Fair warning before we hear Jesus’ teaching today: I’m not sure any of us will fully comprehend what he is saying this side of eternity. As you hear these words, pay attention if feelings of defensiveness arise in you.
[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."
You know that defensive feeling I spoke of? We’ve been taught a certain type of justice all our lives. The kind that involves working HARD and being rewarded for it. This type of justice leads us to compare ourselves with others. Our coworkers, our partners, siblings one from another, neighbors, siblings in Christ. We’re social creatures, we compare ourselves with others AND we want our hard work to be noticed. This all seems to matter to us a great deal! I can tell you, when I clean the house & coordinate ALL the children’s activities & buy groceries & lander the towels, you better believe I want my work recognized. Do you have a version of this too, this “justice is EARNED” mentality?
The problem with comparison, however, is in the way it steals our joy. See, the first workers in the vineyard that day, they seemed content to work for a fair day’s wage…until, that is, they started the comparison game. They made the choice to no longer be satisfied. As much as this parable is about God’s relationship with us, it’s also about our human response. See, we forget that we have a choice in how we respond to a given situation. The early workers CHOSE to grumble. They CHOSE to reframe a situation in which they were offered a fair wage into a competition- and by doing so, they make themselves into losers. Why is this faulty logic? Because God doesn’t operate in a competitive way- it’s not in God’s nature.
You know what God chooses? Grace rather than a merit-based competition. EVEN when we don’t deserve it God’s generosity IS the way divine justice is bestowed. Generosity-by virtue of its definition- is never earned, and therefore generosity is never fair. Generosity is generous.
God is a generous God, this much we can be sure. And so Jesus uses this story to remind us- that we must hold our earthly existence (and all the comparisons and spiritual judgments) carefully, with gratitude and humility, never assuming “our way” is the only way to live into Christ's generous grace.
Hear Jesus' words again: 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? Yes, God- you are. It's your grace, yours alone.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not for us divvy out. It’s not for us to decide who’s earned it. Because, well, none of us do earn it. It's a gift, and the second we question the merits of that gift in someone else's life, I hear God’s voice whispering, “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
God's generosity transcends our human religion. These are my words, but I believe it's what Jesus is saying about the Kingdom of Heaven here. And this is truly good news, because it means that no matter what measures of worthiness (and unworthiness) we humans construct for ourselves, God finds a way to extend generosity that transcends our human expectations. Jesus finishes the story by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The last people we expect to be seated at the right hand of Jesus- will be there anyway, if God sees to it. That's how big our God is! I’d like to offer you the same invitation I heard from God this week because of this parable. What if you and I CHOSE to soften our competitive edges? How might we begin to reframe our experiences in life? Could it be the very idea of competition is preventing us from experiencing God’s grace in our lives?
God is generous to you and to me. Let us be generous with one another in response. Amen.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.