The Wages of Grace
Five shifts of workers each are paid the same wages in today’s parable from Jesus. The denarius coin each man gets paid is the standard wage for a day’s unskilled labor—enough to feed you for one day—but every man receives one denarius, whether he worked from sunup to sundown… or only worked a mere hour or two. It’s not exactly fair, is it? But it’s also weird that this landowner keeps hiring workers throughout the day. You would imagine he’d hire the full crew of workers at the crack of dawn and be done with the matter: no need to hire anyone else. But this manager keeps coming back… and back… and back, hiring more workers each time. Jesus does not say this landowner needs the extra hands. The parable simply says he sees unemployed men at the market… and decides to hire them then and there. At a certain point, you have to imagine the vineyard workers are tripping over each other, that there are more day laborers than acres to till. That’s not exactly normal either, is it? That’s not exactly fair to the workers who were there first, to now be stumbling over new guys, having to catch them up on the work you’ve already done. The landowner in this parable doesn’t honor all the extra effort put in by the first wave or two of workers. And the laborers themselves make it known, audibly pointing out the issue to their boss, who then scolds them. But they’re right in a way, aren’t they? The landowner is not being exactly fair. He’s not divvying up the profits according to work put in but rather divvying up the wages equally, regardless of time, skill, or effort. Unfair, right?
In a way, our Christian faith isn’t exactly fair either, is it? While preachers often celebrate it as great news, it does seem… odd—if not cruel—to hear Christians say that no matter the life you’ve led that God loves and forgives you if you but turn to Jesus. Think of all the schoolyard bullies in this world. The workplace monsters who steal credit, throw others under the bus, and generally make work miserable with drama and politicking. It’s one thing for the Lord to forgive and love me—I am adorable—but it’s another for the Lord to show mercy to those people who only make life awful and brutal for others. What’s fair in God forgiving them, after all they did? And it’s not like once you’re Christian, even after conversion, faith gets any fairer. A Christian who is sometimes good, sometimes bad, does the best they can while working their usual 9 to 5… this parable is saying they’re in the exact same boat as a Christian who sells everything to go be an nun or monk, dedicating everything they have to serving the poor and preaching the good news. Is that fair? Is it fair to put your ordinary Joe Schmo on the same footing as Mother Theresa or MLK? Or perhaps I’m being unfair even making that comparison when most of us—myself included—are often just struggling to get through the week with sanity intact. How do we make sense of our faith when it’s so unfair?
Speaking of unfairness, a wife once accused her husband of being unfair in his treatment of the kids. To which the husband replied, “Unfair to our kids? I don’t even know which kid you mean! Stephanie, Thomas, or the ugly one?”
Ultimately, the landowner is unfair in our scripture today. Questioned by his workers about paying everyone the same wages, despite them working different hours, the boss replies, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you give me the evil eye because I am good?” It seems to me Jesus is saying that the Lord’s love, that God’s grace, that the core of our Christian faith… is not fair at all… but it is just and good. Usually when we talk about fairness in our lives, it’s because some are getting far too much while others do not have enough. But in our parable, it’s unfair—not because some have too little—but because everyone receives enough, whether or not they fully earned it. The landowner’s system is not fair: those who worked harder or longer aren’t given double of enough. But this unfair payment ensures the last workers do not starve, can feed their families: them receiving enough, despite not earning it, was a life and death matter. And to the workers who complain, the landlord replies in essence, “Well, I did not treat you wrongly: we agree I did right by you. Who is harmed if I care for these others in the same way, not because they deserve it but because I am generous?” Jesus is telling us that God is not always fair… because God looks out for everyone. Grace is not fair… but it’s good.
There’s debate over what final lesson Jesus meant by this parable. Some preachers say the early vineyard workers represent the Jewish people, who had already followed God for centuries, while the latecomers were Gentiles converts, newly arrived to faith. Others say the early workers symbolize lifelong Christians, whereas the later workers are folks who convert late in life. I’ve seen others read the parable as ancient Christians who saw Jesus face to face compared to us living today… or extremely faithful Christians versus those for whom belief and right living are hard… or Christians who are upright members of society versus those with more ‘colorful’ pasts and personalities. There’s lots of arguments over who means what in this parable. But the thrust of Jesus’ message is the same either way: God’s grace … is freely given to all, regardless of how much or how little we deserve it. There is no rationing of grace: there’s plenty for all. The workers complain because they fear others getting paid more means they are receiving less. But the landowner gives unfairly… because his unfairness honors everyone’s work and ensures everyone’s survival. It’s not exactly fair… but it’s good and compassionate. It allows everyone to live. In God’s Kingdom, someone receiving more doesn’t mean I receive less: it means we all have enough. While I can certainly quibble over someone’s behavior, call them to live up to a higher standard, resist them should they do others harm… what this parable teaches is that I can never say God does not love them, that God does not extend them the same grace shown to me, that God could not make them better than they once were. Because God’s grace is not a limited resource to ration out: it is a lifeboat with plenty of room for everyone.
Today we welcome a new member into the Church of Jesus Christ through the sacrament of baptism. Reflecting on her baptism, I was reminded of a poem I usually associate with goodbyes and funerals… but today reminds me instead of hellos and new life. Poet and priest John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were.” God’s grace and love for this child… does not lessen the love God has for me… or for you. It rather unites us, turns us from islands of individuality into a mighty continent unified by grace. Grace is still not exactly fair: I imagine it’s a whole lot easier to love or forgive a helpless baby… than an adult who’s made plenty of his own mistakes over the years. But it’s the same God who loves us both, with the same intensity and ferocity. And like the workers in the vineyard, united in their labor and in their reward of receiving enough for “their daily bread”… I am united with this child in receiving God’s love and care… and eventually in laboring for the Kingdom of God through acts of similar compassion and mercy. Though she is only just now entering into the vineyard of God’s Kingdom, though she has many years ahead of her, may the child we baptize today remind us that we all work side by side in service to the same God, who loves us the same, and who gives us the same salvation in Christ. Amen.