[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NRSV)
|Autumn vineyard by Yair Aronshtam. Creative commons image on flickr|
Unless you were an only child raised by wolves in the forest, you learned about fairness at a very young age. You learned when you were denied an unfair advantage over your siblings or peers. You accused your parents and teachers of unfairness anytime someone had it better than you, in spite of their best efforts to be fair in all circumstances.
I remember my elementary school talent show: both my sister and I “competed.” I played the piano; she and her friend performed a dance routine. Both of us came home with little plastic trophies inscribed with the words Talent Show Winner—along with everyone who participated.
Looking back, I assume parents still accused the principal of being unfair—arguing that their children were clearly more talented and worked much harder than the others.
Today’s parable takes unfairness to a whole other dimension, where the stakes are much higher…
It begins in the marketplace, at the break of day, when a landowner hires some laborers to work in his vineyard. They agree to work for the standard daily wage: one denarius. And while they’re off in the vineyard toiling in the heat, the landowner keeps going out and hiring more workers—at 9:00 a.m., at noon, at 3:00 p.m., and even at 5:00 p.m.
At the end of the workday, the landowner pays his most recent hires one denarius. The first hires are quick to cry foul when they are paid no more than those who worked just one hour. But this isn’t the only instance of unfairness in this situation.
It’s unfair that, for all human history, the supply of workers has always exceeded the number of employers looking to hire. It’s unfair that so many hard workers would’ve been left behind, because of their physical size or age.
It’s unfair that the daily wage was barely enough for a laborer to feed his family for even one day. It’s unfair that the rich got richer off the sweat of their brow and the ache of their back. It’s unfair that there was no upward mobility in this economic system. Those who work the land will never own land. The system is rigged against them.
There is only one way in which all the day laborers were equal: they were all at the mercy of the landowners for their work, their wages, and their survival.
While we see so much unfairness in this parable, there is a different kind of unfairness at work here: the unfairness we call grace.
The landowner paid his workers not based on what they deserved but what they needed. The landowner wanted the workers and their families to be fed, even though they hadn’t put in a full day’s work.
Fact is, we live in an unfair world—and though it pains me to say it, God can be unfair. Good things happen to bad people; bad things happen to good people. God’s unfairness is painfully on display in children’s hospitals; nursing homes; orphanages; prisons; war zones; or the lands and peoples ravaged by hurricanes and earthquakes over the last month.
Worse yet, we who were created by God are extremely unfair to each other. All of our society’s battles over immigration, affirmative action, healthcare, education, are all fought over competing ideals of what is truly fair. Like the laborers in the vineyard, we are quick to cry foul when the less fortunate are treated in accordance with what they need rather than what we think they deserve.
This parable is a picture of how God works—and what God’s kingdom is like. Rest assured, God’s ways are not our ways. God may not be fair, but God is gracious.
If God operated by our human standards of fairness, we’d all be in trouble! All we could count on from God would be punishment!
Today, Jesus is inviting you into a new reality that operates on generosity, rather than greed, ambition, scarcity, and competition. There will always be unfairness. People are going to get what they don’t deserve and be denied of what they do. But you will not have peace in your life if you’re constantly fighting for what’s fair and unfair by you. Everything changes when you stop fighting for fairness, and start trusting in God’s grace. You will have peace and hope as you see God’s grace happening in the world, and practice grace in your own life.
This begins with a question: has God been unfairly gracious to you?
I ask because these are your opportunities to do what the landowner does and practice grace. God’s salvation comes in even the simplest acts of grace and generosity to someone in need. God’s justice happens when one person’s generosity raises up the disadvantaged other. When you choose grace over fairness, life is better for all!
On the other hand, when God seems unfair—or God seems harshly fair because it feels like you’re being punished for doing wrong—remember the cross. Jesus’ cross is the greatest unfairness in the history of the world. But out of that unfairness comes your forgiveness and the redemption of the world. The cross is the assurance that Jesus is present in your situation, that he knows your need, and that his grace will be sufficient.
Regardless of who you are or what you’re going through right now, we all arise in the morning and wait for the graciousness of God. Some will wait longer than others; some will appear to have an unfair advantage. But when it seems like all hope is lost, God’s will grace will happen and you will be saved. God will leave no one behind, but welcome all into the life of the kingdom.