Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” ~ Matthew 20:16
Fairness and equality are hot topics these days. Don’t get me wrong for the most part this is great news for society – a greater emphasis on fairness and equality can mean wonders for a world that so often skews to the rich, the privileged and those already in power.
But the problem is that a lot of our conversations around fairness and equality come from a place of privilege. If you benefit from privilege in society it’s easy to ask for fairness and equality and even to work for it, because then you get to be part of setting the terms, you get to determine what is fair and what is equal and not the parties which are unfairly disadvantaged by the lack of equality and fairness.
In fact, that is the inherent problem when it comes to ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ – the unwillingness of those in a privileged position to ‘suffer’ (so to speak) for the sake of those who lack the benefit of privilege. We see this time and time again in society: whether it is men being unsupportive and resistant to supporting the rise of women in the world, or white people feigning shock when they are confronted by communities of colour that seek to change from oppressive systems founded on racism, or the rich paying nothing but lip-service to the poor and marginalized while their bank accounts grow at the poor’s expense.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus confronts notions of fairness and equality pointing to something beyond that is more than either can achieve.
Our parable today comes in the midst of Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God. First in Matthew 19 Jesus takes a child and sets their humble and lowly status as the exemplar for receiving the Kingdom in the right way. Then the rich young man arrives as the antithesis to this child-like nature, and Jesus completely undermines his self-salvation worldview by emphasizing the nature of salvation by God’s grace alone. And then we come to our passage which is designed to get under our skin and annoy us.
The parable is pretty mundane at first glance. A vineyard owner is in need of labourers so he goes out early in the morning to find some and agrees on an appropriate daily wage. Realizing he needs more help he goes out again at 9 and then noon. And then realizing that there was still some work to be done before the day was over the owner of the vineyard goes out one last time just to see if he can squeeze anymore out of the failing daylight.
Jesus spends extra time focusing on these last folks for dramatic effect. These aren’t your typical go-getters, these would have been the folks that were unemployed but not too concerned about finding a job, they had been sitting on the fringes of the town square idle as the farmer continued to come by time and again looking for labourers. By the end of the day they were the only people left, and so when the farmer asks them why they have been standing around idle all day they have the audacity to say “because no one has hired us!”. The owner then sends them to the vineyard to finish up.
At this point it’s a pretty straightforward story, but that’s because Jesus is just setting us up for the gotcha moment. You see if the land owner had begun doling out the pay with the workers who showed up first there wouldn’t have been a story, nobody would have been the wiser to the landowners payment plan. But instead he calls for the labourers who were hired last and pays them what he agreed to pay the laborers who were hired first.
At this point you can imagine that everybody involved was elated – the laborers who had just been paid were probably hooting and hollering at their luck at being paid a full day’s wage, while the others were likely licking their chops at the prospect of a major payday.
But with each prospective group being paid the same amount the dissatisfaction would have spread person to person like wildfire until they couldn’t contain it anymore and they began grumbling “These last only worked an hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
If we’re honest we all probably agree with these grumbles. After all it isn’t fair – there is nothing ‘fair’ about it when we think about our typical worldly understanding of fairness. We can all likely remember as kids watching as cookies or candies were dispersed making sure that everyone got the same amount, or at least that we got more!
By worldly standards the labourers who arrived at the beginning of the day earned far more than the labourers who had only worked 1 hour, so it’s only ‘fair’ that they get paid more, but here’s the thing we aren’t dealing with a capitalist or works based economy of salvation when it comes to Jesus – God’s Kingdom isn’t marked by fairness and equality, God’s Kingdom is about justice, God’s justice and that is entirely a grace based economy of salvation reliant on God’s character, God’s work and not ours and whether or not we deserve it.
Jesus sets us up to be offended or even appalled at the apparent unfairness of the parable, and in doing so he unmasks our privilege in thinking that we like the early labourers deserve more because of all the hard work we put in, because of our intellect, or our great faith, or just because we’ve always had it because our social position, or ethnicity or whatever else has given us privilege.
You see God’s generous justice often rubs those with privilege the wrong way – because privileged positions have the most to lose – and we need to be honest with ourselves about the various privileges each of us carry, and the way God challenges us to shed the safety of that privilege to receive His grace and to ensure that his Kingdom of mercy, grace and love is enacted on earth as it is in heaven.
Also we need to wonder why we always identify with the earliest labourers who feel they have earned a more proportionate amount of God’s generosity. Perhaps all of our labour, all of our standing in the world and in the church only amount to the equivalent of what the labourers who worked one hour.
Perhaps the world and the church would be different if we were like the labourers who were elated at receiving the generosity of the farmer despite their meagre efforts. Perhaps our views on fairness and equality would be more reflect justice, if we embraced the generosity of God as a gift that we did not earn.
Justice is more than fairness, it is more than equality – it means God’s love transforms our world, our society so that there are no longer haves and have nots; it means that we work for the day that the colour of your skin doesn’t give you an unfair advantage in life or more often than not an unfair disadvantage; it means we work for the day where no matter what gender, sex or orientation you are, you experience the love and respect of God in his Kingdom.
As followers of Jesus, as the church and as children of God may we all come to the realization that in Jesus God’s grace is extended to each and everyone of us even though we haven’t earned it; may we hoot and holler at the wondrous grace of God which embraces each one of us no matter who we are, what we’ve done, or whether we think we’re worth it.
God believes you are worth it; God believes your neighbour is too. Might we all seek justice in this place, in this community and across the world. Come Holy Spirit, Come and give us the power to receive God’s grace with open arms.
Thanks be to God!
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