Grace and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“It’s not fair!” Hasn’t this landowner ever heard of equal pay for equal work? How dare he pay those late-comers the same as us? We have worked all day in the sun. They just showed up. It’s not fair that they get the same as us. “It’s not fair!” Where have we heard those words before? I know I used to hear those three words often, coming from the back seat of my car. “It’s not fair!” I didn’t get to sit by the window! “It’s not fair!” He got to pick where we eat last time! As any parent of siblings can tell you, children have a keen sense of fairness, and they are quick to point out injustice as soon as they see it. It can be very annoying, but in this story, I find myself in sympathy with the complaining workers. It just isn’t right that everyone got the same wage for different amounts of work.
Times were tough in the first century. The daily wage was barely enough to feed a family for one day. So on this day, these unemployed workers are waiting, and hoping to get hired. Imagine their delight when first thing in the morning they get a job! The wage isn’t particularly generous, but it will feed their family for another day. As they are working, they notice the landowner heading out to town, and soon he is back with more workers, promising to pay them “whatever is right.” Again and again, the landowner drives into town to find more workers. He seems determined to keep inviting more workers to come and work in the vineyard for what is right. In our world, what is right? Is it what we think of as fair? We equate fairness with justice.
Here is a story that might help us understand why this story bothers us so much. Imagine you are in a math class. On the first day, the teacher says, “I am going to give you a math problem. It’s really hard so you have the whole year to work on it. And I really want everyone to work on this problem. The grade, for the final, will be based on only this one problem. Well, you want to do well. You go to the library. You search for helpful books. You work on this problem a little every day. To your surprise, you find that even by the half way point, only a few of your fellow classmates have begun work on the problem. Well, tough luck for them. That's their problem. They will be sorry, come June. You have been at work on this problem all year. The last week of school is coming up, and you almost have the problem figured out. But you find out that some students haven't even begun. Then comes the last day of the year. You proudly hand in your work to the teacher. To your shock, everyone else has their work done too! How did they do it? Then you hear one student say, "Thanks for helping me figure this out last week, Ms. Smith. Without your help, I would never have gotten it finished..." You hear another say, "Well, here it is, Ms Smith. All done, thanks to your help yesterday," Most of the other students have received help from the teacher! That’s not fair! While you were figuring it out on your own, everyone else seems to have needed help. When you complain to your teacher that it’s not fair that some of the students got extra help, she says, "Why do you begrudge my generosity? Did I not say that the goal was to get people to finish the problem, to get an A on the final? You were able to finish it on your own. Fine. The others needed a little special attention. You got an A. They got an A. What's wrong with that? Am I not doing you right?"
Somehow, it just doesn't feel right. Isn't it odd how the teacher’s graciousness doesn't quite feel like graciousness? Things should be fair! Of course, Jesus isn’t talking about the way our world works. He is talking about how the Kingdom of God works. In the Kingdom, justice isn’t determined by what is fair. Justice comes from a God who never gives up, never stops inviting us to come and work in the vineyard. If God was only fair, we would all get just what we deserved and no more. Sometimes we think that is what we want. But if we take a moment to look at our lives, at all the times we have failed to live up to God’s command to love each other, forgive each other, care for those less fortunate… We see that we are saved, not by fairness, but by grace. The grace of God which forgives our sin and keeps bringing us back into the Kingdom. Of course, the problem comes when we realize God’s grace is for everyone. God doesn’t just look for the best and the brightest. He keeps reaching out —to the broken, the lost, to everyone – calling us all into his grace and love, like this land owner who just can’t stop inviting more people to come and work in the vineyard. God never stops inviting us to come and work for the Kingdom. God is relentless in reaching out and inviting more and more people into the Kingdom. What will your answer be? Amen.