“An Offensive Generosity”
September 18, 2011
David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary in the Twin Cities tells the story of a parishioner in one of the churches he served. This woman was faithful in every way. She was especially faithful about reading scripture. She read her Bible daily and made sure she read the lectionary passages each week. In fact she read ahead. And because she read ahead, she knew when the lectionary would bring this passage around again. So when she saw it coming, she would skip church.
Why? Why was this her response to the story from Matthew? She responded this way because this passage infuriated her. It made her so angry that she just couldn’t bear to go to church and hear it read and preached upon. She had been a devout churchgoer all her life. She was in worship. She was active in the life of the congregation. She was there. But the message of this passage made it clear that even those who weren’t there, or the ones who showed up late, could still be recipients of God’s grace. And that just made her mad!
In the WorkingPreacher podcast, Professor Lose also made the statement that this parable Jesus tells about the laborers in the vineyard is ultimately why Jesus was killed.
That’s a tough statement to make but then again this is a tough parable. I’m sure the parishioner in his church is not the only one in Christendom who doesn’t want to hear this passage preached on. I’m sure she’s not the only one who takes offense at these words from Jesus.
And that’s what these words are to many, many people: offensive. The workers who get picked for work later in the day get the same wage as those who started early in the morning. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?
And I think that if there is an instinct that is born within each of us, it’s our need for fairness. If you have children, if you’ve ever been around children, if you were a child, you probably remember that driving need for fairness. I realize that in my own family, that fairness or the lack thereof is at the heart of any family discord. In other words, my kids want things to be fair. If one gets something and the other one doesn’t, no matter what the reason might be, I hear a chorus of “that’s not fair!”
Now I’m not just picking on kids for this. Adults seem to have this instinct as well. This is the chorus that’s echoing to me from this parable in Matthew. “That’s not fair.”
Our story today follows Jesus trying to teach the disciples and others about what we know as the great reversal. The first shall be last. The last shall be first.
The story before our story is that of the rich young man – sometimes we know him as the rich young ruler – this young man comes to Jesus wanting to know what he has to do have eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The young man wants to know which ones. Jesus tells him. He responds to Jesus that he has kept them. So Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns and give the money to the poor. The wealthy man walks away grieving because he can’t do this.
This answer from Jesus causes consternation among the disciples. Peter says to him, “Look Jesus, we’ve left everything and followed you. What’s our reward going to be?”
Jesus assures them that at the “renewal of all things” when Jesus is seated on his throne, those who have followed him will be there by his side. Anyone who’s left family and friends for the sake of Jesus will receive a hundredfold when it comes time to inherit eternal life. But he also tells the disciples, you need to remember this, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”
Then he tells them this parable which is a kingdom parable.
The kingdom of heaven is …
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner of a vineyard. He goes to the marketplace to hire day laborers. My understanding is that this was a real occurrence. Laborers would position themselves in the marketplace or at some other public gathering site and wait for the possibility of work. Hopefully a landowner or someone else would pick them for hire. I’ve heard of homeless people doing the same thing. In different cities, there are places where people can gather early in the morning and find work for the day. If they’re lucky, a desperate person can make some money but only if he or she is picked.
So it seems that that’s what these laborers wanted. They wanted to be picked for work. Some of them were lucky. They were chosen right away and spent the day tending to the vineyard.
At 9:00 the owner of the vineyard saw that more laborers were needed, so he called some more to work for him. He did this at noon and at three and at five as well. With each group of workers he contracted the same wage that he contracted with the ones who were early.
And when it came time to pay their wages, they all got what they were promised. They all got the wage they’d contracted for. But the early birds got mad. They should get more than the ones who came at 5:00. They were the ones who worked all day long in the heat. Why shouldn’t they get more than the ones who came late?
But the landowner seems taken aback by their grumbling. He’s giving them what they agreed upon. He says to one, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wages? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Are you envious because I’m generous?
That’s a critical question. And I would bet that more times than I’d like to admit, I am. Because it doesn’t seem fair. It goes against my sense of what is right and what is wrong. I want things to be fair, and if I’ve worked longer than others, I want to be paid more.
When I was teaching I saw this attitude all the time. One of the assignments in my class was to participate in a group presentation. And the grade for the group was the grade for the individual. One person doing more than the rest of them didn’t matter. The grade was the same. But that’s not what most of us want most of the time, is it? We want fairness. And as David Lose also commented, having a developed sense of fairness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is our sense of fairness that helps us understand issues of justice. Why should some have so many when others have nothing? Why are some people valued more because of their gender or the color of their skin or their position in society when others are devalued because of theirs? It isn’t fair.
But what I understand Jesus to be saying is that the kingdom of heaven isn’t concerned with our understanding of what’s fair or not. The kingdom of heaven is about everyone having enough. The kingdom of heaven is about welcoming even the latest comers. The kingdom of heaven is about grace.
And grace, by its very definition, isn’t fair. That’s what makes it grace.
The reality is that each worker in the vineyard received enough that day. It wasn’t like the landowner cheated them. He paid what they’d agreed to. It’s just that he paid everyone the same. And that stuck in the craw of the ones who got there early. They should be rewarded with more for their longer time and effort. But then grace would become something that’s earned. Once again, that’s not grace.
And just as the workers had no cause to complain about what the landowner paid to whom, do we have any cause to complain about who receives God’s grace? Do we have any justification for putting our own sense of fair play on what God does in the world? I don’t think so. But we still do it. All the time.
When I was in seminary I went to school with a young man named Tom. Tom was a great guy. Everybody liked him. He was the life of the party. He was entertaining and cute and the single female students, including this one, liked him. But all the guys liked him too.
But Tom was a terrible student. He just was. He was failing some of his classes. He was bright enough but didn’t seem to really want to be there. His dad was a Presbyterian minister who wanted him there, and you could tell that Tom really wrestled with whether he was actually called or just trying to please his dad.
In the spring of my first year I was out with Tom and some other friends. Tom announced to the table that he had good news. He’d just heard that day that he was getting a scholarship to come back to school the next year. Everyone congratulated him, including me. But inside I was seething.
Tom got a scholarship?! Tom did?! Tom who blew off studying and showed up to class unprepared? Tom who would rather party than be a minister? Tom, who admitted that in some ways he was just in seminary for his dad? That Tom?! He was getting a scholarship?!
Here I was working as hard as I could in my classes. Most of my time was spent studying. I worked hard, I showed up, I wanted to be in seminary and I wasn’t there just because my dad wanted me to be. I hadn’t heard that I was getting a scholarship. Just Tom.
Good. Old. Tom.
It was galling to hear that news. If it had been a story in one of the gospel passages, I wouldn’t have shown up to church to hear it preached. It was completely and utterly and appallingly unfair. But it was also grace.
That’s what I’ve finally realized about the school’s decision to give Tom a scholarship. It was grace. Because in that second year Tom did settle down. He worked hard. He succeeded in classes and in other aspects of his life. The seminary showed Tom grace and I think that grace helped him change his life. And whether I wanted to admit it then or not, the seminary showed me grace too. Time and time again. In fact, I’ve been a recipient of grace more times than I can count. And I’ve received that grace not just from an institution but from God. That’s why I ended up in seminary in the first place. That’s why I ended up here. That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? Because of grace. God’s offensive generosity. Alleluia. Amen.