Sunday, 24 September 2017

It's not fair, but it is grace



I didn’t go to church much as a kid, but I remember pastor Bill calling up one day. He invited me to the church for a class. I think we played basketball, but there was a teaching part too. I remember him sitting us down around the table and he gave one jelly bean to one person, then 4 to another, 2 to another kid, and 6 to another. Then he asked, “is that fair?” “No way”, I replied. “But, they’re my jellybeans”, was his reply. And that moment was fixed in my mind. Something seemed wrong about it, but I couldn’t figure out what. He was trying to teach us about the grace of God, but I wasn’t getting it. All I could think was “that’s not fair”.

This idea of fairness has been deeply ingrained in us- Give people what they deserve. The parable Jesus tells us today isn’t about fairness, though, it is about grace and mercy. It is about God’s generosity towards those who deserve much less.

In our parable a vineyard owner hires people for the harvest. He hires people in the morning who work for him for 12 hours through the heat of the day. He returns to the market a number of times throughout the day and hires whoever he sees. Near the end of the day he still hires those who he meets in the market even though it means they would only work an hour or so.

This last group that gets hired is interesting. They have been standing around in the market all day and no one has found them suitable for hiring. They are the people who never get the job. They stand in the market reminded that they aren’t wanted any time an employer comes through. But, they dare not miss an opportunity for work. No doubt they have a family to feed back home just as most of the others do. And in that economy what you got paid that day equated to what your family ate that day.

What would have been expected would have been proportionate pay according to the amount of work put in. That’s what would have been right and fair. And yet, that’s not what happens. Those who only worked an hour are paid a full day’s wage. They don’t deserve it, but it means their family will eat tonight as if a full day was worked.

The vineyard owner is a generous man. He pays on the basis of his compassion, his generosity, and the need of a hungry family. He doesn’t necessarily pay on the basis of what is fair. Those who worked the full day were given a full day’s wage, which was what was promised. No injustice was done to them, though it feels like there has been an injustice done. If they didn’t know what the other workers were paid there would be no problem. The problem is that they know about the vineyard owner’s generosity. The problem is that they compare themselves to those around them. They think they should get paid proportionately. They should get two days’ worth of wages.

Those who worked all day are a bit like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The older brother did what was right. He bore the weight of the responsibility of the farm. Yet, when his irresponsible brother shows up after squandering his Father’s wealth he is showered with his Father’s generosity. It is underserved and unexpected by the younger brother. The older brother is annoyed by his Father’s generosity, just as those who worked the full day were annoyed by the vineyard owner’s generosity.

Of course how you feel about this parable will depend on which category you see yourself in. Are you the one nobody wants? Are you standing in the market all day, watching employers pass you over again and again? Do you know what that feels like? Have you ever been picked last when you’re on the playground and neither team captain wants you on their team? ... Suddenly God shows up and says you are wanted. You are picked up by God and blessed by God’s generosity far beyond what you deserve? … Throughout the gospels we are constantly told that God’s generosity towards those that don’t deserve it will be shocking and even scandalous. If we are those who are the forgotten and looked over, the picked last or not picked at all, that is good news and this is a beautiful parable.

We might see ourselves as those who have worked all day, though. We have endured the full heat of the day. We are dirty, our back is sore, and our hands are bleeding. We are tired. We see how generous God is towards those who deserve much less and we start to build up in our mind what we deserve in proportion to the generosity shown to those who worked less. But we are given what we need for the day, which was what was agreed upon. We expected more. We believe we deserve more from God. … We think about the hours we give to God volunteering for various ministries. We think about the money we have given to the church and to charity. The hours we have spent reading and studying the Bible… and yet, that person who has been drinking their life away has a profound experience with God. Or that person experiences a healing. Or they seem to have health in a way we don’t. It’s not fair. They get to be in the same category as us, who have worked so hard for God?

From that point of view it isn’t a good parable at all. We feel robbed. We feel like God isn’t fair. We are faithful and these others seem to get the benefit we deserve.

Of course it isn’t very hard to shift our perspective on this. … Imagine the early Christians living in times of persecution. You know people that have been jailed or executed for being a Christian. Your life and the life of your family is threatened constantly for being followers of Jesus. We don’t even have to go to the early church, we could just think about our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq as ISIS is coming to power. The cost for them to believe is high. All they had to do to get ISIS off their back was to convert. But many chose not to and suffered and died for their faith. …Now how do those Christians look at us? We get to be a part of the kingdom of God the same as them. Is that fair? After all they have sacrificed we get to be in the same category as them?

Our problem with the parable really comes down to how we compare ourselves to others. One of the 7 deadly sins is envy, which is a kind of disgust we have towards someone who experiences some good. This is highly comparative. We think we deserve more, or they deserve less- we see what they receive as saying something about our worth in comparison. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, 
“Envy is sadness at another’s good and joy at another’s evil”. The good they experience makes me feel worth less than them. The workers who were hired first were upset because they saw the equal pay as making those hired last equal with them (20:12). Envy is competitive. 

God gives His grace to people not as they deserve, but as they have need of it. As Jesus says, it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick (Matthew 9:12). Jesus’ attention to those on the margins who everyone called “sinners” was not palatable for the Pharisees and those who dedicated their lives to trying to please God.

Thinking of our life with God as an economic transaction isn’t really all that helpful, which is what Jesus is exposing with this parable. The problem is that we sometimes do think this way. I have sinned 5 points this week, so I need to do 5 points of good to make up for it. I have volunteered for the church 10 points, so God owes me. This isn’t really a healthy way to view our life with God.

There is an Eastern Orthodox teaching that says the followers of God fall into 3 categories. First, there are the slaves of God. The slaves of God follow God out of fear of punishment. They worry about the master’s whip if they do something wrong. Their primary relationship with God is as slave and master. Secondly, there are the employees of God. This is the group our parable is talking about today. They are primarily motivated by the reward they will get from serving God. The work they do equals pay. Finally, there are the children of God. These believers are motivated by being a part of the family of God. They are motivated by the love of their heavenly Father. They do the dishes because they are part of the family, not because they will be grounded, or because they will get an allowance for doing so. They do it out of love.

This is usually seen as a progressive model. The hope is that those motivated by fear or reward would eventually mature towards being primarily motivated by love

In John 15 Jesus says, “No longer do I call you servants,… but I have called you friends”. We can’t really think about our life with God as an economic transaction. It’s not about earning and owing. We serve and give because we love God. It’s not about earning anything. It is a relationship. We don’t keep track of the hours we spend with our friends and then think they owe us something for the hours we put in. You don’t earn a wage for spending time with a friend. That is just what friends do. Being friends with God means we will pray, and serve, and give- Not to earn anything, but because we love God. …

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