Laborers in the Vineyard
(watch here: https://youtu.be/XqQscsaiUOQ)
[Jesus said,] 1‘For 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 market-place; 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.’
Our reading for this week reminds me of the one about a preacher who was making his rounds to his parishioners on a bicycle when he came upon a little boy trying to sell a lawn mower. “How much do you want for the mower?” asked the preacher. “I just want enough money to go out and buy me a bicycle,” said the little boy. After a moment of consideration, the preacher asked, “Will you take my bike in trade for it?” The little boy asked if he could try it out first, and after riding the bike around a little while said, “Mister, you’ve got yourself a deal.” The preacher took the mower and began to try to crank it. He pulled on the cord a few times with no response from the mower. The preacher called the little boy over and said, “I can’t get this mower to start.” The little boy said, “That’s because you have to cuss at it to get it started.” The preacher said, “I am a minister, and I cannot cuss. It has been so long since I have been saved that I do not even remember how to cuss.” The little boy looked at him happily and said, “Just keep pulling on that cord. It’ll come back to ya!”
Yes, even us preachers can feel the sting of life’s unfairness sometimes. Just because we try to live God-pleasing lives and share his love with those around us doesn’t mean we’re immune to life’s persistent and never-ending unfairness. Believe it or not, we’re humans too and we’re no less susceptible to being taken advantage of than everyone else. If anything, I think we as a whole are easy targets. I suppose it’s because we’re far too trusting and want to believe God’s justice is at work in all things. It is but, as the parable so wisely illustrates, God’s idea of what is fair is often quite different than what we think is fair. We hear Jesus’ parable and can’t help feeling outraged at the laborers working less of the day and receiving the same wage as the laborers who worked more. It’s just not fair that they should receive the same wage! The all-day laborers earned the wage, they deserve the wage! We, like the all-day laborers, want to complain and grumble over what we think is completely unfair. But the all-day laborers received what was promised them so they really had no reason to complain, did they? The landowner was true to his word and can do whatever he wants with his money, right? Do we have a right to grumble at all?
I suppose in this world we do for a couple reasons. First, the landowner’s actions cause us to question either his morality or his sanity. It’s not right that he paid the same wage to the laborers regardless of how much they worked. Those who work more should receive more, at least according to the fellow laborers. Mind you, this doesn’t consider working smarter of more efficiently, simply hours spent working. Because the landowner didn’t adhere to the basic understanding that more hours should equal greater wages, we struggle to gauge what he considers right and wrong. Maybe he’s incapable of understanding that more hours equals greater wages, or as illustrated by the parable, less hours equals less wages. Maybe he’s mentally incompetent and doesn’t deserve to be giving anyone wages. In either case, the rightness and/or competency of the landowner’s actions justify grumbling. The second reason we have a right to grumble is because of the potential effect it has on the laborers. Why would anyone want to work a whole day if they could simply wait it out and get hired late in the day for the same wage? That seems much more energy efficient, doesn’t it? Few laborers would expend the energy for all-day work if the wages were the same. Again another reason to justify grumbling.
Of course, these dynamics are what drive our world’s various economies. Capitalism, socialism, and communism all take into consideration the concept of work and what motivates people to work. But Jesus’ parable isn’t meant to teach us economic thought. No, Jesus was teaching us about heaven, where the forces don’t adhere to the same rules as this world. God is beyond the rules of this world…not above them or better than them but beyond them. He doesn’t operate within limitations: limited time, limited space, or limited resources. God and heaven exist outside of limitations. Like the landowner in the parable, God can do whatever He wants with what He has. Everything is his anyways but for the sake of discussion it is important to note that God is without limitations. And because of this his idea of fairness is less subjective and more objective. In fact, God is more concerned with justice than with fairness. Fairness is far too subjective. What I consider to be fair may be greatly different than what you consider fair. We all have unique understandings of what’s fair which makes it difficult to use fairness in decision making. Just because the all-day laborers put in more hours doesn’t necessarily mean they deserve greater wages. Some would argue that smarter, more efficient laborers should receive greater wages. So which is more fair? Yes, fairness is entirely subjective and God is beyond mere subjectivity. God is truth and justice, a delicate balance of subjectivity and objectivity. God’s way is the right way, the just way. Deuteronomy says God is “the Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he.” (32:4)
Because our God is without limitations, He can give generously and however He likes. He’s not amoral or insane as might suspect of the landowner in Jesus’ parable. No, He’s super moral and super sane. He’s incapable of doing wrong so He’s beyond morals. He’s never unaware of all realities so He’s beyond sanity. Our God is beyond fairness. As David sang in his psalms, “He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.” (33:5) Our God is pure righteousness, pure justice, pure love. We mustn’t try to understand his deeds in terms of fairness. His love and grace is for all and He never runs out. The prophet Isaiah writes, “therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait on him.” (30:18)
We have a right to grumble…in this world. And understandably so! This world is unfair! But heaven is not like this world. Heaven is without limitations just as God is without limitations. We give thanks that God is more concerned with justice and righteousness than with fairness. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “for God shows no partiality.” (2:11) Our God is a good and just God and his kingdom is an amazing gift. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.