[And Jesus said:] "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 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?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
‘It’s Just Not Fair!’ If you are a parent or a caregiver of children, you have likely heard this phrase countless times, and if you can remember being a child and a teenager, you probably remember saying it ad nauseum as well…I know I do. The response children often receive is something to the effect of, “well, life’s not fair!”
We talked about this parable of the laborers in the vineyard at Bible Study this week, and this morning, I intend to give credit where it’s due…so, Tom Beckett made a great point…he said that we spend all sorts of time when children are young teaching them about fairness—encouraging them to share and be fair about the way they treat each other—and then we turn around and tell them that that’s not actually the way the world works. It’s not going to be fair for them, so they had better get used to it and quit complaining!
This concept of fairness has been on my mind a lot in the last few weeks. As I was planning Sunday School with Jacqui, we both knew that the discussion would have to focus a bit on fairness, because the children would hear this story and immediately feel that something wasn’t fair about how the laborers were treated. For all that we try to teach children about sharing and being fair, it seems that we are actually born with an innate sense of fairness…but at first, developmentally, that sense of fairness is very one-sided.
A child focuses only on what’s fair for her, and not what’s fair for others. This is perfectly natural and acceptable behavior for children, but we expect and hope that they eventually grow out of it—grow into people who think of others’ needs as well as their own—and understand the complexity of that concept of fairness.
So let’s examine this parable further, shall we? It seems that most of us, on first reading—or perhaps every reading—of this parable identify with the workers who worked in the vineyard all day, and thus, we sympathize with their anger at the seeming unfairness of the whole situation. But why? Why do we assume we would be the workers who were hired first in the morning? Why is it so easy to put ourselves in their shoes rather than those of the workers who waited all day in the town square, hoping and praying for work that never came, until the last glorious minute?
In our Bible Study, Carol Roberts made a profound statement, one I had honestly never thought of before in relation to this story. She said, “I think it would be a lot easier to be one of the workers who worked all day, knowing they would earn a paycheck at the end of it, than to be one of the people waiting without work most of the day, worrying about how they would afford to eat that night.”
Whoa. Seriously. That’s a deep statement, and it makes total sense! The workers who were hired in the morning had the peace of mind that comes with knowing they would bring home a paycheck, while the ones who were hired last suffered most of the day, realizing, perhaps, as the hours went on, that they would likely have to go home with nothing, facing their families with no food for supper or oil for their lamps.
For those workers, waiting in the square all day, passed over by countless employers for whatever reason, just the fact that this landowner hired them for an hour must have seemed like an incredible gift. And then, imagine! They go up to be paid, assuming they will only get a fraction of what they could have made for working all day, and they are paid a full day’s wages! What must that have felt like? Were they overjoyed? Embarrassed? Did they feel lucky, or unworthy? What if you were one of those workers hired last? Given the gift of a full day’s wages? How would you feel?
This parable doesn’t give us any indication of those workers’ feelings, but we certainly know exactly how the other workers feel when they realize what has happened. They are angry, indignant that they are only making exactly what they had agreed to be paid. They see the landowner’s generosity to others, and instead of admiring him, or feeling glad for the people who got the wage they needed to survive, they get jealous and mad.
“They grumbled…saying, ‘these last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us…’” Notice that with me…the landowner paid them exactly what they were promised, a wage they were happy to agree to in the morning and work for all day, so it is fair, totally fair. They have not been cheated out of anything. They are angry because he made the other workers equal to them.
Jesus’ parables re-imagine a world that subverts the status quo. The hierarchy among the workers was destroyed when the landowner paid them all equally. This was a blessing to those on the bottom, but obviously greatly disturbing to those on top.
In the Roman Empire, equality was not a familiar concept. Their society was extremely hierarchical, and while one could argue that ours’ is as well, the ancient Romans were much more explicit about it than we are. When you are raised to believe that that kind of hierarchy is the way the world works…and should work…to have it questioned can be very threatening, even angering…and that is true even if you are not on top.
That kind of system can be comforting, especially if it is all you’ve ever known. You know your place, you know what to expect, and, as with these laborers, unless you are unlucky enough to be on the very bottom of the power pile, you know that there are people below you who you can have power over, even as you may be beaten down by those who have power over you.
But through his parables, Jesus tells us again and again that the Kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms we know…the Kingdom of God does not have the same hierarchy, the same rules, the same restrictions…and even as that surprises and shocks his listeners, it also brings a glimmer of hope. Things do not have to stay the way they are. Society does not have to be based on inequalities, no matter how hard that may be to believe. God’s Kingdom is based on God’s rules, and not ours. In God’s Kingdom, God decides what is fair, not us.
Now, many people, at its inception, felt that the Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was fair. ‘we promise not to ask about your sexual orientation if you promise not to tell us about it…’ Of course, it didn’t really work that way. People were asked. Gay and lesbian service members lived under constant threat of being found out, of being discharged without benefits, without the honor they had worked for. They were forced to lie and keep secrets in an environment where trust is often a matter of life and death. And all because some people didn’t think—and still don’t—that gays and lesbians should be treated as their equals.
It’s not necessarily a perfect connection to make. After all, I’m not talking about service members who came to work late or didn’t earn their status and benefits. But, when we see this parable as being about equality, rather than fairness, more and more connections fall into place. This Tuesday, September 20th, is the day that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be officially and effectively repealed and rejected as an outdated, unequal policy. That doesn’t mean that magically, on Wednesday morning, everyone who opposes equality in the military will change their minds, or that gay service members will all suddenly feel safe and secure enough to be honest with their colleagues about who they are. But, it’s a step towards equality. It’s a step towards turning that sense of fairness outward.
It’s easy to get distracted by the details in this parable, easy to focus on the fact that some of the workers didn’t seem to do enough to earn the money they were paid, easy to identify with them and feel slighted... I don’t think that’s really the point, though. I think the point is that God isn’t fair. God gives each and every one of us so much more than we have earned, because God’s grace is extravagant…God’s grace is for everyone…and it’s never too late to do your work.
The last line in this reading is significant too, though perhaps often misunderstood. Sue Robinson put it beautifully during that Bible Study discussion…perhaps it should not read, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” but, “the last shall be equal to the first, and the first shall be equal to the last.” This, then, as I have come to see it, is the point of this parable. All are equal in God’s Kingdom, whether that seems ‘fair’ or not. It is not our place to be envious because God is generous, but to rejoice with each other when we are all blessed. AMEN