stating that the line “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last” is a re-ordering of human hierarchy. But what if the moral of the story isn’t so much “God is just and generous and can do whatever God wants,” but instead is a lesson in humility for the disciples of Jesus, who had a tendency to think more highly of themselves because they had the privilege of hanging out with the Messiah all the time? What if the point is that God uses a different pay scale than the one we would use if we were in charge? God’s pay scale isn’t based on our merit, or our own sense of entitlement, but rather on God’s great love for us.
I have a former parishioner who knows that I like to start the day with a chuckle. So, late most nights she writes to share a joke with me. One that she sent recently seems to reinforce the point of this parable. Perhaps you are familiar with this one!
So, a man dies and meets Peter at the pearly gates of heaven. Peter says to this man, “You need three hundred points to enter this place. What good have you done in your life?” “Well,” he answers, “I was a faithful husband and father.”
“Good, that is worth three points.” “I attended church as often as I could and usually gave a tithe of my income.” “Good, that is worth another three points. What else?” “Well, I worked hard and tried to treat my coworkers with respect.” “Oh, good, you get another two points. You only need two hundred and ninety-two more.” “What But that’s impossible! It’ll only be by the grace of God that anyone earns that many points!” Peter says, “Yes!” and immediately opens the pearly gates to let him enter the kin-dom of heaven.
None of us have earned it. None of us ever will. You might get a point or two more than a neighbor, or more than me, but you still won’t have enough. And a thief on a cross who may not have done a bit of good all his life can say a quick prayer and go to the same place as you. That’s the nature of grace. It’s not fair. That’s the point of the parable. God’s grace upends everything. It’s not fair. And we should be grateful for that!