This is one of those parables which dis-quietens many of us. (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 17  Matthew 20:1-16.) We know God is generous but there is something that disturbs our sense of justice and social order - especially to our western eyes. We need to be honest about what seems unfair as our starting place and then maybe we can locate that part of ourselves that desires to be as generous with the least as with the faithful long suffering workers. And maybe we will realise that if everyone does not get their needs met then it is not a celebratory pay day for any of us. God’s gracious economy is not about scarcity and figuring reward and punishment. It is ridiculously generous, loving beyond all human notions of what is fair. Thank God.
If you came from a reasonable size family then you know that this is just not fair! Or if you have ever had anything to do with industrial relations you know that this isn’t just. How come those who clock on at the last moment and who only do an hours work get as much as those who worked a whole long day in the heat?! This is a parable that raises more questions than it answers at first (and second) read.
So is this parable simply pointing to pre-existing inequities in the human family or to something deeper and more radical? Well, probably both. In biblical times, and even today in many places, the poorest of the workers would wait around the market place hoping to be hired for the day. Whilst they did similar work to servants in many cases they did not have the security of income or housing and so they were poorer. As to who got employed on a given day it was probably due to a combination of reputation, appearance of strength and enthusiasm, and willingness to accept the wages of the day. Not too much has changed! In this respect the parable pointed to an existing social inequity within the family of God’s people. For this group, the most vulnerable, this was a parable that told of God’s exceeding generosity and faithfulness for God is portrayed as a land owner who pays the living wage to all regardless of their contribution. In a community where the poor received the gleanings, the spilt seed, from the field it was indeed a generous image of God’s generosity and a radical reworking of the hierarchical understanding of peoples value. Even the least of the least should receive the necessities of life.
So is this some prefiguring of a socialist state of being? I don’t think that is what Jesus was getting at although clearly there is a strong message of what we would now call a preference for the poor or social justice. Jesus was suggesting something even more radical. Jesus probably had the Pharisees in mind when he spoke of those muttering against the owner for having been so generous to the newcomers. The religiously righteous among the chosen people of God were being portrayed as receiving no more than those who had arrived late on the scene and were “last” by human standards. And Matthew is retelling it with the leadership within his community in mind. Inclusion and equity sound wonderful until you have privilege and position to lose.
If we are welcoming in the kingdom of God or heaven on earth then we are proclaiming not only a God who is exceedingly gracious and generous to us and people like us but also to everyone including those we may think do not deserve payment as much as we or others do! If we are committing to kingdom values then we are putting to one side, to death even, our deeply ingrained ideas of worth and value! As some wise ones have said, if we pray “Your kingdom come” we are also praying “My kingdom go”. No wonder this disturbs us!
So how do we hear this parable, in the 21st century, in comfortable familiar Australia or where ever you live? Well, if you are like me, then you can probably identify with the different roles at different times. There are times in life, and places within me, which know that I am among the least, the recently arrived who has not been able to contribute as much as I wish I had and yet who gets to sit down and eat with my betters. This part of me feels variously humble, grateful, amazed, delighted. It is good to be in this place, to acknowledge that God is more generous than we deserve, that God’s love and providence in not earnt but given.
And as I confessed at the beginning I am deeply in touch with the unfairness of this parable. I have at times been well and truly in the role of those who thought that they had done more than their fellow workers and therefore that they deserved more! I imagine many in the church feel this way sometimes: we spend thousands of hours in prayer and at busy bees, we put thousands of dollars in the plate and yet more cheques in the mail to all sorts of charities – and are we to only get the same amount of grace, thanks, praise, heaven, “payment” as those who turned up at the last hour, who finally get around to praying with their last breath? Where is our just God in this?
Clearly human conceptions of justice and divine graciousness are two different ways of seeing things. Human justice focuses on rights and responsibilities, on deserving and non deserving, on needs versus wants. God’s grace is always undeserved love in one sense, for we can never “deserve” God’s love. God loves us, gives us our payment at the end of the day, not because we worked so many hours or did so many good deeds, but because it is the nature of God to love for God is Love.
So where is our motivation to turn up to the vineyard and work the length of the day? Why not casually saunter in at the last hour? The only reason that makes sense to me is not a moral one but the selfish reason that we get the benefit of being in God’s presence the whole day, of being with the one who gives our life meaning and purpose and joy for the all of our lives, not just at the end. Having lost my mother twenty years ago I am aware that, as the eldest, through no merit on my part, I had 2 to 5 years more of her dear company than my siblings. Do I regret that I did more things for her, bought more presents for her, because I was around? Of course not. If I had my time over I would do more not less. As I’m sure we would each wish as we recall our loved ones. To be in the service of the God we love is a blessing and not a chore although there are chore like tasks. We who are the long term faithful are not short changed for we have had the blessing of knowing God’s love all these years. And when the end of the day comes God’s love will be there waiting for us. Will it be any less just because others are also loved? Of course not for God’s love is not finite, it is boundless.
Maybe, even if just for a moment, we can feel ourselves in the role of the landowner and find a desire to keep on going back to market place and looking for more who are in need. Maybe we can locate that part of ourselves that desires to be as generous with the least as with the faithful long suffering workers. And maybe we will realise that if everyone does not get their needs met then it is not a celebratory pay day for any of us. God’s gracious economy is not about scarcity and figuring reward and punishment. It is ridiculously generous, loving beyond all human notions of what is fair. Thank God.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come disturb us with your grace.