As we will see from today’s reading, Jesus doesn’t care much about fairness or unfairness in the way we tend to think about it. Instead, he wants us to look at our own spiritual journey and our own relationship with God…and not to worry or to compare ourselves to others.
So he gives us this parable to ponder. (read the full version of Matthew 20:1-16 here)
...But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” - Matthew 20:1-16 -
It’s probably safe to say, Jesus isn’t that concerned about the ethics of business or labor management relations. He doesn’t seem to care who did what or who got to what place first. In fact, “the boss’s actions in this parable contradicts everything we know about employee motivation and fair compensation.” (Yancey)
But if you’ve been paying attention the last couple of weeks, you might recall me saying God’s economy doesn’t run like ours. For that we all should be grateful. This story makes it very clear that God isn’t fair. At least not like we define fairness.
Here we have the owner of a vineyard that needs to have its fruit harvested. So, he goes out and gathers the workers to do the job. Some clock in at sunrise. Others after the morning coffee break. And some come after lunch. It’s still not enough, so he goes out and hires more workers in the afternoon. And then a few more who start near quitting time.
Everyone seems happy and content to have been hired. No one grumbles about the work they’ve been employed to do. That is until payroll. Those who were first hired, the one’s who put in a full day’s work in the hot blazing sun, naturally complain when they learn their paycheck is the same as those who barely had time to break a sweat.
It’s easy for us to sympathize with their complaints, isn’t it? More than just basic mathematics, or incompetent bookkeeping, something in our gut says this is wrong. It’s not fair. We know in our heart that some things ought to be fair - like education and civil rights. But when it comes to money, or something we believe we’ve earned, well…that’s when things get a little more personal.
I have been told all my life if you want something you got to work for it. And that the harder you work, the greater the reward will be at the end. At the last ad agency, I was at, I worked three months straight to help keep the company afloat during a recession. I really believed that the sacrifices I made to my family for that job, would be well compensated if we succeeded. Which we did.
At the end of the year, we managed to keep the doors open. And with my help we even eked out a profit. That year I got an unexpected bonus. A $25 gift card to Best Buy. The same as everyone else; except for the few at the top whose jobs we had saved.
Yeah, it’s not fair. But sometimes that’s a good thing. That crappy bonus was a tipping point for me. First, it helped me realize that life is too short to burnout at work. No longer did I “live to work” but instead “worked to live.” I put my family first again, instead of someone’s profit margin.
Second, that crappy bonus led me into the vineyard where I found a new job…and a new salary. It didn’t take long for me to see that this heavenly kingdom doesn’t run on our economic standards of fair pay for fair work. It runs on God’s economy. And God’s definition of fairness.
God affirms our worth. And God alone guarantees our value. It has nothing to do with who we are or what we have done or can do. It’s based solely on who God is, and what God has done for us through Christ Jesus.
Through him, God became one like us so we could see, and feel, and experience God’s unconditional love in the flesh. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection remind us that God’s generosity is beyond our human capacity and logic.
It might not seem fair that each worker gets the same paycheck. But from God’s point of view, it’s not a matter of fairness or unfairness. It’s not even a matter of deserving or undeserving. It’s about God and what God chooses to do for us - despite all that we have done or left undone.
As Ken Kesselus puts it, “Jesus wants us to know that in the face of our limited, worldly understanding of what is fair and what is unfair, God works with a different reality, in a different direction, and by different standards.”
In this parable the boss isn’t breaking his agreement with his employees. He’s actually upholding it honestly and fairly. By paying everyone a full day’s wage we realize that God isn’t concerned about what we deserve; God gives us simply what we need.
In his great book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey reminds us that at the end of the day, “God dispenses gifts, not wages.”
Whether you’ve been faithful to God your whole life, or you’re new to the party, God loves you and welcomes you just the same. There are some Christians who might be thinking that’s not fair. You spent your time loving God, loving others, and serving both while other people were being sinful. Yeah, It’s not fair. That’s the point of this parable.
Imagine how those last workers felt when someone finally hired them. Imagine standing around all day not knowing if you will make any money for rent muchless food. I suspect they are paid first, because they are able to receive their wages with joy and gratitude – not with envy or pettiness.
When you’re the one on the receiving end of God’s generosity and goodness it’s easy to feel grateful. But shouldn’t we also feel the same when someone else finally comes joins us in the vineyard?
All that we have, all that we’ve been given in this space we call Anamesa, is a gift from God. And whatever God wants to give us will l always be more than we deserve. So yeah, it’s not fair. And thank God for that. Because we are recipients of that generosity too.
God is a lousy bookkeeper. Handing out envelopes stuffed full of infinite grace. Infinite love. Infinite forgiveness. Infinite life. It doesn’t matter who is first or who is last. It doesn’t matter where you were born, what language you speak, who you love or the color of your skin. Christ died for all. Which is our proof that God is faithful and generous to all, if only because there’s still more work to be done.
Five times the vineyard owner goes out to gather people. I imagine if he went out a sixth or a seventh time, the end of the story wouldn't change. But here’s the thing to remember: God leaves it up to us to come in and get our hands dirty.
This parable makes it abundantly clear that it’s not about who is worthy but who is willing.
Who’s willing to be the face of Christ for others to see their worth in God’s eyes?
Who is willing to be the hands of Christ so others can feel God’s mercy in the flesh?
Who is willing to be the heart of Christ, to love and forgive those who society says don’t deserve it?
Who is willing to go and do the work of this heavenly kingdom - planting and growing and harvesting the fruits of God’s glory until Christ comes again to give us our final paycheck?
We can’t calcolate God’s love on a timesheet. That gift isn’t a bonus reward based on merit, or the quality or quantity of one’s labor. It’s just it’s just something God gives freely to everyone who chooses to go into the vineyard. So, who here is willing to join me?
Adapted from original sermon Work To Be Done on September 1, 2019 (accessed on 09-21-2023).
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 92-97.
Gonzalez, Justo. Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes. (Nashville: Abington, 1996) pp. 62-63.
Yancy, Phillip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) pp. 61-63.
Kesselus, Ken. An Undeserved Gift. September 21, 2014 (accessed on 09-21-2023).
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”