From the time that you and I begin to say our very first words, it doesn’t take long to learn one specific complete sentence. That’s not fair! And for many of us, that seemingly inborn sense of fairness leads – in our own ways – our efforts to pursue justice and help bring about the Kingdom. But it also leads to a tendency to be, let’s say, hyper-vigilant about what’s fair for others.
In the classic television special A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie’s younger sister, Sally, is dictating a letter to Santa Claus, which her brother is dutifully writing. Sally thoughtfully says that if the toys she wants are too much trouble, she would gladly accept cash. “Preferably tens and twenties,” she says.
When Charlie Brown objects, Sally counters with: “All I want is my fair share! All I want is what’s coming to me!”
Even though I am now much older than Sally, I still have to guard against the tendency to object when life appears to present me with evidence of injustice. Joel Osteen completed part of a semester of college. He seems to be doing really well in his pastoral ministry. And most of the time, I truly am glad for my brother in the Lord that he continues to reach so many hearts and minds. It’s just that some days, that private jet could really come in handy.
We are very sure that in life, hard work should be rewarded, education should pay off. People get ahead through hard work and diligence. We don’t like giveaways. At least not for other people.
The Rev. Scott Hoezee is the director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids. He points out that this thinking about fairness – and unfairness – is so prevalent in the atmosphere that it leaks into the church, making grace surprisingly hard to accept.
“We like it just fine that we have received grace, but it takes only the gentlest of nudges to make us [complain] a bit if we see grace active in the life of someone whom we think, frankly, doesn’t deserve it, hasn’t proven himself a worthy recipient,” Pastor Hoezee says.
“The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is Jesus’ in-your-face attempt not just to startle us with the scandal of grace but even to make us a little mad about it.”
The basic story is pretty simple. A vineyard owner is desperate to get his crop harvested. Time is of the essence and money is no object.
So at the crack of dawn he finds some eager folks lined up. Which in and of itself is important. Some people are so desperate to engage in any backbreaking labor they can find, to earn enough to feed the family for one day, that they are huddled in the Home Depot parking lot before sunrise. So the owner of the vineyard hires these eager laborers, promising them a denarius. That would be enough for the laborer to feed three people some cheap basic supper.
These people work literally from sun-up to sundown, a solid twelve hours of labor including right through the heat of the day. And yet. All day long – at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 5 p.m. – the owner keeps on hiring.
Jesus purposely lingers a bit over those last folks hired. These were not the ones who had been huddled in the Home Depot parking lot before dawn – or maybe they were. Maybe some of them had a reputation of some sort and were not anyone’s first choice. Maybe some of them had felt lazy that day, maybe they had slept late or had simply hung back, not quite ready to jump up and work on the first offer. Or the second, third, or fourth. Waiting to the tail end of the day, figuring that a very little hard work might not hurt and that maybe it was better that they go home at the end of the day with an hour’s worth of wages.
And here, “Jesus is setting us up. He makes sure that these one-hour pickers get paid first. Jesus’ fictional vineyard owner makes a point of ensuring that the people who worked the longest witnessed the fact that these lazy bums got paid one whole denarius each as well.
“Being fair-minded men with a firm sense of right and wrong and of what they had coming to them, they assumed that maybe as it turned out the going rate for this vineyard was one denarius per hour. And, oh, what a happy evening it would be in their households if they could come home with twelve denarii in their pocket!”
So let’s picture instead “these 12-hour workers the moment the master’s payroll man drops a single denarius into their sweaty palms. They stare at the coin in disbelief. One of them finally whispers, ‘Can you even believe this!?’
“The master overhears and so reminds them that he had cheated no one. This was the contract they agreed to at dawn that day. ‘And as for the rest,’ he goes on, ‘what’s that to you? You’re not out anything. I can do what I want with my own money.’”
And that’s grace – as Jesus points out with this parable. It turns everything on its head.
And we know this to be true. And we agree with it. At least on paper. The hard reality, though, is that most of the time, I’m more likely to put myself in the place of one of those laborers who has worked diligently all day. If I picture myself in this scene, it never seems to occur to me to be the one left out in the hot sun with no job and no prospects – even though I’ve been there at times in my life.
I’ve been in situations in which I’ve been jobless and hunting, and I’m sure that I felt it was through no fault of my own. I would have justified the choices and decisions I had made that had led me to be in this place where I was in need and struggling. And I’ve been in places in which I suspected that my gender or my skin color meant that someone else was hired when I was not. And I know how it feels.
Who among us has not? And yet.
When I hear this parable, I line up automatically with the first hired, the ones who would have jumped up and volunteered and labored for twelve hours and been more than ready for that denarius.
And I would have been among the first to look at the denarius in my hand – and the denarius in the hand of the person who just barely broke a sweat in the fading sunlight – and thought, or maybe even said, “That’s not fair.”
As Pastor Hoezee points out, “This story tells us that for grace to be grace, it needs to be the same grace, the same amount of grace, and the identical dispensing of grace to everyone.”
And that’s not fair. And that is what makes it God’s grace.
Barbara Brown Taylor imagines that in this parable, when the farmer improbably hands the one-hour pickers a whole day’s wage, there must have been hoots of laughter and some good-natured back-slapping going on among them. But on that great and final day when Christ shall come again and bring us to himself, we must pray that when we discover that eternally joyful fact, the great laughter and joyful back-slapping will be our very own. Amen.