God is not fair

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus said, “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 marketplace; 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.’ 

Fairness.

We know all about what it means to be fair and what it means to be unfair. Whether it is being fair as a parent, or fair as a teacher or fair as an employer. We expect fairness from our political leaders, community organizations, public servants, the businesses we patronize and services we pay for. We want fairness from the place where we buy our milk and where we get heart surgery. And We complain about the lack of fairness whenever we see it… Fairness is an expectation that we try to hold our world to.

And yet, we know that being fair and even handed is as much art as it is science, and that fairness can be perceived very differently by two people. Just ask any siblings if parents are fair, or opposing hockey teams if the refs are fair, men and women working in the same fields if their pay is fair and we discover that fairness is very much about perception.

Jesus is talking about fairness today.

The topic has come up because Jesus has been teaching about the difficulty of the rich when it comes to entering the Kingdom of heaven, and Peter ( it is Peter a lot lately) wants to know what he and the other disciples will get – what is the reward – for giving up everything to follow Jesus.

So Jesus tells the disciples a parable. A landowner goes out throughout the day to hire workers for his vineyard. And every few hours he keeps hiring more… even hiring the last batch only an hour before the end of the workday. Yet, when it comes time to pay the workers, everyone is paid the same. One day’s wage.

Not exactly fair according to the definition.

And so naturally, when the workers who have worked since dawn receive the same pay as the ones who had worked only one hour, they grumble to the landowner. Should not they who worked the longest receive the most pay?

The landowner’s response to the grumbling workers sounds reasonable, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

But is it?

Well, not in the biblical world and nor in ours.

There are certain rules that we all play by in the world, and the long working labourers of the parable know this. And one of the most important rules is the rule of fairness: you get what you deserve. In fact, the biblical world was based on this idea. It wasn’t just about wages for labour.

The notion that you get what you deserve was everywhere. It was the basis for one’s social standing, it was the reason that some got sick and others didn’t, that some were inflicted with suffering and others good health. It was was some could keep and law and be righteous while others could not.

You got what you deserved in that world, and if you were punished or afflicted or poor it was because you were sinner. And if you were blessed, or healthy or rich, it was because you were a good person.

And so when this landowner asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” the answer is no. He is supposed to do what is fair, that is what the rules say, the rules that God gave to the people of Israel. Paying everyone the same is not fair, because people should get what they deserve. The labourers who worked longer should be paid more than the ones who came in at the end.

Now it is easy to think that we are more enlightened and know that things are more complicated. Because certainly we would never be so extreme as to blame the victims of violence or disease or suffering for what has been inflicted upon them, and surely we would never claim that wealth and success has been hard work when they have actually been because of luck and chance, and of course we would never feel entitled to more than we have received because we have judged those around us as undeserving.

In fact, our world is exactly like that biblical world that believes people get what they deserve.

We all too easily think that the workers who begin early in the morning are the hard working ones, rather than the lucky ones. We all to easily think the the workers who come at the end are the lazy ones, the death-bed converts who frittered the day away only to swoop in at the last minute to reap the reward.

We don’t generally see that there is a lot of good luck involved in being chosen first. And lot of bad luck involved in being chosen last or forgotten entirely.

We are much like the first workers. The first workers who thought they would receive more; but were paid the usual daily wage.

In fact, it isn’t until we are the ones waiting and passed over and wondering when our luck will change that we begin to see what might be really going on in this parable. It isn’t until we are the ones who are left idle in the marketplace… we are the ones who waiting in hospital for a diagnosis or treatment, we are the ones whose jobs have been cut, we are the ones who have not been invited to the party or left out by our community, we are the ones considered the death-bed converts that we begin to see.

God isn’t giving any of the workers what they deserve.

The landowner isn’t operating according to fairness.

The landowner is operating by unexpected goodness. Unexpected grace.

The landowner pays the workers and and pays them what they need. One day’s wage.

Just as God provided for the Israelites manna in the desert, God provided what they needed, enough for the day.

Just as Jesus taught the disciples to pray, Give us today our daily bread. Jesus taught them to pray for what they needed.

The labourers needed enough to buy food, to afford shelter, to provide for their families. A Denarii, the coin that represented day’s wage was not like our money. It was not meant to represent an amount of gold bullion, it was not symbolic of a measurement of value. A Denarii was symbolic of daily needs. It was supposed to be enough for anyone to live on, enough to buy food and shelter for one more day.

As the landowner goes back to marketplace again and again, hiring more workers for his vineyard he acts in manner that is completely outside of what it means to be fair.

He is acting based on what it means to be good. What it means to care, what it means to show mercy.

And when he comes at the end of the day, still finding workers he asks them, “Why are you standing here all day?” And they say to him, “Because no one has hired us”.

So the landowner does something that no one did in the biblical word. Something that no one does is our world because it is just not how the world works. The landowner does what is utterly unfair and unexpected. And not unexpected because it is surprising but because it is outside of expectation of what is normal.

The landowner says, “You also go into the vineyard.”

He sends the last and forgotten ones into his kingdom. He welcomes them and makes a place for them. He recognizes that what is good, even if it is not fair or expected, is to make sure that everyone is given what they need.

In a world that constantly tries to tell us that we should be paid what we deserve, it can be easy for us to buy into the same idea. It can be easy for church people like us to think that we deserve more, that we are the ones who have been working all day.

But God’s church operates outside of expectation, outside of what is fair.

Here, in God’s church, in God’s vineyard and Kingdom, the workers are given the usual daily wage. And not because our labour has earned it, but because it is what is Good and it is what we need.

And truly, as we gather week after week we should expect condemnation for our sins… but God gives unexpected forgiveness.

What should be fair is that the wages of our sin would be death… but God gives us the daily wage and the daily bread that is life.

What should be expected is we would be turned away by the stain of our sin… but God unexpectedly washes us in the waters of life.

What should the way things operate is that God’s grace and mercy cost more than we could ever earn… but because of God’s goodness and love, God gives us the grace and mercy that we need.

Our sense of fairness tells us we deserve more. And what is actually fair might mean we deserve much less than we have received.

Yet, God is not fair but God, and God gives us what we need.

Amen.

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