My kids like to eat cereal for breakfast. No real surprise there and as far as they are concerned the more sugar the better. However, they like to eat their cereal dry with a glass of milk on the side. Now my boys are a little competitive and nothing makes me chuckle more than hearing one of them complain that their brother got the blue bowl and they have the green bowl. It’s as if the colour of the bowl changed the flavour of the cereal.
Well the other day they both asked for cereal for breakfast. So I grabbed two bowls from the cupboard and proceeded to fill them up. I place the bowls of cereal in front of them along with a glass of milk. As I turned and walked away Logan said to me, “Dad, Ethan got more cereal than me!”
His complaint seeming to be that it was unfair that his brother received more cereal than he did. Imagine the injustice!
I picked up the box of cereal, gave it a shake and assured Logan that there was more cereal should he require it.
Two World Visions – Audio Sermon
Barbara Brown Taylor describes the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard like the cod liver oil that mothers used to give to their kids. You know it’s good for you, you trust the person giving it to you, but it is still a bitter pill to swallow.
By the time we are three or four years old most of us have developed a sense of what is fair and what is unfair. What is right and what is wrong. As we move through life we want our fair share. We want what we believe we are due. We see others who are successful and we say what about me? When is it going to be my turn?
The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard bothers us. It disturbs our notions of justice and fairness. We look at those who were hired last and we ask why were they paid the same as the others? Shouldn’t each person be paid according to the actual work that they did? I know that if I was working picking grapes all day I would be a little upset that someone who only did an hour of work got paid the same as me. It wouldn’t be fair.
Perhaps you feel the same as me. Hands up if when you read this parable you don’t feel just a little uneasy? That a part of you just doesn’t scream at the injustice of it all.
When I read this parable I sometimes say to Jesus, Lord this just doesn’t make sense! There is a part of me that sees the unfairness of it all and just gets frustrated. A part of me that asks, Lord when will it be my turn? When do I get to get aheard?
A fair question perhaps, but also a very dangerous one.
There is a brand of Christianity that says if you give to God that God will reward you and make you successful. It’s a very appealing message that is also very damaging and has no support in scripture. Do I believe that God wants the best for you and for me? Yes, but God is not just concerned with you and me. God is concerned with everybody. Regrettably, in Western Society we have dangers and perhaps even gross expectations of what it means to be successful.
These notions of success feed into our understanding of fairness and justice. They are reinforced by the individualistic aspects of the culture we are a part of; a culture that looks to the individual first and then looks to everyone else.
Let’s take a deeper look at this parable and discover what is going on. First we should not that Jesus sets us up right at the beginning, this is a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. That should tell us immediately that this parable is going to make us uncomfortable and it is going to challenge our beliefs about the existing world order.
The owner of the vineyard goes out to the marketplace and hires some day labourers. He offers a silver piece or a denarius for a day’s work. Now a denarius would have been enough for one person to live on, it would not have provided enough for a whole family. These day labourers highlight the aspect of daily bread that we pray for in the Lord’s prayer. Literally the amount of money they were being offered for their work was enough for their daily bread.
So these workers head off to work. The owner of the Vineyard goes back to the marketplace at nine, noon and three o’clock and each time he finds more worker who agree to go and work. Again and again the owner goes back to the marketplace. The owner offers to pay them what is right, he does not offer to pay them a denarius or a silver coin. Instead we read that he offers what is right, a fair wage.
Finally, at the end of the day the owner goes back to the marketplace and finds still more workers. When the owner inquires why they are standing around idly they reply that no one hired them. Go and work in my vineyard the owner says. So they go. With this final group there is no mention of money or payment. These workers are simply happy for the work and go, perhaps eager to be doing something other than standing around.
At the end of the day the owner sets out to pay those who have worked for him. He begins by paying those who started at five o’clock. He pays them a denarius and then proceeds to pay everyone the same wage. Those who began work early in the morning are shocked, upset and call out at the unfairness of it all. Why did we earn the same as them? Didn’t we work all day?
To which the owner responds did you not agree to work for that wage?
Who are you to tell me what to do with my money?
Are you envious of my generosity?
This is the point where the parable breaks down for us. Our Protestant work ethic tells us that things just aren’t right. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that we do not like this parable. We disagree with what Jesus is saying. It really does not make much sense. And that of course is the point.
We hear Jesus say one thing and we miss the other things he is saying. Of course we aren’t the only ones. Just think about how many parables being with the words the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Jesus it seems was trying to get the point across. To the disciples, early Christians and to us.
When we look at ourselves as Christians, as members of the congregation we often assess our worth by the work we do. We sometimes compare ourselves to others, wondering how we could do more or why others do so little. We want to be good disciples and so we pressure ourselves to do more, to try harder. It is almost as if we are trying to earn our way into heaven.
Now I should preface things here. Don’t stop serving the Lord. Don’t stop being involved in the work and the mission of the church. That is not what I am saying. What I am saying is stop comparing yourself to everyone else.
The truth is we dislike this parable because we are turned off by the unfairness of it. How those who came last get equal treatment to those who came first. We are upset by this because for some reason when we read this parable we associate ourselves with that first batch of workers who were hired in the morning.
When I read this parable that’s what I do and I will tell you that this self-identification that I make when I read this parable does not occur until we get to the end and the owner of the vineyard pays the workers. That’s what I make my identification and say hey that’s not fair! The question we need to ask ourselves is what makes us see ourselves as the first? Why do I self-identify that way?
Of course what is the landowner’s response to our sense of unfairness? Well the landowner says tough!
The landowner says tough because we are not talking about the value system of the world, we are talking about the value system of the Kingdom of Heaven. What is startling is that through two thousand years of Christendom the value system of the world has held. If we are here to work for the Kingdom, to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven why do we still hold to our own innate judgments on fairness?
Why do we oppose God’s justice and stick to our justice systems?
We look for equity and God provides generosity!
This parable is intended to shatter our perceptions of fairness, it is not told to enforce our own attitudes about right and wrong. Rather it is intended to demonstrate the grace of God which will be fulfilled with the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is talking about a new world order. A radical revision of our priorities and it seems to me that two thousand years later we are still trying to figure that out.
We need to let go of our individualism to recognize and realize that it is not all about us! Not you and not me.
There is a television commercial from Lays chips where one person is eating the bag of chips by themselves in the middle of nowhere. They say if I share with you I have to share with everyone. Guess what, God is that person with the bag of chips and God wants to share with everyone!
God’s grace is abundant and God wants to share.
God wants everyone to experience the outpouring of grace that we receive through Jesus Christ.
Friends, God doesn’t make contracts with us. God made a covenant with us. A covenant that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God fulfills the promise found in that covenant which is grace abundant. Grace for all people, in all time and in all places. It doesn’t matter when they come to the table, God’s grace is there waiting for them.
The truth is we aren’t the special ones and when we get caught up on the issue of justice and fairness based on our own standards we miss the point. Friends, the point is that we need to stop figuring out who is first among us. Friends, we need to join God in the marketplace. Amen.
Text: Matthew 20: 1-16