Kingdom Stories: Laborers in the Vineyard
I’ve been blessed to always have enough of the essentials – food, shelter, clothing: My mother, working as a nurse, always had a job, if not two, and by the time I was say, in high school, my family had a fairly stable middle class financial situation. But it took us a long time to get there. My early years were spent in the small village of Westernville, north of Rome, and my father was out of work off and on from the time I was two until I was in close to junior high age. That is another story to tell, but the point is, we were a poor family. We used food stamps, we received help from my grandparents, and we received one of the food baskets we helped put together at church. Westernville was too small for its own schools – we were bused to Rome for school, and as geography would have it, relatively poor Westernville kids went to school with kids from some of the wealthier parts of Rome.
Somehow, it doesn’t take many years of life to learn the difference between rich and poor and to assign value judgments – and poor is definitely not cool. The most popular girl in school, Kelly, child of a former professional baseball player and one of the teachers at school, who lived in a house that had more floors than I could count – well, she made my life pretty miserable sometimes. I remember most vividly that for my sixth grade birthday, my brother Jim took me to the mall and let me spend $100 of his hard earned money. It was a huge gift to me. In addition to Mariah Carey and Wilson Phillips single cassette tapes, my major purchase was a new outfit – a Skidz brand t-shirt and shorts. Anyone remember those? They were all the rage, and I knew, for once, I would be at school with the right clothes. When I arrived at school the next day, Kelly immediately made fun of me – because even though I had the right brand, I had purchased them from JCPenney, and not Tops N Bottoms, the cool store. I just couldn’t seem to win. I was trying to be something I wasn’t, and Kelly was sure to point it out to everyone.
The worst thing though, was that I was a kid who attended church every week, and I read my bible, and knew it pretty well, and I knew about this parable, and I had a bad feeling I pretty much knew what it meant. I knew this parable meant that Kelly, as mean as she was, as bad as she made me and other people feel – I knew Kelly was just as loved by God as I was, and that Kelly could live her life as she was and still get God's grace and all the benefits of our generous God if she wanted them. I actually thought about that a lot. And I knew that it was just. not. fair.
This parable, sometimes known as the Parable of the Laborers or the Workers in the Vineyard, is taught by Jesus following another familiar scene. A rich young man had approached Jesus and asked about getting into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus told him to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor, and the man went away disappointed. Jesus then said to the disciples that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But, Jesus said, with God, anything is possible. Then Peter says, in reply, the scriptures tell us, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Peter wants to know what exactly the disciples are in for. Jesus tells them they will receive eternal life, but that the first are last and the last are first. And then he tells this parable.
A landowner goes out in the morning to hire laborers for the vineyard. He offers them “whatever is right” for a day of labor. He goes out again at noon and at 3 and at 5, and hires more and more laborers. At the end of the day, the landowner pays them all a day’s wage. All of them. That means that the workers who have worked 10 hours, 8 hours, 5 hours, and 2 hours all get the same paycheck at the end of the day. Naturally, this upsets some of the workers. The workers who worked all day were suddenly less happy with the wage they had received, because those who worked only one hour also received the same salary. But the landowner won’t hear it: “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?” Jesus concludes, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” And it is just. not. fair. Is it?
Of course, we all know the adage: Life isn’t fair. No one ever said life was fair. But I think we believe that God is fair right. Isn’t God supposed to be fair? Doesn’t God want fairness? Here’s the bad news that’s really good news. God isn’t fair, and doesn’t value fairness. And we should be thankful for that! We’ve been talking for the last couple weeks about our mission and justice – what it means to be people seeking after getting set right with God’s values. Fairness isn’t really one of God’s values. I find it fascinating to figure out how frequently words occur in the scriptures. The sheer number of times a word is – or isn’t – mentioned gives us a clue about how important something in. The word just or justice occurs at least 1000 times in the scriptures in some variation. But fair and fairness? Less than 100 times, and most of them are talking about fair-faced men and women, not about equality. God is interested in justice, not fairness.
So what’s the difference? I saw a picture being posted a lot on facebook at one point that shows these two images, pointing out the difference between “equality” and “equity.” If every person receives one box to stand on, things are “equal.” But since one person doesn’t really need the box, and one person really needs two, for everyone to see the field, equal isn’t very helpful. They need things to be equitable – two boxes for one person, no boxes for another, means everyone can see. We could re-label this picture fair and just. Fair is when everyone gets the same number of boxes. Just is when everyone can watch the game, even if someone got two boxes and another person got none. God isn’t into fair. God is into just. “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you,” we hear in the parable. Again and again in the scriptures, God chooses justice, not fairness, inviting us into a kingdom where everyone gets to play, even if it means God has to show preference for the most marginalized, outcast, on the fringes, un-included, everyone-else-deemed-not-worth-saving types. Not fairness, but justice.
But we should be thankful, not irritated, that God doesn’t play fair. Instead, we labor for a God of justice and grace. I think we would say that we know what grace is. Goodness knows I talk about it enough, and talk about what it is, and our hymns are about grace, and our liturgies and our prayers and our sacraments – all about grace. In our baptism liturgies today we talk about grace being God’s gift “offered to us without price.” Grace is God's gift to us, it is free, without price, God's unconditional – that is without conditions! – love, which is poured out on everyone. That is grace. I hope that sounds familiar! We believe in grace as a concept, a theory. But in practice? I am not convinced we really believe in grace. We are really trying, still, to earn grace, to make sure we are doing what is good enough to be loved by God. When we hear about laboring in the vineyard, we imagine working hard enough to get God’s blessings. Still, we know from our own human experience that love is inexplicable – who can explain why we love who we love? Can it be that God truly offers love to all of us? Do we believe in grace?
Not when our first reaction to this parable is still: It’s not fair! We’re still not getting it. If we are finally convinced, at last, that God is gonna give the made-elementary-school-rotten-for-everyone-Kellys of the world as much love and grace as the awesomely well-behaved, life-long, faithful, didn’t even have delinquent college years Beths of the world, which, as we have established, is so unfair, then I think we start to have this second question that show we still don’t “get” grace: Why do we bother trying so hard to be good and to live a good life? Why do we struggle so much to follow God's plans for us, God's commands for us, when other people seem to do what they want, and end up with the same reward as we do? If we get God's grace either way, why not live a little? Party a little? Go a little crazy? Why this struggle for following God, if God will ultimately find us and lavish us with grace anyway?
Again, our response reveals what we really believe: that we see grace as a reward for good behavior and not an outright gift. Grace is not a prize that we get, but sometimes it seems that the only reason we are following God is because of the reward! But there’s a big difference between reward and gift. Grace is a gift, not a reward. When Jesus talks about abundant life, living water, bread of life, all that he offers, he is talking about what we can claim, the life we can live not in some distant future, but right now if we will walk with God who loves us. But don’t we sometimes treat these offers like chores we must complete to get to the end of the game and win the prize? We’ve got the order all wrong. We aren’t laborers in the vineyard because grace is the payment, the prize that we receive at the end. Because of grace, because we have received and can trust in, can count on God’s grace and unconditional love, we are freed up to labor in God’s vineyard, to work in God’s fields, to help bring God’s reign, God’s kingdom to others! Laboring longer in God's vineyard is not a punishment, but in itself a blessing, being part of God's kingdom now, right here, today, on this earth, in this time. Laboring in the vineyard is the reward, not the work. We aren’t supposed to work hard enough so that God will love us. Instead, we’re supposed to be inspired by our trust in God’s love and grace to work for the kingdom – so that others will know and experience the kingdom too. The payment is just the icing on the cake, and God wants everyone to get all the icing the want!
What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like a field of workers, all of whom have accepted the gift of grace, and who keep working to make the field more and more like master intends – getting the field to be just like the master imagines and dreams it to be. In fact, more and more people are invited to come and work in the field – we’re all working together. And thank goodness it isn’t fair. Instead, it is full of love, and grace, and justice, because we’re all invited, and God will do whatever it takes to get us there. And God continues to bless us, and bless us, and bless us. No, God is not at all interested in being fair. God is interested in justice. God is interested in mercy and compassion. God is interested in our abundant lives. God is interested in loving each and every single precious person in creation. But God definitely does not play fair. Thanks be to God. Amen.