The Unfairness of God – Rev. Amanda Wagner
September 21, 2014 (Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16
One of my favorite things to do on Saturday mornings in the summer is to go to yard sales. I’m not usually a morning person, but there’s just something about the possibility of going out and finding a real treasure that can get me up and going on a day when I would much rather be sleeping in. But on yard sale days, I’ll sometimes get up even earlier, just to sit and look through the classifieds to map out the perfect route around town.
There’s a phrase that is used quite often in yard sale ads: “No early birds.” This phrase, of course, comes from the saying, “The early bird catches the worm.” In yard sales that means, “if you don’t get there first, you’re going to miss out on all the good stuff.” For the non-yard sale minded, the saying loosely translates to: Whoever arrives first has the best chance of success.
Maybe Jesus never heard about the early bird, because his parable talks about a different kind of world. Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who hires laborers to work in his vineyard. The landowner goes out to the marketplace first thing in the morning to find some laborers to work in his vineyard. He gathers up all the laborers around, agrees to pay them a day’s wages for a day’s work, and then brings them back to the vineyard where they work all day.
Then at nine o’clock, the landowner goes back out to the marketplace, finds some more laborers who are looking for work, and he hires them. The landowner goes out at noon, again at three, and once more at five o’clock, each time finding more laborers in search of work. Each time, the landowner hires all the laborers he finds, and brings them back to the vineyard to work.
Everything goes along just fine that way until quitting time, when the landowner lines everyone up to receive their pay. He starts with the ones who were hired last, paying them each a day’s wage. Then he goes to the ones who were hired at three o’clock, paying them each a day’s wage, and so on, down the line until he gets to the ones he hired first.
We can imagine those who had been working since the early morning watching this all taking place, waiting for their pay, anticipating what a nice sum of money it will be, since they worked all day for their wages. Except when the landowner gets to them, they realize that they are given the same day’s wages as all the others.
Oh, the grumbling that must have taken place! “We worked all day long in this scorching heat, and yet you paid the ones who worked only an hour the exact same amount that you paid us! You have made them equal to us!” Their words imply that what the landowner did wasn’t fair. Yet the landowner reminds them that their agreement was a day’s work for a day’s wages, nothing more, nothing less.
The grumbling laborers sound a lot like the Israelites in the wilderness. After Moses led them out of Egypt, the Israelites wandered around for years, lost in the wilderness. They were looking for the Promised Land, but the longer they walked the more tired and cranky they became. Even though they had wanted to be free from the bonds of slavery, they were beginning to think that their life in Egypt was better than what they had in the desert. “At least in Egypt we knew we had something to eat,” they complained.
So God gave them manna to eat. Every day when they woke, there would be enough bread on the ground for everyone to go out and gather exactly what they needed, no more and no less. If they tried to keep more than they needed, the extra would get wormy. And so the Israelite people learned to rely on God quite literally for their daily bread.
It’s a message that we so easily forget. We pray it in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread,” but we don’t really live according to that request. Even though the laborers all received a day’s wages, or about the amount of money needed to buy their daily bread, the ones who worked the longest wanted to be given more: more than they needed and more than they had agreed to work for.
I wonder if things would have been different if the landowner had paid the laborers who worked all day first. Maybe then they would have just taken their money and gone home, and not worried about what the others were paid. You see, their problem wasn’t that they weren’t paid enough. Their problem was that the ones who didn’t work as long were paid the same amount. “You have made them equal to us,” they said.
This parable seems to be a very good reflection of our society today. We tend to view others as better or worse than us based on the size of their paycheck. And in a time when jobs sometimes difficult to come by, what does that say to our brothers and sisters who are unemployed and can’t find a job? Are they somehow less than those of us who are employed?
And what does it say about those of us who are employed? Are we better just because we have the ability and opportunity to work? That’s what our society wants us to believe. That what we earn is somehow a reflection of our value as human beings and members of society.
But this parable isn’t about the laborers at all. Jesus used this parable to talk about the kingdom of heaven. The parable is about a society with a very different value system than ours. All the way through the story, the landowner keeps going out to the marketplace to look for more workers. And each time he finds workers, the owner brings them all back, gives them work, and then pays them a living wage, giving them their daily bread for whatever work they were able to do.
The landowner keeps looking throughout the day, even up to the eleventh hour, because each person is important to the work of the vineyard, and the owner wants to make sure that all receive their daily bread.
This parable isn’t about who shows up when. It’s not providing an easy way out for people. Some have thought that this parable gives them an excuse to live how they want and then at the last minute they will give their deathbed confession and make things right with God.
And then there are those who have labored for God all their life, who don’t find it exactly fair that others might get off the hook so easily. But the truth of the matter is, even if we worked all day long, every day, we still wouldn’t be able to earn the grace of God.
Then again, this parable isn’t about us at all. It’s not about who is better or who deserves more. It’s about a God who cares enough to go out and find all who are seeking. It’s about a God who keeps looking, making sure that all are brought inside the vineyard walls, to come in and work not for what they deserve, but for what God wants to give them.
When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we can be assured that God wants to do just that. That God will keep trying, keep going to the town square until all the workers have been given a place in the vineyard, where they will all work not for what they deserve, but for exactly what they need. And for those who can’t work, God has a place for them too.
The kingdom of heaven is not like this world. It is a place where there is no hierarchy. Where no one is more or less important than another. Where nobody is worth more or less than anyone else. Where the early bird gets the worm and the late bird gets the worm, too. Like the manna in the wilderness, whatever we need will be provided. No more, no less.
It’s a place where we might be tempted, like the ones who worked all day, to say “But in giving them all of this, you have made them equal to us!” To which God will reply, “Exactly.”
Our God isn’t fair. The grace and love that God has poured out on each one of us isn’t fair. And thanks be to God for that! Amen.