‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers 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 market-place; 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 labourers 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.’ (Matthew 20:1-16)
It doesn’t take long to realize, once we’ve heard this parable, that we’ve all been there at one time or another. Maybe it was when we were kids, when we tried extra hard to be good, just so mom would make our very favourite special dessert – and she did – and then we watched as our little brother or sister, who had been just rotten that day got just as big a piece as we did…or maybe even bigger….and life just didn’t seem fair.
Or maybe it happened at school – we were in a group working on a science project, and we came up with the idea, we put in all the work on it and even made up the graphs and charts with the results, while another member of the group contributed maybe just enough to get by, but got just as much credit – and the same good mark – that we did. And life just didn’t seem fair.
Or maybe it was at our place of employment, where we worked for 10 or 15 years to reach a salary level that reflected our education and experience, only to see a new employee, a freshly minted graduate, come in the front door to do the very same job, and be offered the same salary level that we were making. And once again, life just didn’t seem fair.
If we want to know why the parable of the labourers in the vineyard has so much power to disturb us, it’s because it automatically takes us back to all those times in our competitive little lives when we have felt resentment – the times when we feel we’ve gone above and beyond and no one has noticed, or when we didn’t get the reward or acknowledgment that we felt we deserved; or we lived (and perhaps still live) with imaginary yardsticks imposed upon us by popular culture telling us repeatedly that we’re not good enough, and encourages our sense of inadequacy in order to sell us stuff. But probably it’s best not to let our life experience can get in the way of how we hear the parable – we know by now about Jesus and his stories – and we know that the gospel isn’t about resentment, but rather, about astonishment. And it is pretty darned astonishing.
Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom of heaven is like a landlord who hires help at various times through the day, and that at the end of the work day, those hired last and who worked for only an hour, receive, surprisingly, a whole day’s pay. And of course, those who had worked all day in the hot sun don’t think that this is quite fair – and we who experience and rebel at life’s unfairness, know exactly how they feel. But our human understanding of fairness and the landlord’s good pleasure (which we probably should understand to be God’s good pleasure) are apparently two different things altogether.
In the parable, the workers who were hired in the morning, at the beginning of the day in a sense had a privilege – they knew from the day’s beginning that they had work, and they knew that they would be paid fairly for it. Not so for those who were hired last – they had stood in the marketplace all day watching as others were hired, and finally, just as they have all but given up hope for that day, the landlord comes along with a promise to provide whatever is fair in exchange for an hour’s labour. Gladly they accept – after all, something is better than nothing – but you can well imagine that they would not have been expecting too much. So we can identify with their surprise when the time for payment comes, and the landlord does something completely unexpected, something so totally generous that it exceeds their wildest hopes. A full day’s pay is theirs, even though they didn’t earn it, they didn’t deserve it, and they didn’t expect it.
Sounds suspiciously like Grace, doesn’t it? Or at least what we say we believe about Grace….that we don’t earn it, we don’t deserve it, and we don’t necessarily always expect it.
I spent three days this past week at the annual diocesan clergy conference, and our theme speaker for the event was the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, an edgy Lutheran pastor, author and public theologian from Denver, Colorado who started a church there about 10 or more years ago called the House for All Sinners and Saints. She has an unabashedly colourful vocabulary and the ability to name inconsistencies and peculiarities in the Church and its practices in a few well-chosen and often mildly sarcastic phrases….in other words she was a real breath of fresh air. With 2017 marking the 500th anniversary of the kickoff of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther, it was fitting that Nadia reminded us right at the start that the key thrust of the Reformation was to reclaim the notion that the foundation of the Kingdom of God is grace, and not works…by which we know and understand that God’s sorting system and ours in no way resemble each other, and that every time we draw lines in the sand that separate us from one another in the human family, Jesus is usually on the other side of the dividing line. Grace, she reminded us, is the gift of God that says we are worthy and loved, just as we are; not because of what we do, but simply because of who we are: and we are beloved children of a God who chooses to turn up in our lives and in the lives of others often in marvelously unexpected ways.
Our problem with this is that we tend to forget that when Jesus offers the kingdom of God to the less deserving, he takes nothing away from the more deserving. There is no need for spiritual competition – because the outcome – no matter which part of the sinner/saint continuum we think we fall into – is as good as it can get. In other words, we should throw the scorecards away and simply rejoice that it doesn’t matter if we are morally superior or morally bankrupt; it doesn’t matter if we are a big destination church or a small group of two or three gathered together; it doesn’t matter if we’re dripping with wealth or struggling to make ends meet; it just doesn’t matter, because the river of grace in which we dog-paddle along only requires, really, that we relax and enjoy the swim. Everything else flows from this one critical fact.
So I guess the good news of this parable is that the kingdom of God works on the basis of God’s generosity, and not on the basis of what we do or don’t deserve, or think we deserve. And when we think about it, if we really believe that the river of God’s grace is limitless, how then can we possibly begrudge it to someone else? It’s not as if someday it’s just going to run out. Fossil fuels will someday run out. But grace? Never. It just seems much more comforting to me to believe in a God whose pleasure it is to share boundless grace with all of us – to actually give us more than we deserve, and not merely what we believe we earn. In the language of the parable, the last and the first are all alike – and simply because it pleases God to be generous. God’s blessings are meant for all.
May we grow in love for others as generously as God loves us. For this we pray and together say Amen.
The Ven. Nancy Adams
Anyone interested in learning more about the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, her books, her blog, and the House for All Sinners and Saints can follow these links: