This morning’s Gospel lesson comes on the heals of Jesus’ discussion with the rich, young man about gaining eternal life. You may recall that encounter ends with the rich man turning his back on Jesus and going away sad. You may also recall that, immediately upon the man leaving, the disciples – with Peter as their brash spokesman, as usual – begin negotiations with Jesus in an attempt to figure out what the kingdom of God is like and make sure they are in the kingdom. What they are asking Jesus, what we are asking Jesus, is, how do we tell the difference between the way the world works and the way God works?
His answer comes in the form of a story. There was a gentleman who owned a vineyard, Jesus says, and it came time for the harvest. Most of the time a farm can be run by a few hardworking folks, but when harvest-time comes around, you need extra hands. So the gentleman who owns the vineyard heads out to the street corner and hires a group of day laborers. They agree on a wage – not an exorbitant amount, but a fair amount; a day’s pay for a day’s work. They jump in the back of his pickup and head off to the vineyard for a long day.
As the day goes on, the overseer keeps coming in and saying, “We need more workers.” At 9:00 am. At noon. At 3:00 p.m. And even at 5:00 p.m., though closing time is at 6:00. Each time, the owner heads back to the corner, where there is still a long line of hopeful day laborers. And each time he promises them a fair wage and takes as many as he can fit in the back of the truck. The last crop of workers barely has time to get their hands dirty before the bell rings and it’s quittin’ time.
The owner, unusually, has the last workers hired stand at the front of the line and, even more unusually, when he hands them their pay, he gives them the full day’s wages for their one hour of work.
As word spreads down the line, to the 3:00 workers, the noon workers, the 9:00 workers, and finally those who have labored since the crack of dawn, the excitement builds. “If he gave them that much, imagine what he’ll pay us.” But as the line moves up, the pay scale does not. Every worker, down to the first one hired that morning, receives the same thing.
When those early risers had agreed to the wage that morning, it sounded fine. Generous, even. But now that they’ve seen someone else get it for much less work, they are furious. The coins in their pocket, that they hoped for all afternoon when the sun was bearing down on them, now feel downright insulting. We can hear them cry out, “Hey, no fair!” Jesus’ listeners would have agreed. Many of us would agree. We expect a wage based on the amount of hours we work or the amount of product we produce.
But Jesus says, “What I give you is not based on how much work you do. It’s based on the fact that I choose you in the first place.” We’re so used to earning appreciation, affirmation, respect, and love, that the concept of God choosing us, not for what we’ve earned, but because of divine generosity, seems ridiculous. We hear a challenge to the core of the social fabric.
Rather than earning our way into God’s presence, God has given Himself to us, first at Christmas, in the person of Christ, and then on Pentecost, in the Holy Spirit. God chose to be with us here on earth. We didn’t earn it. And Jesus’ parable reveals that the same is true for heaven: God choosing us is what determines our destiny. Not our good deeds. Not how long we’ve believed. Simply God’s gracious generosity. It does not matter if we were chosen early in the morning or brought into the fold late in the day.
In other words, God’s approach to us is one of equity, not equality. Equality is an approach that gives the same amount of resources, opportunities, or assistance to everyone. Equity is an approach that gives everyone the amount of resources, opportunities, or assistance that they need in order to truly level the landscape. Of course, investing based on people’s specific needs means that some people will receive more, others less, and some, none at all.
You might want to read this parable as equality, since everyone receives the same wage. But, a denarius was a high daily wage for unskilled labor, maybe even twice as much as they might usually expect. Thus, the workers are already promised very generous payment (at least, compared to their earning potential). The landowner offers people not just enough to survive, but enough for abundance.
The landowner understands that everyone needs a daily wage to survive, so guarantees that their ability to earn won’t determine their ability to survive. He also understands that, to find a way out of poverty, they need more than what’s considered fair. So he blesses each of them with an unexpected and unearned abundance.
Jesus finishes His story with another one of those nonsensical gut punches He likes to leave us with: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” And that, friends, is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Here Jesus confounds attempts to establish “fairness” or equality as God’s intent for dealing with humanity. God offers us all the same divine presence and eternal blessing – regardless of our works, the strength of our faith, or the rightness of our belief. God offers us an overabundance, so that we can do more than just get by in faith, but thrive in faith. We receive whatever we need to live abundantly, some more, and some less, but all that is needed.
This parable reminds us that, rather than being motivated by “fairness” or reward, the most noble of motivations is gratitude. The profound significance of gratitude is that it impacts not just the one toward whom we should be grateful but all other relationships as well. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus assures us that those who give to the needy, pray, and fast in the secrecy of the heart will be rewarded. But rewards are mentioned as a by-product of a life that is free of self-advancement. As commentator Harold Hoehner wrote, “Believers’ motivation in this life should not be the obtaining of rewards as an end in itself. Our motivation should be to please God wholeheartedly in thankfulness for what He has done for us through Christ.”
Why is it “more blessed to give than to receive”? Why does God love a “cheerful giver”? Why was the poor widow’s gift, while less financially, actually “more than all the others”? In each case, it is because the gift came out of the fullness of a grateful life lived in God’s presence. A faithful “giver” is one who lives in unending trust in God and so can surrender his or her entire being to others as a gift of grace. I’m not saying living this way is easy. In fact, there are a lot of enemies of gratitude. And over the next few weeks we will look at some of them.
Living in gratitude is a challenge. Like the first who find themselves suddenly last, sometimes I want to yell, “They don’t deserve God’s grace! They didn’t earn it! They didn’t even try! That’s no fair!”
But then I realize where I am. Standing on a lonely street corner, desperate and hopeless with no place to go. When He comes along. And says He has a place, even for undeserving me. And so I hop in the truck.