Jesus says—“When it was the turn of the men who came to work first, they expected something extra, but they were paid the same as the others. As they took it, they grumbled at their employer: ‘These latecomers did only one hour’s work, yet you have treated them on the level with us, who have sweated the whole day long in the blazing sun.’”
I suppose you could hog-tie this parable and try to make it about something it isn’t. It is certainly not a story in defense of laissez-faire economics or an illustration good labor-management relations. You might dwell on whether or not it is true that a person has a right to do whatever he pleases with his own property. But the parables of Jesus were not intended to inculcate high morality. And in any case you would miss the point, because this story is about justice, God’s kind of justice, and because it’s about God’s justice, it is an outrageous story. God’s justice being outrageous, scandalous, and messy.
My mama used to say, “If it’s sloppy, Billy, eat it over the kitchen sink.” And this story—the Laborers in the Vineyard—is one that you have to eat over the kitchen sink, beloved, because it runs counter to our human idea of what’s fair is fair. The truth is, it isn’t–fair, that is. But nothing gets closer to the gospel, the good news, than this parable does. It may not sound like good news on first hearing, but it is.
The first and oldest meanings of a word are often the most interesting, beloved. For instance, to be “fair” meant originally to be pale, blond-haired and good-looking. In other words, to be fair is not to be dark, or to speak another language, or to worship God under another name. Our ideas of fairness are weighed, perverted by our own prejudices and predispositions. So as often as not they are stacked against the poor, the uneducated, the helpless, the dark, and the different. Fair doesn’t usually mean what’s fair to everyone. It means what’s fair to me.
Hurricanes tend to bring out the worst and best in people. There is a story that came out of this last hurricane. In Covington Georgia a worker pulled into a Taco Bell to get a quick lunch. He is a lineman for the county, and he had not been home for three days. He had been working hard, trying to get people’s electricity back on. But not hard enough. A woman approached him at the Taco Bell and threw her soft drink in his face because she thought he shouldn’t be eating while her power was still out. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, some people had electricity while others were in the dark. Fair it isn’t. But fairness can often be a cloak for crude selfishness.
So in Jesus’ story the employer offered all his workers a fair wage—a denarius, worth about twenty cents, which was considered generous for a day’s work in New Testament times. Therefore, those who worked for a full day for their denarius had no ground for complaint. And they are rebuked not for dissatisfaction with what they received, but for begrudging others who received just as much. They grumbled—understandably. But their employer asserts his right to be generous, to be just in the larger sense, rather than simply fair, to pay everyone alike. By giving to one he insists that he is taking nothing from another.
And this is the justice of God that constantly gets in the way of our idea of fairness. Fairness is a human notion—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an hour’s wage for an hour’s work—but fairness, the human idea, is opposed to justice, the divine ideal. Justice is what God alone can give, because he is God. This is not human business; it is Kingdom business. In the Kingdom of God each laborer receives the same grace no matter how long or short the service given.
I told you that this is a messy parable. You have to eat this one over the sink. It isn’t fair. It is grace, beloved. Eternal grace.
And grace cannot be divided up into parts and offered as payment for services rendered. We cannot earn eternal grace. It us ultimately past valuation, an inexhaustible fortune, the pearl of great price worth everything else we have and then some. And it is given fully and completely to each laborer in the vineyard. We could never earn it no matter how long we worked in the hot sun. It always remains a gift, pure and simple, not a wage. This parable is a defense of Jesus’ message of God’s pure and simple grace against the attacks of those who defend a religion of meritorious works. God’s justice is perfectly evenhanded, it says, like the employer, he gives to each the same, whether they come early or late.
It is never too late. Before we part I want to tell you the story of a woman, Ann. She was the wife of a mid-level diplomat who lived with her family in all sorts of places in Africa and the Far East, wherever her husband was posted. It was not as glamorous as it sounds. Most of those postings were on the night-soil circuit, as it is called. In one of them, far from good medical care, Ann’s baby became suddenly ill and died.
She did not have an easy time of it, but what can you say? If it’s sloppy, eat it over the sink. Life isn’t fair.
But during all those years between Katmandu and Timbuktu, Ann kept a secret ambition alive. Most people would have given it up long before, but Ann didn’t. And when her husband retired, she made up her mind to fulfill that ambition, though late in life. She had always wanted to go to seminary and become a Lutheran pastor. Her grown children thought she was crazy. Her husband tried to seduce her with the pleasures of retirement. But she became the oldest student ever to enroll in the seminary, and she graduated at age sixty-one and was ordained, having received a call to a little country church in rural Maryland.
And Ann was a wonderful pastor to those people. How they loved her! She was filled with stories about the grace of God. She was filled with compassion for the little sorrows of ordinary life. But mostly she was filled with thanksgiving for having received what she desired all her life. And who would begrudge her of it? Those who don’t want women to be ordained to the ministry? Those who think Ann was too old?
The grace of God does not know early or late, young or old. It swallows up our ideas of fairness like Jonah was swallowed by the great fish—hook, line and sinker. As the landowner in Jesus story asks the grumbling laborers with genuine amazement—“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or would you begrudge my generosity.”
Fair it isn’t. Nevertheless who would dare?