“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour.’ They said,’ and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
“That story is terrible! I can’t stand it! It’s totally unfair! And it makes me really angry!” a student said to Dean of the Chapel of Duke University, William Willimon. She had been frowning in disgust since the Scripture was read. He looked at her and replied, “When this story was first told, the people who heard it were also angry. In fact, they were so angry that they killed the man who told it.”
This parable exudes unfairness towards those workers who worked all day. They must have felt like children- the part of humanity most vocal about fairness. This week my family went to Target. Our oldest child Luke had earned a few dollars feeding the neighbor’s cat so he bought some Legos. The other two children repeated for the rest of the day, “It’s not fair, it’s just not fair.” Children are the most vocal advocates of fairness in the world. Have you ever seen the commercial of the banker sitting down with two little girls? He asks one of the girls if she wants a pony and then gives her a toy pony. After he asks the second girl, a real pony comes walking into the room. The first girl’s reaction is, “You didn’t say I could have a real pony.” He replies, “You didn’t ask.” We are born with an innate sense of fairness in life. It is a good thing because it prompts us to correct social injustices. But that sense of fairness can also be a difficult thing. It can lead to a bitterness as we observe the inequity of life. Here is something all parents and grandparents need to hear: be fair! You cannot guess how many families experience intense sadness over how one child, or one grandchild is favored over another. This is a major issue for families. It causes a lot of pain. But some people cannot realize that being unfair hurts. It can cause deep emotional problems. Life is unfair enough as it is without families participating
in stark inequities. Please, for the sake of your children and grandchildren, look at what you are doing and be fair! Please, wake up and be fair!
The disciples and Pharisees seemed to be struggling with two parts of being fair- fairness based on what people deserve and fairness based on equality. It was also as if those two approaches to unfairness were represented that day with the groups that heard this parable, the disciples and the Pharisees. Each felt that they deserved a place in heaven. The Pharisees were keepers of the law, living lives of dedicated living under the religious rule of the day. They felt that they had earned a place in heaven, and others who had not earned it as they had were less worthy, less valuable, less holy, not only in their eyes but in God’s eyes. Jesus challenged this thinking when he told this parable.
It would not surprise me if the disciples felt that they earned a place in heaven as well. When the disciples heard Jesus say something like this, most likely they were quick to qualify his message, as if to say, “You’re talking about them but not about us, right?” After all, they had given up their lives, their boats, nets, and fishing occupations, to follow Jesus. That had to count for something. Once there was even an argument about who was going to sit on the right or left side of Jesus in heaven. Yes, it must have been very confusing to the disciples for Jesus to tell this parable. As the parable was being told, I can imagine that they were part of the audience rather than being on stage. So maybe both the Pharisees and the disciples thought that the parable was unfair, and if that was the case, life was unfair.
I can remember my father telling me, “Life is unfair.” It was a phrase I heard plenty of times growing up. The Bible supports the fact that life is unfair, at least it does in Ecclesiastes 9:11-12: “Again I looked throughout the earth and saw that the swiftest person does not always win the race, nor the strongest man the battle, and that wise men are often poor, and skillful men are not necessarily famous, but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.”
Yes, life is unfair, but Jesus was illustrating something beyond the unfairness of life. One of my friends said to me, “I want you to preach a sermon on grace.” In this parable, though he never says the word, Jesus was describing God’s grace, something the Apostle Paul wrote about extensively in the New Testament letters. Paul defined grace as the way God accepts humanity not based on its merits or rewards. Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8,9) So much is earned and is based upon work that deserves reward, but grace is not, Paul wrote, “that no one may boast.” That is the most complex part of grace, yet it is the part that explains it. If we boast because we have earned something, we elevate ourselves over others who are less worthy. Jesus did not want people to look down upon
others. It was as if he said, “God is not looking down upon you, so you should not look down upon others.”
Even though Paul mentions grace again and again, it is still difficult to imagine how it works. The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth, when asked to describe the closest human characteristic that would define grace, said “Laughter is the closest thing we have to the grace of God.” That is probably my favorite definition of any theological term, and it’s the easiest to remember! But if grace is such a wonderfully joyful thing, and can be likened to laughter, then why does this parable of grace make people angry?
One of my favorite preachers, Fred Craddock, told about how, at the end of a sermon about the prodigal sonwhen he described how the older son felt when the younger rebellious son was welcomed back, someone objected and said, “That’s not fair!” Craddock replied, “Would you rather have that loyal son, who stayed at home and did not rebel, would you rather have him receive the ring and the cloak and the party?” The person responded with a loud, “Yes!” “Well, that’s not grace, that’s not how grace works.”
We can understand how a gift works, but it is difficult to understand how not being able to boast about earning a reward links into God’s gift of grace. In his book, The Prodigal God, Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller offers a parable of his own to help describe how our feelings and the gift relate:
Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his king and said, “My Lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as [the gardener] turned to go the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all.” And the gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this. And he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot —what if you gave the king something better?” So the next day the nobleman came before the king and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I have ever bred or ever will. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said thank you, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”
Grace is complex, isn’t it? We should seek to please God, yet our work for God is for God’s sake, and not for our own benefit. Yet we feel ourselves more spiritually fulfilled, so we know we are getting a lot of personal benefit. It is all right to feel good about doing good for God. It is when our work becomes a mark of pride, then we become self-centered, and the love that should be directed toward God and others is lost.
I can understand why the Pharisees were upset when they heard this parable. But the disciples may have been even more upset. When the disciples heard this parable they must have questioned their motivation for following Jesus. Why give up everything and “work all day” when the Pharisees could “at the last second” change their minds and get full credit? I am certain that question and others must have crossed their minds. Does grace undermine the whole idea of being good, for following Jesus, for living God’s way? Why bear the burden of laboring in the heat of the day if you don’t get any more credit for it than someone who makes a death-bed confession?
The answers are not easy, but when we experience God’s grace and acceptance, we see our need for God’s grace and we realize that while it is not the only way to live, we realize that it is the best way. Then God’s grace fills our lives and passes on to others. The Apostle John wrote, “We love because he first loved us.” It is the same with grace. We are to give grace to others because we’ve received so much of it from God. This is what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called “trans-valuation” of values. Our own feelings of jealousy, condescension, or pride are eliminated as God’s values become our own. Even as others become accepted by God, we do not feel threatened or competitive. Instead of being upset that someone else receives the love of God who may not be, in our own eyes, as worthy as we are, we celebrate the fact that God’s love is boundless and powerful. We do want to earn God’s approval, of course. Why wouldn’t we? It is good to have that motivation. Yet we do not give ourselves credit in God’s eyes in relation to others because that diminishes love and creates self-righteous judgment of others, and God certainly doesn’t want that to happen as a result of helping others.
Grace is a difficult concept. Being able to love God and at the same time see others as loved by God, too, is what grace is all about. God loves everyone regardless, and when that feels fair, then our hearts are in the right place to allow grace to abound. Here is a famous illustration about what it is like to have our hearts in the right place: “A large prosperous downtown church had three mission churches under its care that it had started. On the first Sunday of the New Year all the members of the mission churches came to the city church for a combined Communion service. In those mission churches, which were located in the slums of the city, were some outstanding cases of conversions–thieves, burglars, and so on–but all knelt side by side at the Communion rail.
On one such occasion the pastor saw a former burglar kneeling beside a judge of the Supreme Court of England–it was the judge who had sent him to jail where he had served seven years. As they knelt there, the judge and the former convict, neither one seemed to be aware of the other. After the service, the judge was walking home with the pastor and said to the pastor, “Did you notice who was kneeling beside me at the Communion rail this morning? What a marvelous miracle of grace” “Yes,” said the pastor, “the conversion of that convict is.” The judge said, “But I was not referring to him. I was thinking of myself. It did not
cost that burglar much to get converted when he came out of jail. He had nothing but a history of crime behind him, and he knew how much he needed that help. But look at me. I was taught from earliest infancy to live as a gentleman; that my word was to be my bond; that I was to say my prayers, go to church, take Communion and so on. I went through Oxford, took my degrees, was called to the bar and eventually became a judge. Nothing but the grace of God could have caused me to admit that I was a sinner on a level with that burglar. It took much more grace to forgive me for all my pride and self deception, to get me to admit that I was no better in the eyes of God than that convict that I sent to prison.”
If it takes perfection to be allowed into heaven, God is unfair, but unfair in our favor. If accepting all of God’s children equally is fair, then God is fair. Yes, God is fair since God’s grace welcomes everyone so generously. This parable encourages us to pursue lives that are pleasing to God. It challenges us to check our self-righteous judgment of others at the door and humbly thank God for accepting us. When life seems unfair, may the grace of God comfort us, for ultimately God’s love leads us to heaven, and unless our life is perfect, that is unfair in our favor. Amen.