The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2017
Families work hard to instill in their children a sense of fair play and equity that will guide them as adults. Children, in particular, have a very keen sense of justice that begins at home, is forged at the playground and shared by their peers. Even as adults we are given to vociferous protests of “it’s not fair,” when confronted with the inevitable vicissitudes of life.
As the mother of twins I am well aware of how important “fairness” can be to relationships. When our twins were born, the family was complete – one boy, one girl. Each child entered the world with a clear and uncompromising sense of fairness that would become central to their relationship. A very sensitive alarm would trip the instant there was the slightest indication of one child receiving more than the other. To keep things in balance, I counted out the number of grapes packed in each lunch box; I took care to honor each birthday and Christmas with equal numbers of presents and price tags; and even now, there are the same number of photographs of each on display around the house, lest someone’s nose get disjointed. In our house fairness was a way of life that kept the peace – that is, until the next time the alarm sounded.
We are taught, at home, in school, in life, that we get what we deserve. That if we follow the rules and work hard we will succeed – we will get the good grade, the promotion, or the recognition. We expect fairness and feel cheated when life fails to meet those expectations. Car taxes, electricity rates, O.J. on parole, health care, DACA, growing economic disparity – pick your peeve – but in the end we expect that God will balance the scales and justice will prevail. And yet we learn today, in a parable about workers in a vineyard, that God’s standards of fairness are not ours. And that is good news for us.
The parable concerns a vineyard owner who hires some laborers for the standard wage: one denarius for a full day’s work, enough to subsist for one day. At various times throughout the day he hires others to work fewer hours. At quitting time, the owner tells the manager to pay the workers in reverse order. Those at the front of the line, who had worked only one hour, were paid one denarius, the same as those at the end of the line who had worked the whole day. Realizing that some had received a full day’s pay for very little work, those at the end, in all fairness, expected more. After all, fair is fair! Something deep within us wants to scream in outrage and protest along with those weary, disgruntled workers, “It’s not fair!”
This is a parable about the kingdom of God, and God, it turns out, is not fair. He does not give us what we deserve, and for that we should be grateful. Imagine our distress if he did. Our work ethic supports the idea that somehow we do deserve all that we have, but we can become resentful of God’s generosity to others, especially if they are slackers. We tend to view generosity through a filter of accountability, calculation and reciprocity that belies its true meaning. By definition, generosity is not measurable, accountable or to be expected in return. The parable of the vineyard workers is not really about justice as much as it is about generosity, and every act of generosity is really an act of love.
Do we really want our relationships to be governed by justice? We tend to let justice rule our lives. We tally up every slight or injury that comes our way so we can be sure to repay in kind. We keep track of every disappointment in order to post the score at the end of the day and gather the appropriate apologies. We overlook the many kindnesses done on our behalf, but nurse a grudge about the one thing that hurt our feelings. It seems we are hard wired to count our hurts and disappointments rather than our blessings.
The workers felt cheated and wanted justice, and who can blame them? But the owner (God) has treated them not with justice but with love, and the two are not always compatible. Where justice counts, love loses track. Where justice calculates, love lets go. Where justice holds everything in the balance, love gives everything away, upsetting the equilibrium we have so carefully arranged. Jesus tells this story to put the example of the vineyard owner before us; to reveal to us something of the nature of God.
Keep in mind the staggering unemployment rate in ancient Israel. It is the owner (God) who keeps hiring and giving work to the needy; who instructs the manager to pay generously; who listens to the laborers heated protests and who at every possible opportunity, chooses love over justice. We know that God cares about justice. He cares about fairness in our economy and marketplaces, but in the economy of the kingdom, God goes way beyond fairness. There is nothing to be earned, there is only God’s love expressed through generosity. If you’ve been left behind, you move to the front of the line. Those who work in the fields of the kingdom do so not for recompense or reward, but to reveal the goodness and grace of their relationship with God.
Immediately following this parable, Jesus tells his disciples, for the third time, what lies ahead in Jerusalem – how he will be mocked and beaten and crucified and raised on the third day. There is no fairness or justice here. But it is not justice that saves, it is love. Where there is a choice between God’s righteous judgment on us, and the forgiveness and acceptance that can only come from love, God, in Jesus’ death and resurrection chooses love. Certainly Jesus did not deserve his cruel suffering and death, and we do not deserve the abundance of love and blessing that is the result of his sacrifice.
So often we associate justice with equality. We maintain that same tit-for-tat mentality that we’ve had since the playground; that same sense of entitlement that destroys relationships, obstructs government and perpetuates war; “an eye for an eye,” perhaps the most misinterpreted words in scripture. God cares deeply about justice. Throughout the Gospels Jesus calls us again and again to work for justice and peace, so that we all have a living wage, a roof over our heads, our daily bread, and some peace of mind.
But we are quick to blame the poor for being poor, and to justify our own economic comfort. Everything we receive is God’s gift to us and when we lose sight of that we begin to compare, contrast and covet. True love rejoices in the gifts God has given to others. We are not diminished because God is generous to the people next door.
Jesus is known for his shocking reversals of human expectations. Together they form an important theme of the New Testament. This parable completely shatters our sense of justice and even our hopes, but no matter how much we identify with those workers who felt shortchanged, or how often we hear the words, “It’s not fair,” the God we discover in Christ is the God of lavish, reckless generosity, who doesn’t keep score and who puts the last before the first.
As expected, my children have moved on from their childhood notions of justice. Twins need to be loved and appreciated as individuals, not treated like a team or a novelty act. Justice created space for their relationship, but it is love, generosity, and forgiveness that enable relationships to thrive. With different genders and 50% different DNA, with different personalities, schools, gifts and challenges, they have learned for themselves, well before 40 something, that life is not fair. But their relationship is no longer about competition. It’s about love and being there for each other, about celebrating their differences and the special bond that began with the intimacy of the womb. Justice, it seems, can stave off open conflict, but it is love that keeps a true and enduring peace.