Grace is not Fair

by David Baer, March 1, 2015

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Text: Matthew 20:1-16

The parable we heard today takes place during the harvest. This is a time for hard work, but it’s also a time of abundance, when the returns of the agricultural season finally come due. Whatever else happens in the story, let’s keep that in mind. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like this situation. And it’s a situation that involves some misunderstandings and resentment and grumbling, but all these things are playing out across a backdrop of harvest-time abundance.

The man who goes out looking for laborers is an οἰκοδεσπότης, or literally house-master. He could be a “landowner,” as our translation says, or he could be someone the owner of the vineyard has put in charge of his affairs. But whatever the case, it is this man’s responsibility to make sure that the harvest comes in. The grape harvest takes a lot of work, and so there’s a need for day laborers to join in with the small number of servants that work in the vineyard full time. This is a feature of agricultural enterprise that continues to this day. There’s a gentleman by the name of Ernesto that’s come by the church on a few occasions as he made his way up to Plattsburgh for seasonal harvest work. Now, in Jesus’ time, the place that you found day laborers looking for work was the agora, the marketplace.

So the οἰκοδεσπότης goes to the marketplace as day is dawning, and he finds some men who are available to work. They don’t sign any kind of written contract, but they agree on the price of their labor for the day which is a fair basic wage. And then they get to work harvesting grapes.

What’s not clear is why the οἰκοδεσπότης goes back to the marketplace at 9 o’clock. The first time he went to the marketplace, we’re told that he went with a specific purpose in mind–to hire workers. This time we’re not told the reason for his return. Maybe he had some other business there. In any case, his decision to hire more workers, we’re told, comes from the fact that he saw them standing idle. They are capable people whose strength and skills aren’t being used. And it’s the sight of these workers in need of work that prompts the οἰκοδεσπότης to hire them, only this time he’s a bit fuzzy on the wage: “You also go into the vineyard,” he says, “and I will pay you whatever is right.” They don’t know exactly what they’re getting, these latecomers. All they have is a promise that they will be treated fairly. So they go. And the οἰκοδεσπότης returns and does the same at noon and at 3 o’clock. He even comes back at the last possible time, at 5 o’clock, which in the Greek text of the Bible is literally the “eleventh hour,” and finds some more men who haven’t been provided an opportunity to work. “Why aren’t you working?” he asks them. “Because no one hired us,” they say. “I can fix that!” he says. “Go work in my vineyard.” It’s becoming more and more clear that the οἰκοδεσπότης isn’t hiring out of a need for more workers—what possible value can he get from their labor in the last hour of the working day? He’s not hiring because he needs workers. He’s hiring because the workers need jobs. They don’t know what they’re going to get, and they’re late to the harvest, but they’re willing to give him their all for however many minutes are left, because working and earning something, whatever it might be, is better than not working.

Another puzzle is why the οἰκοδεσπότης pays the workers in reverse order. He could have spared himself of all the grumbling if only he had paid the full-day workers first. They would have received what they were promised, and then they would have cleared out of there before they had a chance to see what the latecomers got. It’s as though he wanted to cause offense. It’s as though he wanted to provoke resentment and complaints from the men he hired first. And what’s their biggest complaint? “You have made them equal to us,” they say. Our labor, our time, our sacrifices haven’t been recognized, haven’t been honored. They deserve compensation above and beyond whatever you might choose to pay these guys you dragged in here for one hour at the end of the day. They ought to count for something.

But that’s not how the οἰκοδεσπότης does business. “I haven’t wronged you,” he says. “I’ve honored our agreement. I paid you what I said I would. As for the others, the wages are mine to pay out however I like. Why should my generosity make you resentful? ‘You have made them equal to us,’ you say. Yes, yes I have. Because you are all equally in need of work and wages. You are all equally in need of what you can’t provide for yourself. You are all equally in need of what is in my power to give to you.”

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven can be compared to this story. He tells us that God’s new way that is breaking into the world is like this. For Jesus and his hearers, we can imagine the resentment that the attention and hospitality he lavished on “outsiders” provoked among the “insiders.” Jesus offered his time and encouragement and forgiveness and healing to tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and those possessed by unclean spirits. These were folks who had made mistakes. If they were suffering, it was a just punishment for something they had done. Shouldn’t the loyalty and hard work of God’s “insiders” count for something? Shouldn’t Jesus reward the people who kept the Law of Moses, who were Jews in good standing more highly than these Johnny-come-latelies?

What Jesus’ story does is to remind us that grace isn’t fair. The only reason any of those men had paying work that day was that the οἰκοδεσπότης found them and chose them. They only reason any of us has any part in what God is doing and receives any blessing from it is that God chose us. It is a very human thing to do to compare ourselves with those around us, and to tip the scales, too, so that we come out on top. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, we’ve all done it—looked at our colleagues, our neighbors, our siblings and found something better about ourselves, something that allows us to feel like we stand out. Maybe I don’t make as much money as my sister, but I’m always there for mom and dad. Maybe he comes up with so many good ideas for our team, but at least I always follow through on mine. Maybe those folks across the way have done a lot of great work on their yard, but we have a better relationship with our kids. Putting it out there in so many words is considered bad form for adults, but we find ways to get our friends to validate us, to make us feel that we’re at least as good if not better than our peers. And this is no less true in Jesus’ time. It’s very human to want to justify yourself.

But God doesn’t play that game. With respect to God, we all stand in need of grace. And church is at its best, church comes closest to showing what God’s kingdom actually looks like, when it embodies this reality. A few years ago when we were still doing the overflow shelter for homeless single adults here in Allendale, I spent the night at the Lutheran church with our guests and some other volunteers. One of the women who brought dinner for the guests got to talking with one of them, and they discovered that they were both in recovery from alcoholism. And so they spent quite a bit of time recounting their experiences and offering each other encouragement. They momentarily forgot that one of them was homeless and one of them was living in an affluent community. They were equal in their need for healing, and in their gratitude for the moment of grace that our community of churches’ hospitality provided to both of them. To me, that’s the kingdom. That’s church. We all come with our brokenness and need. And there’s healing to be found here if we can put away any claim to be better than anyone else and receive God’s grace together, grace that is distributed to us not according to our effort, not according to what we deserve, but according to our need.

So may you hear and answer the call to work in God’s vineyard. May you welcome and encourage those who work alongside you, whenever they arrive. And may you be grateful for the grace that binds up your neighbor’s wounds no less than yours, that satisfies your neighbor’s hunger no less than yours, that gives you a place in God’s kingdom together with—not over and above—everyone else who stands in need. Thanks be to God. Amen.