“It’s not fair! How come we don’t get more?” That’s what those all-day laborers are saying in Jesus’ parable. And can you blame them? The land owner lets those lazy latecomers get away with murder! He suddenly decides to give them a whole day’s pay, ignoring the fact that we’ve sweated out here all day through the heat! It’s not fair! Have you ever felt like that when others got more than they deserved, and you got less? That’s how the parable gets our attention! Furthermore, Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like that landowner! And he ends with that cryptic little saying that he so often comes out with: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)
Now, Bible scholars tell us that when Jesus told a parable he meant to teach just a single lesson, to make one main point. We don’t always understand that; sometimes we get so bogged down in the details that the whole point of the parable eludes us. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is not about fair wages or labor agreements. It’s about God’s generosity! And God’s version of generosity is in a whole different league from our own. The parable is Jesus’ answer to a question Peter has been asking: what will the disciples get in return for making sacrifices and leaving everything behind to become followers of Jesus? And he answers, as he so often does, by telling a story, in this case about an eccentric land owner who pays those late-in-the-day laborers far more than is fair, in terms of how short a time they’ve worked.
Now, to whom are the disciples going to compare themselves? Jesus knows perfectly well that they will side with those all-day laborers who, at the end of the day, insist that they’re being cheated out of the extra pay they now think they should have received. And so the disciples are going to have to deal with Jesus’ clear statement that the Kingdom of God is just like that eccentric landowner in the story! They’re going to have to confront the fact that following Jesus means abandoning their quest for rewards. Giving up things to serve Christ will get them no reward at all in terms of the world’s values. They will see sinners receiving forgiveness, disreputable characters being given a fresh start, good things happening to people who have hurt others. There will be all sorts of temptations to say, “It’s not fair!” when they see these things happen. But that’s the way it’s going to be if you follow Jesus. So get used to it! Our God is an incredibly, unbelievably generous God!
Accepting that truth, looking at things that way, can be a huge adjustment! Think about poor Jonah in today’s Old Testament reading. He just couldn’t let go of his anger that God would take pity on those wicked Ninevites and send him to preach repentance to them. Even after being tossed off the ship on which he was fleeing, and being swallowed by a fish, and dumped back on land, and told to resume his mission—even then, Jonah was petulant and angry. He just couldn’t let go–and let God use him to make things alright again with the Ninevites. Do you ever have trouble letting go? Do you hold on to grudges and resentments when others seem to get away with things at your expense? Do you harbor a secret delight in “having something” on someone else?
Our generosity in dealing with others is being tested constantly on every level. Take the issues of fair play and integrity and equality that are swirling around us in every arena of life today. Justice, or the lack of it, remains the most vexing problem of international relations. So it is, as well, on the domestic scene. The blame game for all that’s unjust in our country goes on and on in this election season. Political attack ads inevitably cast the opponent in unflattering, and to some extent unfair, terms. Each party seizes every opportunity to “get something” on the other. The incredible mess on Wall Street invites all of us to do the same. Don’t you just love seeing those grossly overpaid CEOs of collapsing companies, with their mansions in Greenwich and Palm Beach and their luxurious condos on Park Avenue—seeing those CEOs finally being humbled themselves after allowing thousands of their employees to lose their jobs and their homes and their savings? Bring them down, Lord! Make them pay, Lord! That’s what Jonah would say!
But Jesus takes a different tack: He has the landowner say to the spokesman for those angry, sweaty, exhausted laborers, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you…are you envious because I am generous?” The generosity of God, shown so radically in Jesus’ parable, can indeed make us envious, and petulant, and resentful—and even angry. If only those late-in-the-day laborers hadn’t been treated so generously, the other laborers could have accepted the wage they were promised and gone home content. Undeserved generosity arouses their ire–and ours!
But undeserved generosity is what grace is all about! And we’re called to live by grace and not by rewards. We’re called to live radically—to be grateful beyond words for all God continues to do for us, and to delight in what God does for others. We refuse to harbor grudges and resentments that keep people separated from each other, and we constantly seek God’s reconciling love to bring people back together with each other. God calls us to see all relationships—indeed all life–in the perspective of grace—and to labor ceaselessly for peace and justice at every level. Recently at Hollywood Cemetery I came upon the headstone of the late Edward Meeks Gregory. All his friends used to call him “Pope”. Pope was a beloved priest of the Episcopal Church who lived his life radically—for others. I was moved, but not surprised, to see the epitaph on his stone: It reads, “Let Us Build Bridges.” It’s what Pope did.
And building bridges is what the Gospel of Christ is all about; it’s what we buy into when we claim the crucified Christ as our Savior. And when we throw in our lot with Christ to build bridges between people and nations, we know full well that many who are last will be first, and many who are first will be last. And in that we rejoice!