Text: Matthew 20:1-16 (with Reference to Jonah 3:10-4:11)
A professor of mine once warned our class to “beware of a Jesus completely congenial to you.” In other words, if our experience of Jesus, or our understanding of God completely fits within our worldview, and never presents a challenge, then we may be in danger of creating God in our image. In essence, there is a huge temptation to craft the version of God or Jesus that we like, and then toss out the rest of it. It is advice I’ve tried to follow, and on occasion there are passages in the gospel that really challenge us. Today is one of those. Why? Because if you read and listen to it carefully, you might find yourself saying, “That’s not fair!”
Not exactly the kind of reaction that one would expect from listening to the teachings of Jesus, and yet this is precisely the kind of world-shaking, point-of-view changing work that he was all about. Nearly two thousand years later, we have forgotten that the parables that Jesus taught often provoked strong reactions in order to convey how truly revolutionary the kingdom of God is. These pushed people to think in radically different ways, to shake up their basic understandings, and to turn their world upside-down. Grain that produces far beyond its yield, seeds of weeds growing into vast trees they can accept… it may be a bit outlandish, but they are a bit easier to associate with God’s love. Even so, one of the most sacred things that we as human beings have developed is that sense of fairness; everyone gets what they deserve.
It is why this parable, “the labourers in the vineyard” is so upsetting. Jesus not only walks all over that sacred ground, he stomps all over it and smashes a few tables while he’s at it. Do remember that Jesus did flip tables and chased people with a whip once. While Jesus is not physically violent here, the parables were to shake us up, to get us to see things differently… because the kingdom of God is so different from what we expect.
So I invite you to imagine yourself as someone who is listening to this. The original audience would probably have had people in it who were quite familiar with casual labour in the field. In the end, nobody quite gets what they expect:
Jesus begins by telling this story:
“The kingdom of God is like a proprietor who went out first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And coming out around 9am, he saw others loitering in the marketplace and he said to them “You go into the vineyard too, and I will pay you whatever is fair.” So they went.
Around noon, he went out again, and at 3pm, and repeated the process. About 5pm he went out and found others loitering about and says to them, “why did you stand around here idle the whole day?”
They reply, “Because no one hired us.”
He tells them, “You go into the vineyard as well.”
When evening came the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman: “Call the workers and pay them their wages starting with those hired last and ending with those hired first.”
Those hired at 5pm came up and received a silver coin each.
Those hired first approached, thinking they would receive more. But they also got a silver coin apiece. They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor: “These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them equal to us who did most of the work during the heat of the day.”
In response he said to one of them, “Look pal, did I wrong you? You did agree with me for a silver coin, didn’t you? Take your wage and get out! I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you. Is there some law forbidding me to do with my money as I please? Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?”
For those of us who have been raised with the so-called Protestant work ethic, our first reaction is “That’s not fair!!” Why should those lazy b… er… good-for-nothings who sat around all day except for one hour get a full day’s wage? At least give those of us who have worked all day some recognition for all the work that we’ve done… we’re the one’s with the sunburn! We relate far more to the workers who have been around from the beginning than those who stumble into the vineyard at days end when most of the work has already been done.
It’s not the way we’ve been taught or raised. We think to ourselves, “As far as God is concerned, if I do this, then I will get that.” We view this relationship as a transaction… But what if our relationship with God is not a matter of what we do, or the way we figure it, but a matter of what God does and the way God figures it? Most of the time, it means we’ll react like the labourers who have been there from the beginning and yell “that’s not fair!”
But maybe it’s time we begin to realize that God isn’t fair… God is generous. It’s a lesson that God has been teaching us for a very long time, and we still haven’t figured it out. The lesson is the same lesson that God tries to teach us through the stories of Jonah in Hebrew Scriptures. Without going into too much detail, God told Jonah that he wanted him to go and preach to the city of Nineveh, as a warning that God was going to destroy the city. Jonah, on the other hand went the other way. Jonah didn’t like those Ninevites much, and if God was going to roast them, or turn them into salt, then that was fine by him. Let ‘em roast…he thought. It will be fair… it will be what they deserve.
Yet as much as Jonah tried to flee, God made sure that this wayward messenger got to where he needed to go… something about a big storm and a big fish… Jonah reluctantly preaches to the Ninevites and wonder of wonder, they change their ways! God decided not to erase the city from the map, and then Jonah gets upset because he doesn’t get to see the fireworks. He goes and sulks under a bush, saying “that’s not fair!”
But God is not fair… God is generous.
Maybe what we need to do is try to see things from the other side of it. If we could hear this parable from the standpoint of those workers who came late the person because of a disability, lack of training, or education, who was passed over all day long and only got hired at the end of the day and receives the same wage as those of us who had been there the whole day, there would be rejoicing.
God is not fair… God is generous…
There is a common theme running through these parables, it’s called grace. What Jesus wants to do for us is not a matter of shrewd calculation on our part, but rather it is a matter of God’s extravagant graciousness.
Grace is that one thing in the Christian faith that is unique to our tradition, and yet so many of us have a great deal of trouble understanding it. It is a gift that is given that is in no way deserved, and given without any expectation of anything in return. When Jesus tells this story about the generous landowner, it is a reminder that God sees things in a different way. Those who worked in the field all day are not wronged when the landowner pays them the agreed wage… after all, that is what they had agreed upon. It is just. The landowner is being generous to those people that nobody else would hire, that nobody else considered to be good enough to work anywhere else. They were not being lazy; nobody had cared enough to hire them.
Imagine if we were one of those people who had spent the entire day looking for work… Yet for whatever reason no one would take us. Maybe we were old… Maybe we were cradling a crutch under one arm… maybe our skin wasn’t the right colour… maybe we were one of “those” people that everyone else said that we didn’t belong. To them, to us, the generosity of this landowner is far beyond our expectation. He only brought us in for the last minute… but at least he brought us in… even when he didn’t have to… most of the work had already been done. One tenth of a day’s wage would be all that we could expect at best… and yet we find ourselves stunned at his generosity. Maybe we can start seeing the world a bit differently… that maybe we do belong and maybe we do have something to hope for.
Those who would have received the full days wage for hardly any work would be fully aware that they were getting far more than they deserve. Instead, they received what they needed… God isn’t fair… God is generous… and from their experience that’s wonderful… and they now have a chance to share that good news with everyone else.
I think that’s the lesson that we need to learn, to celebrate the generosity of the kingdom of God when it comes. In so doing we may also remind ourselves that Jesus came to us not because God thought we deserved it, but because we needed it.