Pentecost 16 – September 20, 2020 – Just Peace Sunday
Does this parable seem strange to anyone else? I know, most of us have been conditioned to accept all of Jesus’ teachings at face value, or at the very least, to incorporate them into our consciousness after deeper consideration, but this one might challenge that way of thinking. It’s just strange. It doesn’t sound like “Jesus the champion of justice” to which we’ve become accustomed. It just doesn’t seem fair. Shouldn’t the guys that worked all day get more pay than the ones who worked for only one hour? What’s going on here?
I remember being very confused and disturbed by this parable the first time I heard it. And it turns out I wasn’t alone. In a Bible Study that a friend and I were leading about 20 years ago, we asked the group to let us know what passages of scripture challenged them the most, and then we would prepare a study-session those passages. Remarkably, out of the ten or twelve responses we got, three of them asked about on this parable. And to a person, they chose this one because it seemed, “so unfair.” And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge of this parable. Fairness.
It seems to me, however, that the challenge that this passage presents exposes something about the culture in which we live. I think we may be suffering from an over-developed sense fairness. What does that mean? Well, as a people, we tend to define fairness in terms of merit. In other words, we decide if something is fair or unfair based upon whether a group or an individual deserves what they received.
Here’s what I mean. There was a meme on Facebook sometime back that really illustrated this well. The first frame showed two people, one tall and one short, standing by a fence. The tall one could see over and the short one could not. The second frame was labeled “Fairness” and each person was standing on a box. The tall person could still see over the fence, but it still wasn’t high enough for the short person. The final frame was labeled “Justice” In this scene the tall person had no box and the short person stood on both boxes and, like the tall person, could now see over the fence. The point here is that fairness isn’t always just and that justice cannot always be accomplished through fairness.
Another example. Little Johnny runs to his mother and says, “Timmy hit me in the arm,” to which she responds, “what’d you do to deserve it?” This is an example of a response based on fairness. Timmy wouldn’t have punched Johnny without a good reason, right. The flip side of that coin, however, is justice. The mother’s response if it came from a place of justice might go something like, “Timmy, don’t hit your brother, hitting is wrong.” And please don’t misunderstand me here, it’s not that fairness isn’t a good thing, sometimes, but fairness and justice are not the same thing. We think we sometimes confuse the two.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus shared a parable about a vineyard owner who paid his workers on the principle of justice rather than on one based upon merit. Theologically speaking, this story illustrates what Matthew called “the Kingdom of Heaven.” Now, a grandiose phrase like Kingdom of Heaven might lead us to think that about some otherworldly realm, but that’s simply not the case. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a place, rather it’s a way of living, in this world, in the here and now. It’s a way of living that puts God’s justice and peace and liberation for all people into practice. It’s finally the goal toward which everything in Scripture is moving. It’s the hope that continues to inspire our faith as we seek to live as the people of God.[i]
Having said that, however, I think we need to circle back around to my first thought on this passage and consider the cultural “strangeness” of seeking such an existence as it relates to fairness. I mean, the vineyard owner in today’s text realized that his first hiring of day-laborers wasn’t going to be enough, so he hired more people to harvest grapes a various times during the day. So far so good. But when it came time to pay them, this is where things got a little strange. The vineyard owner paid all of them the same wage! Those who worked only 1 hour get a full day’s wage, just like those who put in the full 12 hours! [ii]
And again, this makes no sense if we only view life from a perspective of fairness. But if we were to expand our perspective to include justice, then the meaning of this passage begins to emerge. The story of the workers in the vineyard insists that the kingdom God envisions is a realm in which God’s justice and peace and liberation is for all people and, here’s the key, we cannot earn it. God’s grace isn’t based on a merit system. Grace is a free gift offered to everyone. Whether we’ve been at this faith thing for a long time or we’re just getting started, God’s grace is a gift. We don’t have to be better in order to ensure that God loves us, because God loves us completely already. It’s like Desmond Tutu said, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more” and “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”[iii]
My friends, God loves us. And we are all invited to express our gratitude for that love though acts of lovingkindness, through caring about others and creation, and by sharing hope, the hope that this kingdom, that God’s Realm here on earth, may someday become a just place for all. May it be so. Amen & amen.
[i] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 97-99.
[iii] Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, 32