The Generosity of God

Matthew 20:1

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for this vineyard.” (Matthew 20: 1)

“It’s not fair!” How many times have you heard that complaint from your children r grandchildren, niece or nephew or from the children in your neighborhood? Perhaps a million times! It seems to be the favorite mantra of all children. The online journal, Ars Technica, recently had an article on the development of the concept of fairness in children. The report said that, “At some point in life, most of us learn to cooperate with other people, developing a preference for fairness in these interactions. Many of us also become biased by favoring members of our own social group over others. Such social behaviors have been well documented, but their development was less understood until researchers examined egalitarianism and parochialism in young children. They published their findings regarding the experimental behavior of 229 children between the ages of 3 and 8 in a recent Nature article. Out of the 229 Swiss children, 127 were girls and 102 were boys. They participated in three experiments that tested their ability to allocate candy fairly with a partner. The scientists took note of the children’s age, birth order, and gender.

Age turned out to be a main factor in sharing with fairness. Only 8.7 percent of the children who were 3-4 years old shared; 22 percent of the children between 5 and 6 years of age shared; 45 percent of children at ages 7 or 8 shared. Children of all ages were more likely to share with partners from the same school. However, boys were more biased in favor of members from their social group. Having siblings was also important to sharing. The youngest child in the family was 17 percent less likely to share, while children without siblings were 28 percent more prone to sharing.

“Learning to interact with equality,” said the report,” is vital for the success of social groups, so it makes sense that this development occurs at a young age. Not many people enjoy dealing with free-riders or situations that are obviously unbalanced. Unfortunately, not everyone is averse of unfairness. Spitefulness was obvious in 14 percent of the children aged 7 or 8, which is similar to the percentage of spiteful adults observed in other experiments. They would not allow their partners to have candy even if it did not impact the amount of candy they would receive.” Most of us have to be taught to share and eventually we learn that sharing has its own reward. We are motivated to share not so much because we are born altruistic or generous but because we see that if we do it is more likely that others will share with us. Fairness, it seems, is something we have to learn and we bristle at situations that we believe are unfair. Someone posed the question, “How does your sense of fairness affect the way you live your life?” on, to which one person answered, “I get angry at the unfairness in the world but I believe everyone gets what’s coming to them, I have to otherwise I’d go insane.” This expresses how many of us probably feel. We want everyone to be repaid according to their actions.

“The concept of the carrot and the stick is basic to human relationships. From infancy we learn that if we behave well we will be rewarded, if badly, we will be punished. As we mature it becomes obvious to us that the rule does not always apply. Sometimes our good deeds are either ignored or badly repaid. Often our bad behavior eludes punishment,” writes Douglas Hare. So we tell our children that life isn’t fair, and hope they will stop whining and accept this reality and their disappointment at how things sometimes turn out.

When we read this parable that Jesus told his disciples we feel a bit of this same indignation. On the surface it appears to be quite shocking because it seems to be filled with great injustice and unfairness. Can’t we trust that God will be fair as we understand fairness? Is the kingdom of God and the grace of God really open to everyone – even those we judge to be unworthy – those who don’t walk their talk, those who wait until the last minute to ask God into their lives? Does God really give everybody the same size slice of the pie.

“A parable,” writes C.H. Dodd “is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” A parable is meant to make you think, stir up your prejudices and predispositions and challenge the way you interpret the world. Parables, according to Dodd are mundane in that they apply to ordinary personal and public life; extravagant in the way that they imply that our ways are not God’s ways and indirect in that they must be grasped in a shock of recognition as we apply them to our own lives.

This parable is no exception to the rule. It is most natural for us to read it from the point of view of the workers who are hired by the landowner. When I lived in New York I remember seeing groups of men standing around at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel waiting to be hired for the day. It wasn’t hard to imagine the tenuousness of their life as they waited, every day, to see if they would be hired and then paid enough so they could care for their families for another day. The day laborers in Jesus’ parable were no different. They were totally dependent every morning on somebody giving them employment. They would wait day after day in the center of town to see if landowners from all around would come and hire them to work in some vineyard for the day. If they had the luck of being picked at random for a job, they had the hope of making just enough money to allow a peasant family to hold body and soul together for a day.

The landowner in this story went into the marketplace throughout the day to hire workers for his vineyard. At the end of the day he pays everybody the same wage – those who had been hired close to the end of the day and those hired first thing in the morning. Craig Kocher comments, “Surprise and anger overcome exhaustion in the latter group. ‘What kind of business owner are you’ [they wondered.] ‘Don’t you know the basics of incentive and reward? We’ve kept this vineyard operating while you were in the marketplace. Not only do you pay us last but you pay us the same. We deserve better!’

“Every sophomore in Econ 101 knows that this is no way to make a buck,” continues Kocher. “This is bad business, fuzzy math and flat-out unfair. In the world we know, time plus effort equals production, and production equals pay. Those who are in the most demand, the hardest workers with the highest skills, deserve the first and greatest reward.”

But what might happen if we look at this story from the point of view of the landowner. He seems to be a business man who is interested in more than his profit margin, something greater than incentive and reward, something more beautiful than a well run business. He is more interested in giving to people according to their need rather than according to what they produce. So he keeps going into town to hire those whom no one else has hired. In the past when I have read this story I have always thought that the landowner kept going back to hire more people because he was anxious to get the work done by the end of the day. I assumed he was only interested in what the workers could do for him. But this time, reading through the parable again and again, I began to see it differently. I saw that the landlord was truly interested in the workers – they were his focus. He came back again and again because he didn’t want anyone to be left out, he wanted everyone to share in what he had. He wanted everyone to have enough.

Jesus sets up the telling of the parable with this phrase, “The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” This is not a parable about money. It is a story of God’s extravagant love for all of us. He loves us so much that he wants everyone in his fold. “The central message of all four canonical Gospels,” writes English theologian N.T. Wright, “is that the Creator God, Israel’s God, is at last reclaiming the whole world as his own, in and through Jesus of Nazareth. That, to offer a riskily broad generalization, is the message of the kingdom of God, which is Jesus’ answer to the question, ‘What would it look like if God were running this show?’ ” And at once, in the 21st century as in the first, we are precipitated into asking the vital question, Which God are we talking about, anyway? It is quite clear if one reads Christopher Hitchens or Friedrich Nietzsche that the image of ‘God running the world’ against which they are reacting is the image of a celestial tyrant imposing his will on an unwilling world and unwilling human beings, cramping their style, squashing their individuality and their very humanness, requiring them to conform to arbitrary and hurtful laws and threatening them with dire consequences if they resist.

“But the whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God—the God recognized in Jesus—who is radically different from them all, and whose unbreaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness.” This is the God we see in this parable. A generous God we see throughout the Bible.

What better Old Testament story shows to us the miraculous display of God’s generosity than the story of God’s provision of manna for the Israelites as they wandered in the desert after their escape from Egypt . Hungry and desperate, God provided quails and manna when the Israelites could find no food. “What is it?” they asked Moses. “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” “Gather as much of it as you need,” Moses instructed them. “The Israelites did so, some gathered more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over and those who gather little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.” (Exodus 16: 15 – 28) Walter Brueggemann comments that this story, “affirms Yahweh’s extravagant generosity, which gives abundantly beyond Israel’s need…. Yahweh is the God who performs in situations of hazardous scarcity in order to generate abundance.” (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 203.)

In this world where scarcity seems to be a threat on every side each of us experiences God’s generosity every day in the very lives we have been given. John Claypool, Episcopal priest, said in a sermon, “Bottomless generosity is the source out of which all creation comes, and because of generosity, the truth is none of us, if we look deeply into our lives, can claim that we have earned this existence of our own efforts. Each one of us was given life as a gift. If we will stay in touch with that primal grace that marks the beginning of all our lives then the truth is we have reasons to be grateful no matter what our particular circumstances.

“I can give you today a fail safe formula for how you can live your whole life with misery and that is to do what those favored workers who were hired first in the morning chose to do with their lives. If they had stayed in touch with the primal grace that had surrounded that event, if they had realized that before they woke up they could not have made work happen but it had been given to them, then they would have had reason to rejoice all day long. The problem was they shifted their focus from that primal grace and began the side-long glance of comparing. They look at what others had gotten instead of what they had received and when they began to compare, lo the side-long glance of envy turned the joy of the morning into curdled resentment at the end of the day.” “This parable,” writes Gracia Grindal, “indicates clearly that God intends to be gracious to us all, far more than any of us deserve or can imagine.”

We acknowledge that even in the midst of God’s gracious generosity there is great suffering: famine, disease, hate, war, cruelty, waste, envy, greed, despair, evil. “But we worship a God who wants everyone inside the vineyard, who will not stop rushing out into the marketplace until all have been rounded up, who will not rest until the outsiders, the forgotten and the lonely have been included, even if it costs God everything,” writes Kocher. “God so loved the world that he gave us his only son.” He gave us himself. That is generosity beyond our imagining? What more could we ask for. Amen