On Fairness and Grace

Scripture can be found here...

The last will be first. And the first will be last. Thus speaks Jesus, summarizing this morning’s parable.

Doesn’t seem like that, most of the time.

The last will be first, and the first will be last.

In today’s encounter with the storytelling Jesus, we hear a parable that may be familiar to a lot of us. It concerns a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And, as far as we can tell, he hires all who show up—and they all agree on the daily wage, and get to work.

But this landowner keeps coming out to check. And each time he checks, more workers have arrived. And each and every worker who arrives, he hires, and sends into the fieldI wonder why some workers got there early and some got there later? I wonder where the ones who arrived later were? Was somebody sick at home? Had they tried other vineyards, but found that the other landowners were not hiring? Were some of them passed over in other places for reasons unrelated to whether they could do the work?

I think of the signs my mother told me about, “No Irish need apply.” (Or Italians, or… you name the immigrant population). I think about the difficulty people with so-called “ethnic” names have of even having their letters of inquiry returned, and their resumes looked at. I think of bosses wondering whether women have families, whether they really will give 1000%.

We don’t know. We don’t know anything about the late-arriving workers.

But we do know something about the landowner.

He keeps coming out to check. He keeps venturing outside. I wonder why? Was it a very large harvest? Was he worried that he wouldn’t have enough people to pick the luscious grapes? Sticky work, I’m imagining, but wonderful too… to bring grapes to harvest, knowing how valued they were as a food, fresh or dried, but even more so for the sweet juice that would be turned into wine.

I know wine isn’t everybody’s thing. And the bible recognizes that, too… that not everyone can or should drink it, and that it is not for all times and seasons. But a strong prophetic thread throughout scripture associates wine with all that is good and delicious and life-affirming. Wine is a sign of abundance, of blessing, of the gifts of creation. As he lies on his deathbed, the land of promise just over a horizon he will never cross, Moses includes wine in the gifts to be found there:

“If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the Lord your God … will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your ancestors to give you.”  ~ Deut. 7:12-13

It’s no accident that the workers in Jesus’ parable are bringing about the creation of this wonderfully symbolic beverage, which, I seem to recall, blesses at least one wedding in our scriptures. The gifts of God for the people of God!

But something most definitely goes sour.

You know what happens. You heard the story. The landowner, who keeps checking all day, and keeps hiring all comers, in the end, pays everyone that same originally agreed-upon one day’s wage. Those who have been laboring all day are not happy. Those who have been laboring one hour are incredibly grateful.

It’s not fair. It’s not fair to be paid the same whether you worked one hour or ten.

But the kingdom of heaven is like this, says Jesus. So… I suspect there is a deep blessing in here, somewhere, for all the workers. We just have to adjust our lenses to see it.

I keep going back to that landowner. I suspect that he kept going out all day long, not because he needed workers, but because the workers needed him. I suspect he wanted to include as many as possible in the process of this delicious project, harvesting the grapes that would nourish and bless the people. I suspect this mischievous little story is designed to do what Jesus does best: turn absolutely everything we think we know on its head.

There is a modern day parable I’ve read, and I bet a lot of you have read it too. It goes like this:

An anthropologist proposed a game to kids in an African tribe. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told them that whoever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he gave them the signal to run they all took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat in a circle enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they chose to run as a group when they could have had more fruit individually, one child spoke up and said: “Ubuntu, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?” “Ubuntu” in Xhosa culture means: I am because we are.”

Another way of saying what the Ubuntu philosophy means: A person is a person through other people.[i] I suspect that the landowner’s motivations had something to do with a concern for all the workers, the ones who had arrived, and the ones who hadn’t gotten there yet; every last one of them, hoping to be paid the usual day’s wage, which is to say, the amount need to feed a family for one day. I suspect the landowner hired people all the live-long day, not because of his own need, but because of their need. God knows that we all need to be part of creating something beautiful and life-giving. And we all need to be able to put food on our own tables. And when we are all able to do this, we are all stronger. I am because we are.

Yesterday the Presbytery of Susquehanna Valley met to discuss and vote on a number of issues, including a change to our denomination’s Directory for Worship, saying, in part,

Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.[2]

Most of the debate was kind-hearted and sincere, though not all agreed with this change, which would codify in our Constitution the idea that it’s not only heterosexual folks who can get married, but gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, too. Two people, it says. And I could not help thinking about today’s parable as I thought about those who believe allowing everyone to marry somehow damages the institution of marriage itself. Those who have arrived late to the vineyard are getting their full day’s wage. I’m sorry it causes some pain. But I’m not sorry for the church’s welcome, at long last, to people who still don’t even have the right to work in some states, or the right to visit their beloved in the hospital, or the right to parent their own children.

This story by our storyteller Jesus tells us far more about the landowner than about any other character.

I suspect that the landowner is God. And I suspect that, in God’s economy, the last shall be first, because we all need one another, desperately; and because what blesses some of us, actually blesses all of us. The last shall be first, because how can some be happy when others are sad? The last shall be first, and because even the most humble of God’s children are clothed in love, given the glorious work of the vineyard, and welcomed to the table. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] “Ubuntu” (philosophy), Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_%28philosophy%29

[2] Presbyterian Church (USA) Amendment 14-F.