Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Alan Watt
Once, as a preteen, I was given the job of sweeping the floor of the barn. Afterwards, my parents paid me for it. To say the least, I was pleasantly surprised. The next time—they asked or told—me to do some chore in one of the outbuildings, wholeheartedly I went straight to it. But that time, I didn’t get paid, partly because my parents became upset with me. What happened was after the work was done, I added up my time and submitted a bill to them. They weren’t too happy about that.
In any event, they instilled in me a strong sense of fairness. They were very intentional about treating my brothers and me the same. As we got older, each of us was paid for work that we did on the farm. When it came time for college, they covered for each of us the cost of housing and the meal plan at school, while we were responsible for tuition, books, and miscellaneous items. Decades later, when our parents died, the estate was divided equally among the three of us boys….If anything, my parents practiced, they modeled the virtue of fairness.
For those of us who grew up in such homes—with such values—it’s only natural that today’s parable can get under our skin. Most of us probably identify with the workers who spend the entire day laboring in the vineyard. Like them, we too might have grumbled at the landowner. We too might have said, “What you’re doing isn’t fair. Paying these latecomers the same as us is just plain wrong!” But then there’s the reply of the employer: “What’s your problem? You’re getting what we agreed on. And, after all, it is my money. I can do with it as I want. ”And he’s right. The vineyard workers can’t do anything about it. They don’t have a union to turn to or any labor relations board.
In the parable, these views of the all-day workers and the employer are obvious, are clear-cut. But here’s an interesting thing: Last Saturday, at a workshop several of us attended—on church renewal—we looked at this passage. Then we split into small groups to think about other feelings, other attitudes people in the story might have had.[i] Here are some possibilities the entire group came up with.
· First, the laborers who worked all day may have further resented the others, because they may have believed they were too lazy to get up early enough to what we might call the “shape-up,”
the place where men would gather each morning to get some work.
· At the same time, others at the workshop imagined how thankful the laborers were who were recruited later. Maybe some of them were there just as early as the others, but were not as you ngor as able-bodied. So the landowner didn’t pick them the first time around. And then those who did show up late may have been in such bad physical condition, they couldn’t get there any sooner. We imagined how thankful they were to get some work and not only that, but also be paid as if they had been there the entire time.
· Third, some people at the workshop wondered whether the landowner went back each time to get workers in order to be sure all the grapes were picked by the end of the day, because any that didn’t might spoil. In other words, he had a tight schedule. And so it was worth it to him to pay the later workers the same as the first.
This exercise helped remind us we sometimes need to be careful when assigning motives to others. We don’t always see the whole picture.
One thing’s for sure. We should take at face value the answer the landowner gave to the original workers: “…are you envious because I am generous?” Or, as another translation puts it:“Are you angry because I am kind?”[ii]
We live in a part of the world—that strives to treat people fairly. As in this well-known quote from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…
Of course, that’s always been a work in progress. Slavery continued for several more generations and then, after that, Jim Crow. And women didn’t win the right to vote until 1920. Many inequities persist to this day. Yet we believe in the ideal that those words hold out to us. We are a nation of laws, and our system by and large seeks to protect those who abide by those laws and, by the same token, punish those who break them. Again, it isn’t by any means a perfect system. Far from it. In reality, we all know others, sometimes ourselves, who don’t get a fair shake—in the workplace, in the legal system, in some other part of life.
If truth be told, many if not most of us would still prefer a God who is consistently fair, who is just, who acts according to the best laws that we have. Or, at least a number of us may think we do.
That’s how we may see it not only in today’s parable, but, if anything, even more so in the first reading—on a much larger scale—in the story about Jonah and the city of Nineveh .The reason he ran off in the first place—in the part about the storm at sea and the great fish swallowing him—wasn’t because he was afraid to prophesy among those people, afraid of failing. Quite the opposite. It was because he was afraid he would be successful, which he was. While other prophets would have envied his situation—that the people actually listened to them and repented of their sins, he was not. He wanted them to get what they deserved.
For not only were they sinful when it came to their behavior as individuals, but also as a country.
The story doesn’t tell us, but the city of Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, which had invaded and destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Then it forced the Southern Kingdom, Judah,to pay tribute in order to avoid the same fate. In other words, they were the enemies of the people of God, and deserved to be wiped off the face of the earth.
But that’s not how God saw it. He asked Jonah, who was grieving over the withering of the plant that had shielded him from the sun:
You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?[iii]
Now let’s suppose for a few moments that they shouldn’t have been let off that easily. Consider this: Even if those people knew nothing about the ways of the God above all gods, might we not say that ignorance is no excuse? That the natural law still holds—the law that all human beings know by instinct?
In an ideal world of fairness, should they not have been destroyed?
In modern times, isn’t that what has happened when the forces of good defeat the forces of evil? After World War II, when the trials of Nuremberg were held—when a number of political and military leaders were convicted and executed for their unspeakable crimes against humanity.
Yet at the same time, we have witnessed an example of a different way—in the nation of South Africa. Under the system of apartheid, an all-white government had treated blacks terribly—not only segregating them and denying them a decent education and the right to vote, but also committing against them many acts of violence, including torture and murder.
However, after the activist Nelson Mandela was released from years in prison and later became the first black president in that country’s history, instead of simply holding traditional-type hearings and trials, convicting and imprisoning all those found guilty, he created what came to be known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Those who had committed political crimes were given the opportunity to own up to them publicly and seek forgiveness from those they had wronged—and, for those who had been killed, from their families.[iv]
That’s a different kind of justice from what most of the world is used to. And it has been by no means perfect. It has had its problems, its short comings. In some ways life there hasn’t changed very much. For example, twenty years later the income of whites is 6 times that of black people. Most of the latter continue to live in abject poverty. So while there’s now political freedom, there’s certainly no equality as far as economics is concerned. Still, the process of reconciliation has had some positive results. All in all, it has served as a real alternative to the usual form of justice.[v] As chair of the commission, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said:
….perpetrators of some of the most gruesome atrocities were given amnesty
in exchange for a full disclosure…of [their crimes]. Instead of revenge
and retribution, this new nation chose to tread the difficult path
of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.[vi]
Returning now more personal level, we may still have some problems when it comes to fairness and unfairness. We’re stubborn about it. But these words from Philip Yancey, author of the book What’s So Amazing about Grace, puts it all in perspective. He writes:
We [still] like to think of ourselves as responsible workers
[as were the all-day laborers in the vineyard], and [remain surprised
by] the employer’s strange behavior... We risk missing the story’s point: that God dispenses gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according
to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God’s requirements
for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up
Thank goodness God isn’t fair! Thank goodness that through Jesus we have been given a gift none of us deserves, but each of us receives.
R3 Congregational Renewal: Workshop #1—“Developing a Spiritually
Grounded, Missional Climate” (16 September 2017, St. Matthew Lutheran
Church, York, PA). Also see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matthew-l-skinner/parable-of-the-workers-in-the-vineyard;
and Philip W. McLarty in https://www.sermonwriter.com/sermons/matthew-201-16-the-parable-of-the-laborers-in-the-vineyard.
[ii]The Living New Testament with Psalms & Proverbs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1971).
[iii] Jonah 4:10-11.
[v]“Of Memory and Forgiveness,” in The Economist, 30 October 1997 inhttp://www.economist.com/node/104292; Juan Williams, in http://www..foxnews.com/opinion/2013/12/05/mandela-knew-capacity-to-forgive-made-south-african-leader-extraordinary; SudarsanRaghavan, 06 December 2013, in https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/south-africa-still-struggling-to-fulfill-mandela’s-hopes-and-dreams; Jelani Cobb, 06 December 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/mandela-and-the-poilitcs-of-forgiveness; and Buhle Zuma, in https://mg.co.za/article/2015-01-09-why-we-should-not-give-racist-white-people-what-they-want.
[vii] Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press, 1997): 61-62, cited in Warren E. Berkley, January 2006 in http://www.bible.ca/ef/expository-matthew-20-1-16.htm.