May the meditations of my heart and the words of my mouth be acceptable unto you, my Lord and Redeemer. Amen.
This difficult parable attributed to Jesus only appears in Matthew. . . and there is probably a really good reason for this.
It addresses the greed of people who feel they deserve more than anyone else. Not a topic that most people want to hear about.
And it also turns the world’s commonly-accepted idea of fairness upside down – also, not a popular idea!
We live in a time of almost total uncontrolled capitalism.
- “Greed is good,” says the cutthroat bond trader, Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street. Greed isn’t such a bad thing, so Gecko’s philosophy goes. Just let it work itself out; at the end of the day, those who are deserving will be rewarded, and as for the lazy — well, they’ll just have to be content with the crumbs that fall off the table” – something that many feel is fair: he who works longer and harder should receive more.
The farmer in Jesus’ parable, however, is not like Gordon Gecko. He’s no shrewd operator, no pincher of pennies. He describes himself as ‘generous.’ He gives the extra money away not because he has to, but because he wants to! He is a good man, a good citizen, a caring person.
Now, the Healthcare Reform Bill of 2010 is an example of this principle; while the Affordable Care Act did not please everyone, it does cover everybody. It’s premise was:
- ‘If I want good and affordable healthcare for myself and my loved ones, then I should want good and affordable healthcare for every American. Share and share alike.’
Just like the farmer who wanted to benefit the community, in this case, the ACA is to benefit the entire nation.
But back to our parable. . .
The workday in Palestine started at 6 a.m. A vineyard owner needed help to harvest his crop, and the job needed to be completed quickly, for if the rains came while the crop was still on the vine, the grapes would be ruined. So the farmer when into town where day laborers were waiting of employment and hired a number of them. Later on in the day, the farmer underestimated the amount of work required to harvest; so he returned to the town and hired additional workers at 9 a.m., 12 noon, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. The farmer needed his grapes picked so he hired pickers; there was no discussion of the pay , just that he would
- pay whatever is right (Matthew 20:4)
Probably some of the later-hired workers had spent an anxious day, worrying about how they were going to feed their families. Those hired at 3 and 5 probably worried that they would earn so little for the short time they spent in the field that it would almost be a waste of time to go.
Yet the end of the day, the farmer instructs his manager to distribute the same amount of pay to each of the pickers, no matter whether they had worked twelve hours or three hours,
- beginning with the last and then going to the first. (Matthew 20:8)
What a joyful surprise for those hired late to discover that they would receive a full day’s pay and be able to meet their families’ needs, at least for that day.
But then the grumbling began. Those who had worked all day felt cheated; they had sweated in the heat for twelve hours! They believed their work was worth much more than those who had only worked for three hours. They grumbled and shouted:
- ‘It’s NOT FAIR!’
In fact, some of them left felt so cheated, they left without their pay!
And, according to our culture’s accepted ideas of fairness, they were right. But the farmer felt he had dealt fairly with each of the workers; he refused to take any steps to correct the inequality. . . in fact, he said:
- do you begrudge my generosity? (Matthew 20:15)
Now we all have heard about this parable in relation to money and greed; how some people feel they work harder and are smarter than others and deserve much more.
BUT, I suggest to you, the real message of the parable is about
- The kingdom of God. . .
And God’s Grace.
The kingdom of God is, of course, different from our lives on earth in so many ways. We may pray daily,
- ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10)
but it is unlikely that can truly happen for so many reasons. Although it is ‘right’ that we work every day to try and build that kingdom, we cannot. Because the kingdom of heaven is characterized by the generosity of God. Those who have been asked first to join the kingdom (and that, my friends, are you and me) are to join God in asking the last and the least ones – the sick, the poor, the ignorant or unaware, the women, the latecomers, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the disabled. We are not to compare their own worthiness or complain about inequality.
Grace is defined as ‘unmerited favor, unearned gift or blessing given, regardless of our worthiness’. It is God’s unconditional love that we don’t deserve, that adds strength to our daily lives, the provides forgiveness for our sins and shortcomings and gives us assurance of eternal life.
Life is not fair and, thank God, grace isn’t fair either!
The workers hired first were hired under particular conditions to which they agreed. The workers hired last were given grace. God’s ways are not ours because he gives so much more than we ever could or would. God’s grace does not conform to our standards but to His love and authority.
God has no reason to be gracious to us other than He is love and loves us. But we have no reason to expect, much less demand, for Him to be gracious except that He promised he would be. If we were to receive what we deserved, if we lived by our idea of fairness, most of us would be left out and ignored, humiliated and condemned by normal expectations. We would work and receive little; if we arrived late, we would receive nothing. But God does not treat us as we deserve. He gives us His unconditional love. He extends to us the grace to do something worthwhile with our lives. He voluntarily promises us life with him. So how can we whine or quarrel when He has given us, all of us, much more than is fair?
If we got what was fair, none of us would get to heaven. God doesn’t give us what is fair, but gives us his love and grace, in spite of what we deserve!
The test for us is what kind of people will we be? Will we picture ourselves as those who ‘deserve’ grace and favor, or will we picture ourselves as those who are blessed undeservingly? If we end up resenting the grace God gives to others, we miss the point of God’s grace. Why would we want others to have to wait for grace?
Grace isn’t about our worthiness; it’s about God’s love. Grace isn’t about our character; it’s about God’s character. We often think that the our lives have to do with our conduct, our deeds and our moral integrity. Yes, these are all important, but grace from God has NOTHING to do with our worthiness.
God’s grace is a free gift that is available to all of us. It is a free gift that we receive even though we don’t deserve it. It is about mercy, not fairness. And, it is for the least and last, as well as the first.
Thankfully, what we can all say is,
It is about grace.
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Worthington, OH on 21 September 2014