Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105
Philippians 1:21-20; Matthew 20:1-16
Some of us here are old enough to remember when Jimmy Carter was president. Among the many things that Carter said that no one seemed to like was this comment about a woman on public assistance complaining that she was not getting something due her: “Life is not fair,” Carter said. The press went ballistic. Here was this Baptist, famous for being a born-again Christian, and he says to a poor woman, “Life is not fair.”
The Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, were convinced that life was not fair. Oh, they longed for the fleshpots of Egypt – captivity was better, thought some, than this wandering, lost and hungry, in the desert. They were beginning to doubt that Moses could come through on the promise from God, that he would lead these people to the Promised Land. If we had it bad before, we have it worse now; life is not fair.
So what does God do with these grumblers, these whiners who say life is not fair? God gives them bread – not just a fair portion of bread, but more bread than they can eat. More bread than they deserve. Manna from heaven. Bread upon bread upon bread; life is not fair.
That’s what Jesus is saying in this parable of the workers in the vineyard. Well, maybe he’s saying, Life is partly fair. The workers who labored all day get their full wages. That’s fair. The workers who only put in an hour get a full day’s wages, too. That’s not fair. Life is not fair, but sometimes you get more than you should.
There are a couple ways to look at this parable. The workers in the vineyard live on the bottom rung of the social ladder. Their daily wage was just enough to feed and shelter their families for one day. Jesus is not implying that the landowner is paying his workers extravagantly. He is, however, generous and merciful to all these poor workers, even those who have not put in a full day’s work. Even they will get enough to live on. In the kingdom of heaven, therefore, everyone will get enough. There are no distinctions based on how much you earn; everyone who hears the call to go to the vineyard gets what each deserves, which is, enough.
Now look at this parable in its original context. Many people – Jewish leaders, Pharisees – criticized Jesus for spending time and eating with disreputable sinners. Jesus is making a case for his behavior against the pious who condemned him. If God (the landowner) is merciful to the poor, then I am just doing what God would do. Are you envious because I – because God – is generous? You have enough to meet your needs; why should I not care about these poor?
Either way, we get to the same place. In the kingdom of heaven, a different economic system operates. There is always enough to go around. You can’t get ahead, not matter how hard you work or how skilled you are. Your degree or your skill or your work experience don’t matter; in the kingdom of heaven, life is not fair.
I find it hard to live by these far out kingdom of heaven rules. For several years now we have had a few little sayings, printed nicely, framed and posted around the house, in hopes of inspiring our children to more responsible behavior. “Boredom is a matter of choice, not circumstance.” And “Shirkers get paid what they are worth.” These moral messages did not sink in very deeply with my children, who continue to scatter candy wrappers around, not pick up their dirty dishes, slack off on their homework and expect me to fund their excursions to some place where they can have fun! It sounds like they think they’re already in the kingdom of heaven, and I don’t think they’ve earned it! Why, the next time they complain about being hungry, God might just drop down some manna from heaven, just when I was trying to teach them a lesson about duty and responsibility!
If the kingdom of heaven is not fair, it is just, at least as God defines justice. God’s justice is merciful, abundant, generous, with compassion especially for those who do not appear to deserve it. Those of us who have more than we need don’t always like to hear God’s version of who should get what and how much is “enough.”
On the other hand, perhaps the “work” that is needed in the vineyard of the Lord has nothing to do anyway with what we think is important. Perhaps we are not the good “do-bees” we think we are after all. Perhaps the work Jesus wants us to do mirrors his behavior – his compassion, his mercy, forgiveness. Perhaps those things we think are important just don’t matter to Jesus, and by those standards, we are the shirkers. We are those lazy workers who come in at the end of the day, the ones who really have not put in our time laboring in the fields of the Lord. If we look at it from that point of view, God is being very generous to us who have not done our part. God is not fair.
These parables of the kingdom turn the world upside down. They offer a counter-cultural standard to what our world says is important. Shirkers do get paid what they are worth, but in the kingdom, they are worth very much indeed.