“Unexpected Generosity”

“But that’s not fair!” A cry that can be heard, at one point or another in every household with more than one child; sometimes in households with only one child; and frequently under the breath of a room full of adults. In this culture, we seem obsessed with, if not fairness, than at least hierarchy. This is the land of the American Dream – if you just work hard enough – anyone, no matter how humble their beginnings, can be successful; can in fact be better than everyone else – you can “beat the competition,” if you’re clever. After all, we grade on a bell curve. Those who work the hardest should reap the greatest rewards, and those who don’t should get what’s coming to them. And there’s only so much room at the top. This parable today is, understandably hard to swallow. It’s hard not to identify with the workers who are hired first, in their indignation at not receiving more than those who only worked an hour at the end of the day. Can you imagine being there?

“What do you mean those lazy louts who show up for the last hour get paid the same as us?! We’ve been slaving away under the hot sun all day! We did what was right, what was expected of us. It’s all fine and good for the landowner to be generous to those people . . . so long as he is more generous with us! We just want our fair share.”

It’s like the conversation between Sally and Charlie Brown in the “Peanuts Christmas Special.” Sally has asked Charlie Brown to help her write her letter to Santa. After inquiring after Santa’s summer and the health of Mrs. Claus, she points out that she has been exceedingly good all year, and proceeds to ask for a long list of toys – “Please note the size and color of each item. And send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself . . . Just send money. How about 10’s and 20’s?” Charlie Brown replies with an “Oh Brother!”  As Charlie Brown runs off, we hear Sally say, “All I want is what’s coming to me. All I want is my fair share.” We want our fair share too. We want to be associated with the hard-workers, and to be recognized for that hard work.

In her book of sermons, Sensual Orthodoxy, Debbie Blue has some fun with Jesus’ imagery here. She notes that these early-morning go-getters are admirable people now and were doubtless admirable people then. “Who’s up so early? The best people are. Admirable, kind and hard working people. The Sisters of Mercy are up setting out coffee and rolls for the poor and hungry. There’s an earnest little boy up, eager to earn enough money to buy medicine for his sick baby sister . . . The people out there early in the morning, the first, are ready and waiting, eager to work for the householder. They didn’t lay in bed repeatedly hitting the snooze button. In fact, they’ve already been to the gym, toasted their homegrown oats for their oatmeal, and sweetened them with honey they collected from their native beehives, which are strengthening ecological diversity. They meditated and journaled. They showered, combed their hair, dressed neatly and were ready to work by first light. These are the people who have a good work ethic” (Sensual Orthodoxy, page. 81).

This is, of course, a spoof on what it means to be hardworking; deserving of reward. But in many ways it doesn’t seem far off. It rankles that someone who doesn’t work as hard, would be given the same reward, and yet that is what the landowner does.

The parable is bookended by the idea that, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” It starts out comparing the kingdom of heaven with the landowner. It is saying, this is what the kingdom of God is like. It is like a landowner who in his generosity hires those who need work. Not only to the early birds, the most deserving, the hardest workers; but over and over and over again. Go to the fields, and I will pay you a fair days wage; I will pay you what is just; and finally to the last group, simply saying go to the fields.

But remember, this is a parable. Parables take a story and turn it on its head. And we are unsettled, even indignant. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. This was precisely Jonah’s complaint, sitting on the hillside watching Nineveh, not be destroyed for their wickedness. Jonah didn’t want to be there in the first place. God says go tell the Nenevites, (who by the way, are a brutal bunch who don’t like your people at all) that if they don’t clean up their act, I will destroy them. Jonah, quite understandably books the first ship, in the opposite direction. “Heck no, I’m not going to those crazy, mean Ninevites to tell them they have to change, Uh-Uh.”

So after having to walk the plank, almost drowning, being swallowed by a giant fish and then unceremoniously vomited back up on shore, he finally goes to warn the Ninevites. And they repent. But it’s not like they weren’t guilty of what they had done previously. So Jonah goes up to the top of a hill, to watch and see what happens. And God spares them. And Jonah is pissed.

With both of these stories, it may be that, like Jonah, we are “aware of God’s nature, but just don’t like it. It seems unfair to us. “Jonah revealed that the reason he disobeyed God was that he knew God was ‘a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’ (4:2). [Jonah wanted them to get what was coming to them.] Jonah wanted no part in such universal love, and most of the time, neither do we.”[1]

The kingdom of God is like a landowner, who not only hires all those who need work, but who makes sure that everyone has their daily bread. The answers given show the unmitigated generosity and steadfast love of God for all people. For the day workers who show up at the end, for the Ninevites who “do not know their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11), as well as for Jonah and the rest of us. The workers in Matthew’s parable don’t really complain about not getting enough money. They are angry because, in their words, “you have made them equal to us.”

The last will be first and the first will be last. And when the first hired complain, the vineyard owner claims the right to be generous. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” He has paid what he promised to those first workers, and has been generous with the others. It’s only unfair if they are comparing themselves with the others.

As Kathryn Blanchard points out, “Despite earthly appearances of inequality with regard to who has “earned” a greater or lesser reward, this parable makes clear that there is a radical equality before God. Reward comes not from each worker’s individual merit, not in the quantity or even quality of their labor, but rather from the gracious covenant offered by the one doing the hiring.”[2] God is concerned that everyone have enough.

In this parable, we are invited to let go of scorekeeping and competition, and remember the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread.  Give us this day our daily bread. Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn points out, “Jesus leaves us with a question: can we learn to see through the eyes of God? Our ideas of right and wrong, of what is just and unjust, are not necessarily God’s ideas—and that is a very good thing. We are reminded by this parable that the tables are turned. When we look for equity, we are surprised to find generosity. You and I are challenged to look at where we see ourselves in Jesus’ parable. This parable reminds us that God is a lousy bookkeeper and invites us to transform our pride, envy, and hardness into joy by admiring and celebrating God’s astounding generosity.”[3]

[1] Feasting on the Word, 74.
[2] Ibid, 94.
[3] Ibid, 96.