Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
“And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner.”– Matthew 20:16
“It’s not fair! It’s just not fair!”
If you had siblings, or children or have kept abreast of popular culture you probably have heard this refrain before – maybe you have even said it once or twice in your life. It is usually uttered when the person saying it, feels that they have been unfairly treated, or when someone else has received something that the person believes they deserve, or when things just don’t seem to balance out. You’ll notice however that the phrase ‘It’s not fair’ is almost never used on behalf of someone else, it’s almost universally used when the person or group feels they are the injured party. Fairness is often only important as it relates to our own benefit, if we are the privileged ones we very rarely worry about whether or not circumstances are truly fair, and in fact if the circumstances change to become more equalized we are liable to cry afoul!
It is not a huge leap in imagination to hear the words ‘It’s not fair!’ in our parable from the Gospel of Matthew this morning. Jesus launches into a story about how the Kingdom of God is like a landowner who owns a vineyard. It’s harvest time and so the landowner needs to collect the grapes before they waste away or are picked apart by birds and so he goes out early in the morning to the market square. There he finds the eager beavers, people looking for work at daybreak and he agrees with them upon the usual daily wage and they head over to the vineyard. A few hours later the owner goes back to marketplace, perhaps realizing that the harvest is so large that more workers are needed. Once again he finds workers idle and agrees to pay them ‘whatever is right’. He does this again at noon and then again at three, each time hiring more laborers to collect his harvest of grapes. As the day wears on the owner makes one more trip to the market, at around five o’clock. As he arrives he sees people lounging around, enjoying the late afternoon. The owner asks them – why have you been standing here idle all day? Why aren’t you working? At this point you can probably take some creative license and assume that these men are probably not the most motivated, probably the ones that slept in late, they weren’t in the market at daybreak, or 9 or noon not even at three o’clock. And so when they respond ‘well no one has hired us’, it’s likely said somewhat sheepishly. But nonetheless the owner sends them to the vineyard to collect the last of the harvest. An hour later with the day concluded, the owner sends for his manager to pay the labourers, beginning with those who were hire last and working backwards. With everyone gathered around the latecomers are paid a full day’s wage – you can imagine the laughing, the hooting and hollering that would have go on amongst these workers. We only worked one hour, and we’ve received full wages! It’s time to celebrate! – as the pay line continues each workers is given their wages and as it comes time for those who worked from the beginning of the day expectations are running high for a large payday, after all they worked the whole day, so they should receive infinitely more than those who only worked an hour… The first workers are shocked when the manager hands them each their daily wage, noting that it is the exact same as the workers who had only worked an hour. They begin grumbling, some of them probably even begin to say ‘it’s just not fair! It’s not fair we worked in the scorching heat and bore the burden of the day.” The landowner’s response is to say “Did I mistreat you? We agreed on the daily wage and now I’ve paid it? Are you jealous of my generosity?”
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” – Matthew 20:16
Just reading this parable we probably could be caught saying to ourselves ‘well that’s just not fair’ how could the Kingdom of God be like that! After all, in our world, hard work generally pays off, at least that’s what we’ve been taught. If you work hard, do well in school, put all your energy into your work then you will be rewarded – in fact if you do that you deserve more than those around you who are lazy, unmotivated or uninterested in putting in the effort. And this parable just seems to scream injustice by the standards or the Protestant work ethic. And not only that but it seems that Jesus is purposefully trying to upset us. After all, in the story, the landowner could have paid the workers who had been their all day first and moved on successively to the last, but instead he specifically pays the latest workers first in the sight of the others, he purposefully tells the story to upset our notions of fairness and equality, he tells this story to purposefully challenge our notions and assumptions about God and his Kingdom.
When we hear the phrase, the last will be first and the first shall be last, we assume that it is a complete overhaul of the system – up becomes down, down becomes up. But if you read the parable again, everyone both the first and the last receive the same wage, everyone is on the same plane with regards to the landowner – the generosity of the landowner is not dependent on how hard you the workers worked, it is not dependent on how long they worked and it isn’t based on the workers’ sense of justice and equality. Instead it is entirely based on the landowner’s sense of generosity.
“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” – Matthew 20:15
God chooses to give generously to each person, no matter how we might deem the ‘quality or length of their work’. The grace, love and mercy of God are extended equally to everyone, absolutely everyone. God’s grace and love are not dependent on how holy you are, how much work you do for the church, how long you’ve been attending this church. God’s grace and love are not dependent on how much you give to the church, how much you volunteer, how nice you are, how much your pray or read your bible. None of these earn you a greater share of God’s love, none of these earn you additional servings of grace over and above your neighbour who might not work/pray/live as well as you.
What we learn about God from this parable, is that he keeps going out in search for people to receive his grace, just as the landowner continued to go to the market hour after hour to find workers in the vineyard. God seeks out the eager hard workers and the lazy-last minute workers, because his grace and love are for everyone – in equal measures. The life that God offers us in Jesus Christ, is no different for me as a priest as it is for someone on the fringes of faith – each of us is invited to share in the renewing and reconciling love of God that defeated the darkness of sin and death on the Cross and broker through into the world in the Resurrection of Jesus – the joy, the love, the mercy, responsibility, the privilege of being Children of God is the same for each of us.
What better example and illustration of this fact do we have than the baptism we are about to celebrate in a few moments. Greyson has done nothing to earn God’s love – sure he’s cute, he’s brought joy into his family’s life – but he’s done no great work for the church, he isn’t exorbitantly generous, he hasn’t saved any souls, he hasn’t cured a rare disease, he can’t declare his undying obedience to Jesus and he won’t even say the words laid out in our baptismal liturgy. If we measuring whether he earned God’s love and grace by the world’s standards, then unfortunately he wouldn’t make the cut – and you know what many of us probably wouldn’t either. But instead we as a Church declare that this child, is beloved of God, we declare that this child participates in the life of Jesus Christ, that Jesus loves him – just as much as any of us. Greyson is marked as Christ’s own forever, just as each one of us who has been baptized was at our baptism. And there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more or any less, there is no way for us to earn any more grace than the unending abundance of grace that God pours upon us each and every day, in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
May we be as jubilant and ecstatic as those workers who were hired last, who received a great boon at the hands of the landowner, despite only working an hour, may their laughter and surprise be our laughter and surprise at the wonderful grace and love that God has in store for each of us.
Let us Pray.