Grace and Gratitude

Matthew 20: 1-16

Do you remember your first job? How it felt to earn your own money? What that first work experience taught you?

My first job came when I answered an ad. I was 9 years old and saw this ad in a magazine that said you could make money selling seeds. I filled out the form and mailed it off. It never occurred to me to let my parents know, so my mother was surprised when a big box addressed to me was delivered to our house – C.O.D..

When I came home from school, my mother told me about the delivery and then explained in a very deliberate way – just exactly what the letters, C.O.D., stood for. She told me how much she had paid for the box of seeds and what I owed her. I guess this was my first investment venture. And like a few others I’ve made since, I really should have found out more about what I was getting into. But now it was up to me to earn back the cost of the seeds and hopefully produce a favorable return.

When I opened the box, there was a sheet of paper on top that gave information about the different seeds and some suggested sales tips. I put a bunch of the packets into a bag and began to knock on the doors of our neighbors. Many were kind and bought some seeds. I had sold about half my inventory when at the next house I went up to, a man took a look at all the many packets I was carrying around and advised me to change my sales approach. He said I should carry no more than 10 seed packets in my bag, so that when I went up to a house, I could say I was close to selling out and, “would they like to buy my remaining seeds?” I’m embarrassed to say that I did what he suggested and proceeded to sell my “remaining” seeds a number of times over.

On this Labor Day weekend, which has its original roots in the labor movement at the beginning of the 20th century, we acknowledge that working is one thing we all have in common – from the variety of summer jobs we did while going to school, to the first job that started us out on the vocational ladder, to the work we spent years at until we retired.

Sometimes the work we do seems to have chosen us more than our choosing it. Other times the work we do is not at all what we expected to be doing when we started out. Sometimes the work we do is fulfilling. Other times the work we do is more a matter of circumstance and necessity.

In part that is what’s in the background of the parable Jesus told about the Laborers in the Vineyard. It is a disarming story about some day laborers and a rather eccentric landowner who hires them to help with his grape harvest.

In Palestine, the grapes ripen in September about this time of the year. The ripening, so I understand, comes quickly and the grapes have to be harvested before the rains come. The process becomes a race against time and weather when the harvest is ready and extra hands are needed to pick the grapes. Traditionally in the first century, there was a corner in the town square that functioned as a sort of informal unemployment bureau. (Still today there are such corners in certain areas of Chicago.)

The landowner in Jesus’ story begins by going to the square early in the morning at 6:00 o’clock to hire some men. He offers these workers the usual daily wage, and off they go to pick the grapes in his field. At 9:00 o’clock, the owner returns to the square and hires another group of workers, promising them he will pay “whatever is right.” Then again at noon and again at 3:00 o’clock, the landowner hires more workers. Finally, only one hour before sunset, he returns to the square and hires the few stragglers who were still standing around.

None of this is too unusual in the hiring of seasonal workers. And it was familiar stuff to those hearing Jesus tell the story…until he got to the part about how the workers were paid.

The horn blows to end the work-day at 6:00 o’clock, and the landowner has the workers line up in the order of when they came to work — with the guys who arrived on the job at 5:00 at the back of the line, and the early birds who worked for a full 12 hours at the front of the line. Here is where the story takes an unexpected twist.

Beginning with the last ones at the back of the line, the landowner’s manager presses a full day’s wages into each of their hands. Looking at how much he has just given them, they gasp aloud in surprise. The others up the line strain to see why. When they realize that those who were last are holding a full day’s wages, a murmur of anticipation goes through the crowd. “If this landowner pays latecomers so much, how much more will we get?”

But before they can calculate what they might be paid, the manager puts their pay into their waiting palms. And, huh? It’s the very same amount?! The murmurs quickly turn to grumblings. After working through the heat of the day, sweating and bending and picking grapes, those up the line feel shortchanged. It’s clearly not fair. Fair means you get paid in proportion to your effort and contribution. If I had been one of those early birds at the front of the line, I’d have argued that it’s only fair that I get paid more, or that those latecomers get paid less…probably ignoring the fact that the landowner had paid those at the front of the line exactly what they had been promised, “the usual daily wage.”

But troubled by the inequity of the pay, I have to wonder if I would have paid attention to the owner’s response to the dissatisfied workers when he reminded them that it was his field and his money. “I choose to give to these latecomers the same as I give you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose to with what belongs to me. Or are you envious because I am way too generous?” Pay attention or not, that is the arresting question that this parable poses. “Or are you envious because I am way too generous?” And I believe that this question significantly changes the way we understand what this parable is meant to be about.

You see this is a parable about God’s grace. Normally it is titled the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, but it could more accurately be labeled as the parable of the Generous Employer. Because this story is as much about the nature of God as it is about our human nature. This parable is a strong reminder that God’s ways are not like our ways. We expect a God who will be fair according to the virtues of hard work that we learned from a young age, as an old TV commercial put it, “We do it the old fashioned way — we earn it.” But in this story, there is no correlation between effort given and payment received. So it is true, as the “Generous Employer,” God is not exactly fair. But looked at differently in terms of God’s love, God is actually more than fair to everyone…and that can be confounding.

In a short story she called, Revelation, Flannery O’Connor wrote about the indiscriminate generosity of God. Mrs. Ruby Turpin lives in a little southern town in the 50’s, a world she has very neatly divided into types and levels and classes of people. She is white and middle class herself. At the opening of the story, Mrs. Turpin is in a doctor’s waiting room. As she sits and waits, she passes the time by mentally dividing the people in the room into her classifications: blacks — some, not all — are at the bottom of her scheme, then barely a level above come the white trash, then the homeowners, then the land-and-homeowners like herself, and at the top, above herself are the fine people with lots of money.

Her system of classifying people is grossly offensive, of course. But the honest reader of the story comes to recognize that each of us has some kind of classifying system like Mrs. Turpin. Ours may be more subtle and politically correct, but there is a shadow of Mrs. Turpin in the way we classify people.

Mrs. Turpin engages in conversation with some of the people in the waiting room, boasting about her clean pig-parlor, and thanking God for her sweet disposition while she deplores the ungrateful. “If it’s one thing I am,” she says, “it’s grateful…Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you.”

That does it. A this point a teenage girl named Mary Grace decides that she has had all she can take of Mrs. Turpin’s self-righteousness, and she throws a book at her. After this, Mrs. Turpin goes back home. Her revelation comes on the last page of the story.

Mrs. Turpin is fuming that somebody from a class of people a rung below her on the ladder has insulted her. She talks to herself indignantly while feeding her pigs. “It’s not trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone everyday working.”

Her rage finally burns itself into a strange vision, a mystical revelation on the evening horizon. O’Connor writes: “She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of (blacks) in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people, who like herself and (husband) Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.” She could see in her vision “that even their virtues were being burned away.”

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last,” said Jesus. We commonly mistake this to be an inversion of the conventional order of things. But in the context of Jesus’ parable it is really about how God gives everyone the same, the same grace and the same love, regardless. God blesses the responsible and hard workers who get up early and get the job done. God also blesses those who show up quite late in the day at the field. God blesses the whole mixed company of souls rumbling toward heaven. God’s grace is there for everyone in the same measure. And in this way, it a grace that is more than fair.

There are a good many things that you and I can work hard at and achieve in life. In the world we live and work in there is usually a correlation between my efforts, namely how many grapes I pick, and how things come out at the end of the day.

But there are some things you can’t earn. You can do nothing to deserve the gift of life. There is no way you can earn the love of God. It’s free and everybody gets an equal share. Life, the love of God, the family we are born into, raw good luck — so much that comes our way is simply gift. And so often it is bestowed as indiscriminately as the landowner who so generously gave everyone the same at the end of the day.

Now we can fret and worry about what’s fair, who’s deserving and who’s not. Or we can stop worrying about what someone else has and be thankful for those blessings in our life that are pure grace… meeting the person who becomes our life mate, having children, being in the right place at the right time for a job.

So much of what makes our life worthwhile is not precisely earned, as it is grace.

Frederick Buechner says “A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There is nothing you have to do…There is only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.” (Frederick Buechner, Listening To Your Life, page 289) God’s grace is life affirming, and so generous and so extravagant, it is truly amazing. Which is what brought John Newton to write Amazing Grace, the hymn that is universally loved. John Newton was the captain of an English slave ship. Deeply troubled by the slave trade of which he was a part; Newton began to read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, and gradually turned to Christ on discovering that nothing he had done could change God’s love for him. He became an Anglican priest and wrote the words of Amazing Grace to express his gratitude to God.

God loves us all the same. And whether we deserve it or not, we receive grace upon grace in our life. May we accept this amazing gift of love with gratitude.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.