The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
One of the important realities of our faith is that God does not operate by the rules we humans have set up. Rules such as you go to work, earn a living and support your family, mow your lawn, pay taxes, save for a rainy day. And if you do not do the aforementioned, you face the consequences. God does not abide by these rules. God operates by grace. Grace is free unearned love and goodness. Grace is extravagant. Grace is prodigal, generous.
Here’s a story I heard recently. A man sat down for breakfast at diner in South. He ordered a breakfast of bacon and eggs, and when it arrived, there was a mound of gooey white stuff on the plate. He asked the waitress what it was. She said it was grits. He complained that he had not ordered grits. “You don’t understand,” the waitress replied. “You do not have to ask for it. You just get it.”
That is what grace is. It is something you do not ask for, you don’t deserve. It is the Christian word for the fact that we live in a world where a generous, mysterious loving God is bent on blessing us in unpredictable, uncontrollable ways that we probably will only rarely notice.
Last week’s Gospel and today’s are about grace. About God’s generous love to all persons, of every race, nation, religion, sexuality, no matter what their circumstances. It’s the same love we’re called to, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. I willingly admit it is very hard.
Today Jesus tells the "The Parable of the Generous Landowner,” where a landowner goes out several times in the course of a day to hire laborers for his vineyard. When the long workday is at last over, the landowner pays every worker the exact same wage, and the laborers who started work at the crack of dawn complain. In response, the landowner deflects their accusations with a question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
This is a hard parable. I’ll bet most of us feel the pain of the workers who were hired at the start of the day, who were expecting more because they worked longer. Everyone getting the same pay messes with our sense of fairness and justice.
And yet… the workers that were hired later in the day, was it their fault that were not hired first? I think of the day laborers who gather at various places along 95, waiting for someone to hire them. Or those who stand outside Home Depot hoping to be picked for a construction job. What about them? Those looking for work might be undocumented, or have children to care for, or even be physically disabled—whatever their situation, they are not blessed with the security of regular employment. Sometimes they must wait for hours for a chance to work.
Could there have been some who, because of whatever was different, or not valued about them in the culture—gender, skin color, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status—had been marginalized by society, perhaps fired from another job because of discrimination, and were “gun shy” about trying again. They sheepishly come at the end and in the dusk to be as inconspicuous as possible.
We live in a society/culture where a person’s value is measured by his/her job, education, dress, earnings. Work hard. Work harder. Work harder still. We are taught that happiness comes to those who slog the longest to achieve the highest success. It seems that’s how the world works. Supposedly, that’s how fairness works. Our culture’s values are often opposed to the Gospel. And that puts us in a difficult situation. God’s economy is different than that of our society.
This past week I volunteered at a food pantry in Bridgeport. It operates from 2-5. At 2:00 people were lined up down the street. As the first persons came through, they received all that the pantry had to offer, produce, protein, bread, cheese. After a couple of hours, as the pantry’s resources were depleted, we were down to oranges, plums, cheese, and tuna. The last who came got the least. Just the opposite of today’s parable. I felt badly for them; those persons had come from their jobs. I am comfortable, privileged. The inequity of it all slapped upside my head.
In God’s economy it is wrong that people go hungry, that some folks have no place to call home, that one’s ability to get medical care is based on one’s ability to pay, that persons who work f/t for minimum wage cannot earn a living. This parable shines light on political and economic exploitation in Jesus’ and Matthew’s times as well as in our own. That’s a good thing, because we do need to pay attention to that, including how we participate in and profit from such systems, and we need to do all we can to change systems that are built on injustice and unfairness. That’s part of our job description as people who try to be followers of Jesus. That’s the work we’re meant to do in God’s vineyard.
This parable also shines light on something more insidious: a very human tendency, one we all know only too well, that can undermine our own and others’ well-being. It can not only poison our souls, but it can also effectively blind us to the bigger picture of unfairness on a systemic scale. And it can keep us from seeing and accepting God’s grace.
The human tendency I’m talking about, and that Jesus points to in this parable, is the inclination to compare ourselves with others, to compare what we have to what others have. That tendency seems to be built in, or at least highly contagious, which it why it surfaces so early and easily in childhood. It’s actually a helpful skill when properly used. Part of the work of growing up, of maturing, is using our tendency to compare ourselves to arrive at a realistic assessment and acceptance of our own strengths and weaknesses.
But there’s more to our identity than our strengths and weaknesses. There is something even more important and more foundational; this parable points to that, too. It’s something every bit as true and present as systems that exploit and every bit as true and present as our inclination to compare ourselves with others. And it’s this: each of us is a beloved child of God. Each of us—day laborers who work and day laborers who stand idle, managers, owners of the vineyard, absentee landlords—all of us alike.
God creates each of us, loves each of us more than we can imagine, and showers us with grace that we don’t and can’t earn. There is nothing we can do to make God love us any more, no matter how many hours we work. There is nothing we can do to make God love us any less, no matter if we stand idle or even if we exploit. God’s grace is not a zero-sum game, so that giving to one leaves less for others. God doesn’t work that way.
When we are able to see that and accept God’s grace, for ourselves and for others, then the kingdom of heaven is revealed right here and right now. The kingdom of heaven not some time or place in the future; it can be right here and right now.