God’s Grace is greater than Our Fairness

Written by Joel on September 21st, 2011

Sep 18, 2011
Proper 20
Matthew 20:1-16

When Jesus uses a parable, we are invited to see ourselves in it, and also to see a bigger picture. Who are you in this parable? Are you the one who worked first, the one who worked last, or someone in the middle?

Matthew Henry, in his commentary does a wonderful job of explaining the allegory of this parable (An allegory is a story in which each element stands for something else). He says, all of us, who have answered God’s call to enter into his kingdom as Christians are those laborer’s in the vineyard. The vineyard is the church, and the owner is God. The day stands for our life time and the payment of a denarius is our eternal reward. Some of us have been at this Christian path for all of our lives; our parents shared the faith with us from before we can remember; some here in this assembly have lived the whole of your Christian lives right here at County Line church and you can remember how your ancestors deeded the land and built this church with their own hands and money, a gracious act memorialized with their names in our stained glass. There are others in this assembly (or those who have come by to take a look) who are new (or newly re-discovering) God’s call on their lives. You may not have grown up at County Line, or even grown up as a Christian for that matter, but somehow your are recognizing what God is doing in your life so you go like the laborer in the parable because you are now called. Your name is not in the stained glass (you might not even have your name on so much as an offering envelope), you don’t know how we do things around here, your new. And then there are folks in between. I’ve heard that here in the valley, if you’ve been here for less than 20 years then you’re a new comer. We have new comers that have been here for 3, or 5, or 10 years. County Line faces the not-so-unique church challenge of bringing old-timers and new-comers together has one church; because at the end of the day, whether you’re a new comer, old timer, or somewhere in between we all get the full days wage. It would seem that God’s grace is greater than our fairness.

It’s really unfair, isn’t it? These folks worked for only an hour and they get a full days wage!? We’ll its not so much that the early workers are unhappy for the late workers; its just in light of all due fairness, all of work, shouldn’t we get more? More pay, more benefits, more say‚Ķ

This parable is set in a common experience in Jesus’ time. A land owner would go out to the market place to find laborers. It’s a practice that still exists today, and may tell us a bit about the experience. Folks stand idle outside of a home improvement store and wait for folks to hire them. Day laborers. I read the summary of a 2006 UCLA study on day laborers in America. The five top five jobs include construction work, gardener, painting, roofing, and dry wall. A larger majority (83%) of day laborers rely on this work as their sole source of income. Day laborers earn an average of $10 per hour, but their work isn’t stable. There are good months and bad months, which come down to about $15,000 per year – keeping them at or below the federal poverty threshold. Because day labor escapes regulation there are many workplace abuses. For example half of the laborers surveyed reported that at least once in the last two months an employer refused to pay them – they stole their work. Half of the laborers also report being denied food, water, and breaks. Tough work. Plus, if you don’t find work you don’t get paid and you might not eat or be able to provide for your family.

So, let’s hear the parable with some of these modern figures (maybe with a bit of rounding). A farmer went out at sunrise to hire some day laborers to work the fields. He agreed to pay them $100 for an honest day of hard work. They agreed and so they went to work. He paid the average wage, not abundantly generous, but certainly fair, and enough to care for the family’s need for a day. Every couple of hours the farmer went out to hire some more folks saying “I will pay you *whatever is right*.” He even went out at 4 o’clock to hire some more of the unemployed laborers. How strange of course. Did he really need the extra workers for this hour, or was he being generous in this case for those unable to find work? This farmer paid the folks the same day they worked – no waiting for a two week pay period, he knew their needs and his agreement to pay. So 5 o’clock rolled around. It was time to go home and time to get paid. I wonder that this parable isn’t so much about the owner’s generosity as it is about our sense of fairness, or our covetousness. He could have paid the folks in the order that they started work, he could have still been unfairly generous with those that only worked for an hour, if he paid the last – last, it would have been a pleasant secret between the owner and the late workers. But for some odd reason he wanted the early workers to see it. Could you imagine what was going on through their minds when they saw the 4pm workers getting a hundred dollar bill? A quite calculation: this man is paying $100 an hour, now that is really good money! I’ve been here for 10 hours, so I’m going to get $1,000 bucks! Of course imagine their surprise when they also get that $100 bill. It is what they agreed for in the first place, it’s not unfair. There is only grumbling when their payment is compared to the payment of another; there is jealously about the grace of another. The owner shares: you’re being ridiculous. This is my money and you can’t tell me how to spend it. God’s grace is greater than our fairness.

What might this parable mean for the modern church? I do hear folks here talk a bit like the early workers: “I worshipped here all 60, 75, or 80 years of my life and haven’t missed a Sunday in all that time.” or “My family built this church” or “I’m here every Sunday.” What is left unsaid is “therefore, my opinion matters more.” and its certainly understandable, that sounds like it would be more fair that early workers deserve more, it would be more fair for the more devoted to have more say. What about a member who does only show up once a year? Maybe they would be a 4 o’clock worker, but does that make them smaller sharer in receiving God’s grace, or less of a member than others? The last will be first and the first will be last. What about our youth who are now fully professed, baptized, and confirmed members of this church – do they have any less of a stake because of their age? This is a challenging parable indeed, because God’s grace is greater than our fairness.

It does cut both ways too – old-timers don’t have any less of a say either just because they are the old timers that like the way we’ve always done it. Old-timers call the church to be deliberate in our actions. And newcomers don’t have less of a say just because they haven’t been around long enough. Newcomers may call the church to take risks that may revitalize the church for a new millennium.

The challenge of this parable is for Christians in the church today is to view each other as fellow workers, all with the same claim to God’s grace. Not competitors for a greater portion of God’s grace, not competitors for a great say in how we organize this body we call church. This is God’s vineyard after all, not ours. We don’t have a claim to more of a say here on the basis of any good works that comes from our own self – we are here because we have been called to be laborers in the God’s vineyard, and he deals grace and a place in that kingdom in the way he sees fit. God’s grace is greater than our fairness.


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