Annie recently told me about a post she saw on Facebook by one of her friends who has children. It was one of those tips and tricks sort of post that parents share to make life a little easier. Her friend had apparently discovered that she could use a muffin tin to make rice crispy treats that were all the same size, so that way none of the children would complain or throw a fit about who had the bigger piece. Annie had a mix of amusement and astonishment. With all of her grade school teacher-ness she laughed and said she couldn’t ever imagine something so ridiculous as children fighting over the size of rice crispy treats. I just smiled, thinking back over the many years of my siblings and I uttering those cringe-worthy words, “But that’s not fair” about practically every single thing that we could compare amongst ourselves.
A little more than a month ago on the day we heard the Gospel lesson of Jesus walking on water, you heard me preach about God not being fair. I said that God is not fair, that God does not try to be fair, and God does not desire fairness. Certainly basing it on what most of us understand today as fairness I am very confident that God never once seeks that out. But I also explained that God is just. God’s justice, mercy, and grace go far beyond any concept of fairness we might have, and most certainly transgresses on the sort of fairness that insists we are the masters of our own universe.
The parable we hear today from Jesus comes just after someone has asked Jesus how to obtain eternal life, and Jesus talks about it being hard for the rich man to get into heaven, harder than passing a camel through the eye of a needle, and the last lines before our reading begins today are, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Those words are repeated at the end of today’s reading. One would think that Jesus really wants to emphasize those words, and that they are quite important.
This parable is one of my favorites, and it is incredibly rich with allegory that offers different layers depending on who this is being addressed to. In the first place, Jesus is teaching this to his disciples, who very much are the first laborers in the field, and who will go on to inherit the ministry and found many Christian communities. This parable is also only in the Gospel of Matthew. That matters because this Gospel was written to a community that had a lot of longtime Jewish Christians in it, mixed with newer converts who were also most likely Gentiles. This parable is a reminder to them that they share equally in the wages of labor in God’s kingdom. Some theologians have also seen this as applying to the generations of Israel, those who followed Abraham, and those who lived by the Mosaic Law.
The parable is also one that allows us to consider our own work and life in our Christian communities, in our discipleship, and how we approach our siblings in Christ. For us we also have to struggle with the broken and false narrative known as the, “Protestant Work Ethic” which pervades American Culture and which directly contradicts what Christ proclaims as the Kingdom of God. But that is the beauty and the challenge of this parable: it lays bare a simple explanation of what it means for God to be just.
Within the parable there are two questions which are most important to focus on. They are both in verse fifteen. First the land owner asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” And then he asks, “Or are you envious because I am generous?” The answer to both of these questions is unequivocally, “yes”. Yes, the land owner is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him. Likewise God’s grace is handed out in what we would consider radically just, or maybe even too generously. Which leads to the second question and our answer. Yes, we are envious of God’s generosity. We are envious of others’ gifts, or happiness, or talents, especially when we feel that they haven’t put in what we’ve put in.
This is a hard one for us to grasp. How many of us, and I’m counting myself among the guilty here, have howled when we’ve been a customer of a company for years and we don’t get half the incentives or price breaks of the Johnny come lately that just signed up? Because we are human, because we are sinners always in need of God’s grace, we find ourselves stuck often in loops that resemble a childish faith. We hope that someone, “gets what’s coming to them” or perhaps that, “karma will catch up with them.”
It’s hard because we want to be right, we want to be good, we want to be patted on the head for doing what we think God wants. But that is not what should drive our discipleship. Those that serve God out of fear alone miss the point. They become unwilling servants. But those who labor for the Kingdom of God with joy get to experience glimpses of that peace and love which Christ heralds into the world.
God’s grace and mercy are just. My salvation is not dependent on you, or yours on mine. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love and mercy more than we already have. The generosity that Christ teaches through this parable is hard for us to conceptualize mired in a sinful, broken world that values dominance, violence, and greed. That is why we must struggle to live those values, that’s why discipleship truly is hard work.
I’d certainly like to tell you that this parable is also advocating for a just society, for a world where everyone’s needs are met, where there is true justice. But I’m not going to say that because I don’t think that’s the point of this particular parable. Jesus does preach about a world where are people are valued equally, where we do not bow and slave at the altar of empire, where we do not sit in empty mansions while children of God freeze to death outside. That most certainly is preached by Jesus, just not in this particular parable.
This passage is about God’s grace. It’s about salvation, about God’s just, merciful salvation that is given to all of us. It is given to those we think should get it and it is given to those we don’t think should get it. Even the most vile, evil of humans is still loved by God, still offered grace even as we stand there and grumble against the landowner. It is our task, our call as Christians, as followers of Christ to work on ourselves to see others as God sees them. To try and conceptualize the generosity that Jesus speaks of in this parable, to understand that God’s mercy is greater than we can fathom.
Kathryn Blanchard says, “God’s standards of justice and value are consistently presented in both the OT and the NT as alien to human standards, but God’s people are expected to behave according to these alien standards, neither demanding their rights nor begrudging others’ good fortunes. […] this parable tends toward radical equality in the church, in which all are equally near to receiving God’s gracious reward.”
We are called to labor in the God’s fields. Some of us labor harder and longer than others, but in the end we all receive the same reward. This parable asks us to examine ourselves and to see if we are those grumbling against the landowner, or if we are grateful for our daily bread. The Christian message is one of hope. Hope in God’s kingdom to come where mercy and justice flow like living water, hope in our salvation and resurrection, hope in the reconciliation of all creation at the end of all things. That is why we are reminded in our funeral liturgy, “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”