“Envy, Generosity, and Fairness”

September 21, 2014 Matthew 20:1-16
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix

Jesus had a way of getting under people’s skin. I don’t mean he intentionally insulted them. It’s just that the lessons he taught and the stories he told made people prick up their ears to listen. Then frequently they’d either stare wide-eyed in wonder or jut out their jaw in defiant rejection of his words. That is the case in the parable of the hired laborers. It stops us in our tracks and makes us say: “Hey, wait a minute!”

Here’s this landowner who needs some work done in his vineyard. And just like today in union halls where plumbers or electricians come early and wait for calls to work, or like the immigrants who hang out near a WalMart or Home Depot willing to do any kind of manual labor, it was also the practice in ancient Israel for day laborers to gather near the marketplace and wait to be hired. So at 6 a.m., the first hour of a working day back then, the landowner comes and hires a bunch of workers. They agree on a wage for the day and set off to work. Well, apparently there weren’t enough workers then, so the landowner went back at 9 a.m., the third hour, and hired some more; then again at noon, he did the same thing. Apparently that still wasn’t enough so at 3 o’clock he hired some more, and at 5 o’clock, just an hour before quitting time, he hired yet a few more. Dusk falls, the work is done, and it’s time to line up to be paid. But the workers are startled, and some of them downright angry, when those who worked only an hour get paid the same amount as those who toiled all day long in the hot sun. “Hey, wait a minute . . . that’s not fair! We worked twelve times as long as they did, yet you pay them the same!” That doesn’t cut any ice, though, with this strangely confident landowner. “Why are you concerned? I gave you exactly what you agreed to at the beginning of the day. Do not be envious that I am generous to others with what is rightfully mine.” I guarantee you, though; people went away after hearing that parable shaking their heads and wondering what kind of message Jesus was trying to teach them, because it sure didn’t square with common experience. “What can he mean?” they asked one another.

Well, what does Jesus mean? There are, I believe, three different levels on which we can understand this parable, an historical level, a theological level, and a political level. I’m going to start with the historical meaning, because it is always important when interpreting scripture to not rush into saying what a passage means to us until it is clear what that passage meant to the people who first heard it. We are frequently too quick to seek the relevance of a verse for our time without grounding that modern message in what Jesus was trying to say to the people of his time. People who do this frequently misrepresent what the passage was trying to convey both then and now.

Historically, Jesus told this parable to highlight the relationship between his original followers and later disciples as his ministry began attracting different kinds of people. The gospel writer Matthew then takes Jesus’ words and retells the parable in a still later context when the early church was growing and both Jews and Gentiles were joining it.

The lesson meant for those original listeners 2000 years ago was that God was free to welcome as full partners in the Kingdom unlikely people, including some from Gentile lands. Most assuredly the Jews had been the people of God for centuries. They were the descendants of Abraham, heirs of those who sojourned across the wilderness with Moses, who battled the Canaanites with Joshua and the Philistines with David. Ancestors of these Jews had suffered exile in Babylon and returned to rebuild Jerusalem. They had withstood the onslaught of Persian and Greek and Roman dominance. So the Jews were the ones who symbolically in the parable had labored twelve hours in the hot sun, and the Gentile converts, who had for centuries followed false gods, and only now, when Jesus appeared, had seen the light, were the ones who worked only a few hours yet still were accepted into the chosen people of God.

Is it right, then, that they should receive full equality of treatment, full inclusion in the church, with the same status as those who had proven their endurance for centuries? By what standards is that fair? Yet to complaints such as this, Jesus declares through this parable “No, you do wrong to complain, my friend. You have received the reward agreed upon at the beginning. I thank you for your hard labor, but those who come later to my kingdom will receive the same salvation you receive. Do not envy them their good fortune; do not begrudge me my right to be generous with my welcome. Those who have labored long and those who have labored short receive the same return. Go on your way with what belongs to you. Whether you’re a Jew whose family has been faithful for centuries or a Gentile who only last week accepted me as Messiah, you will ultimately receive the same reward.

Well, they may have gone on their way, but I bet they were grumbling as they went, for such a revolutionary sense of God’s welcoming gift still seemed to violate their entrenched view that they had earned more than they got. And that pushes us toward the second level of interpretation of this passage. It has to do with God’s grace.

I know we hear the word ‘grace’ in church a lot. Maybe you are tired of hearing it, although I bet the word isn’t used outside of church much, is it? Not many other situations lend themselves to talking about grace, because those other situations are more about earning our way instead of receiving a gift. But this parable is a good one for teaching about grace, because it cuts right across our familiar language of work, and rights, and entitlement and earning a living, and it says that God doesn’t always behave along those lines. So even if you have heard this message about grace many times before, let me say it again, so that you and I both can remember how astounding and powerful it is.
From our common perspective, each one of those workers, whether they came at 6 in the morning, or 9 or noon or 3, was entitled to more compensation than the laborers who started at five. They sweated longer, they got more done, they produced more return for their employer. By all human standards, if the late workers got one denarius, the Roman coin for a day’s wage, then the early workers should have gotten 3 or 6 or 12 denarii. You try to run a business or a factory with the kind of compensation policy Jesus suggests here, and just see how quickly you are tossed out of management.

But the point Jesus is making, of course, buried beneath the top layer of the parable, is that receiving salvation is not like running a business. God doesn’t look at how hard we’ve tried to be good or how much money we’ve contributed to noble causes when God chooses to save us. Now there are very fine reasons for lengthy faithful obedience, for living as God desires and sacrificing some luxuries so poorer people may have necessities, but we don’t do those things for the sake of earning salvation. No, that work has been done already, by another, by Jesus Christ. Salvation is grace at work. It is a gift. We don’t deserve it. We don’t earn it, no matter how hard we try. In the eyes of God, as far as salvation is concerned, none of those laborers, even the ones who started at dawn, is any better than those who came at 5. All are equal. All have sinned. All are in need of grace. All are entitled to the same reward because none of them are entitled to it actually. So when the workers complain that God is being unfair to them, they are wrong. Remember this: God is never less than fair, but God is often more than fair. God is gracious, and that can be just as confusing, just as confounding to people who have no other way of looking at life than claiming that they deserve what they earn. We don’t deserve salvation, but we are offered it anyway, because God is more than fair, God is gracious.

The third level of interpretation of this parable speaks to the political situation, our government and legal system. We’re heading into the last weeks of a national election cycle, so maybe this passage could even help clean up our politics. About 40 years ago a highly-respected Harvard philosopher named John Rawls wrote a book called A Theory of Justice. In that book Rawls built an elaborate argument for a very simple premise: What is justice? Justice is fairness, he answered. Justice is treating people equally, ensuring that all citizens regardless of social position, race, gender, or intellectual ability are treated the same, afforded the same rights and protections under the law. To this end the courts should be structured and police enforcement should be directed. Justice means fairness.

I have no argument with Rawls’ principle as far as it goes. Indeed, he summarizes and defends the ideas that are the driving force of our nation’s Constitution. In the eyes of the law, fairness of treatment is the proper goal of society. The trouble is that the concept of fairness is inadequate for all of life. It is good as far as it goes, in the legal system, but it doesn’t speak to the reality of all our daily lives. Consider, for instance, your family, your children. Do you always give all of your children exactly the same amount of time and effort? Suppose, as frequently happens, one of your children has a learning deficiency or a physical disability. Given the limits of human energy, it is simply inevitable that you will spend more time and effort with him or her. And frankly, the other children may resent it a bit. Or, in less dramatic fashion, if you have one child with a far stronger potential for learning, is it not right for you to send him or her to a better college, which may cost more money, or to help pay for graduate school, even if it means less to split among your other children?

Now granted, all of us try to compensate in some way for time, money or attention we may have shortchanged our other children. We feel slightly guilty about asking them to make sacrifices for their siblings, even if they are unaware they did so. But my point is: are we less just because we have been less fair? Or have we violated God’s sense of fairness just because we didn’t uphold the human meaning of fairness? If Rawls is right and justice is fairness, and fairness is equality, and if we apply that legal definition to all of life, then we are being unjust when we take extra time for a Down’s syndrome child or spend disproportionate funds on music lessons for a talented prodigy.

Something is missing in Rawls’ definition, at least in certain areas of our existence. What is missing is a sense of divine justice, God’s fairness, to supplement this otherwise fine idea of human justice. Divine justice is more than fairness. Or at least it redefines fairness from God’s point of view. To God, fairness and justice include grace and mercy. It includes the awareness that in some areas of life people aren’t able to be treated the same because their needs are greater or their potential begs for extra consideration.

Actually this sense of divine justice, which includes grace and mercy, tempers and corrects human justice from deteriorating into a legalism in which everyone is clamoring for equal rights and no one is prepared to sacrifice their own advancement so those who need more can have more. Mercy, grace, sacrificial love, keeps the idea of justice as fairness from deteriorating into a mere calculation of mutual advantages where no one is willing to give something unless they get something in exchange. And that, I fear, is the direction our political arena is headed.

Divine justice is not the opposite of grace; it is grace. God is not merely being merciful to us in salvation. God is being just. God is fair, even if God’s fairness doesn’t always look like ours. The landowner of the parable, if indeed he is a figure for God, was not merely being generous to the workers who came late. He was being just to them all. God is never less than fair. But God is sometimes more than fair. That is the difference between human justice and divine justice. I know which one I want to guide the society in which I live.