Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Laborers in the Vineyard
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When 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.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
As some of you already know, I have two daughters. They are about three years apart. When it is time for chores, my eldest has more to do than my youngest and I have more to do than she does, but all of us have to finish our work before we get to relax with a movie or take off on an adventure. Inevitably, I eventually hear, “That’s not fair, I have so much more to do than her! Why does she have it so easy” I remind her that when she was younger that she had less to do too, and if each of us does what we can then we all get to have fun when the work is over. At first glance, my little story appears to be similar to the lesson in today’s gospel reading. The division of chores in my house for the same reward kind of makes sense. The little one seems to have it the easiest, and the eldest, me, seems to have the hardest – the last shall be first and the first shall be last and all that, and at the end of the day we all get to go to the zoo! Sounds fair!
This parable is often interpreted this way–As a lesson about socioeconomic justice. Today, I want to caution us against interpreting it this way because I believe that when we do that we are attempting to make the kingdom of heaven make sense according to what is fair in this world instead of trying to make sense of the alternative world that God intended. Remember, it begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is like…This parable is about the kingdom of heaven. If it was about the world we already know, then the message might be easier to understand – it’s kind of like the lesson I taught my kids about their chores.
But parables are not meant to be easy. If it just a parable about socioeconomic justice, then it is about fairness related to what we earn for what we do…period. Unlike the story about my kids and their varying capacity for work, this parable doesn’t tell us what the quality of the work was or who did a good job etc. It just tells us know that they were all paid the same wage regardless of what time they were hired.
Too often we infer things about the kingdom of heaven according to how we think things ought to work. For this case, we might live under the illusion that the person who works the hardest and does the best job deserves the greatest pay. We know that this is not the way things really work in the world. Yet, we still claim that when that doesn’t happen the system is not “fair”!
But inequity is exactly what capitalism relies on. The people making the most money are not the people doing the most work or working the longest hours or even the best job. We know this. The people that make the most money are the ones that own the companies that employ the folks that do all of the labour. There is great injustice in our system, and it is ingrained in us.
According to statistics Canada, women make 87 cents to every dollar a man makes in this country, it’s not fair. And that is just one example: Migrant workers make significantly less, it’s not fair. International factory workers make almost nothing! – it’s not fair! When we read a parable like this one, we try to make sense of it through this very clouded contextual lens.
So, regardless of how kind and compassionate we aim to be, when we interpret the parable through the lens of what is fair then we risk remaining resentful and bitter to those to seem to have it easier than we do. That dream that that those that do the best job deserve the greatest pay is deeply ingrained in our psyche. What if this lesson isn’t about our world where we hope that what we earn depends on what we do? What if this lesson is about Grace?
And, God’s Grace is not earned. The kingdom of heaven is not a reward for a life well lived. That might be a hard pill to swallow if we only think in terms of what is fair in this life –I might subconsciously believe that “I work hard, I do good things… so I deserve this or that…” But, in that light – I don’t do good things for the sake of being good – I do them with the expectation that good will come to me. This isn’t even the way that earthly life really works either – If that was the case then nothing bad would ever happen to good people and we all know that that is not true.
That is how we want things to work, but they just don’t. Human life on earth is not “fair”, but I thank God that the kingdom of heaven is not about what you or I think is “fair”! How many parents have said to their kids, “you might as well learn now that life is not fair”? Life on earth is not fair.
God’s Grace, by its very definition has nothing to do with fairness. Think about it like this – what if acceptance into the kingdom of heaven was only for those who always lived a life committed to loving and serving God? What does that mean for those of us that turn to God later in life or feel that we are unworthy because of the things we’ve done until now? What about folks that don’t receive God into their hearts until they become sick or are near death? Does God deny them access to the kingdom of heaven? Does God deny them Grace? NO. God’s grace is unmerited and freely given because we are loved beyond a measure that we can ever hope to comprehend.
Thank God our worthiness is not determined by any human standard of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’ because if it is then nobody would ever be judged deserving of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus taught that in God there is no judgement. There is only unconditional love and mercy for all and all we have to do to receive it is accept God’s invitation.
I think this parable tells us that anyone that answers the call to “go into the vineyard” receives God’s Grace. That grace is not just reserved for those who show up early in the day or for those who work all their lives as good and faithful servants. God’s grace is freely given to anyone open to hearing and accepting the invitation to leave the life they’re living and follow the way of Jesus.
Jesus came to shake us up from seeing the world with our often-narrow view of what is fair and invites to see the world and ourselves as God does: God see us all as beloved, all as worthy, and all as deserving of love and acceptance. I believe that is how God’s kingdom will come and God’s Will willbe done, on earth as it is in heaven, like we pray so often.
In the end, this parable may not be about socioeconomic justice, but when we live in a way that we see every human being as being worthy of love and acceptance then we can no longer turn our backs when we see things in this world that demonstrate apathy and exclusion. The work of justice on earth flows from Grace. What would it mean to believe that the kingdom of God is possible now, that the Grace of God is here? In that, we might begin to realize that Christ is continually inviting us to go into this world to serve and love one another.
As you go from here today, ask yourself what it means to you to be invited to “go into the vineyard”? … Do you expect a reward at the end of all this living? Do you expect it because of all you have done? Or do you trust that God’s grace will be freely given? May you go from here trusting that you are worthy of God’s love and acceptance just as you are. When we trust in God’s unconditional love and acceptance, then we have learned to be that to one another.
May it be so… Amen.