“That's Not Fair!" 9-20-2020, Proper 20A

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We just heard one of the strangest stories in the Bible. We heard Jesus tell the parable of how all the grape-pickers hired to work in a vineyard got the same pay, even though some had worked through the hottest parts of the day- from 6 AM to 6 PM, while others had just worked from 5 to 6 PM- one hour. If that wasn’t bad enough, the owner made those who had worked the longest also wait the longest for their pay. And if THAT wasn’t bad enough, the owner seemed annoyed when the workers who had worked the longest complained. Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of heaven is like this parable. What in the world is going on?

After all these years, I think I finally understand the implications of this parable. The Rev. Ann Fontaine (an Episcopal priest from Wyoming) tells about her experiences picking beans and strawberries in the Portland, Oregon, area when she was a teen-ager. Ann was just trying to make a little money, but many of those hoping to work had families to feed and rent to pay. She said that when the field owner’s busses came to the corner where everyone who wanted work had gathered, the strong were chosen first. If the field owners needed more help, only then would those who looked weaker be invited to work. All of a sudden, I realized that I’d experienced this kind of waiting and hoping and disappointment and embarrassment before. When I was in elementary school, I hated gym class during the spring because we would go out to the playground and play softball. The gym teacher would choose two of the most popular kids as captains, then each captain would take turns picking his/her team. The first chosen would be the popular kids who could hit home runs and catch well. As you probably remember, the choosing went down-hill from there, until finally the one or two kids who were afraid of the ball and so near-sighted that they couldn’t see it coming were left. You know who was in that group, don’t you! ME! That’s probably what was happening in the market. All the peasants needed work, so they could feed their families. The pay was minimum wage- enough to care for a family for one day. So, you see, it was important to work every single day. A day without work meant a family without enough food. However, when the owner came, he probably hired the strongest. Then when he found more workers were needed, he hired the next strongest, and so on. It probably wasn’t until the 5 PM hiring that those who were near-sighted, or weak, or crippled were hired. When pay-time came, the last hired were the first paid. Why? Maybe because the owner felt sorry for them because they had spent such a long time agonizing and wondering if they would have anything for their families. Perhaps because he wanted to teach the stronger that they must care for those more vulnerable. (Matthew 25; “Whatever you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do to me”) That’s really the first life-lesson from this parable. What else is in this ancient parable of Jesus for us?

Did you hear the story of the new boss who had just been hired to replace a manager who had been too soft on his employees? The new boss watched as everyone worked steadily, everyone- that is- except one person who was just standing, leaning against a wall. “Young man,” said the supervisor, “how much do you make a week?” “$200,” was the answer. “Well,” said the boss as he pulled $200 from his pocket- “Take this $200 and get out of here! You’re fired!” “Oh, O.K.” said the man, and he left. “Who was that man?” asked the boss. “The pizza delivery person,” was the reply. NOT FAIR! That’s what I’d previously disliked about this parable. It seemed like God was unfair. But life as a child of God is not based on output, it’s based on God’s love. God’s kingdom is not a business, it’s a family with God as our dad. In a family- if one child needs a pair of shoes, everyone doesn’t get a pair of shoes. If another child needs a new coat- that child gets a coat. Our needs are met, not our entitlements granted.

Did you notice- everyone gets one denarius- enough for one day. This is exactly what God did with the Israelites in the dessert- provided them with enough bread for only one day (2 days on the Sabbath). That’s how God expects us to live- by faith- one day at a time, one problem at a time, one joy at a time. When we say “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are asking for power and endurance and grace for one day at a time.

Finally, the latecomers are as loved as those who were there first. In Matthew’s church, the newcomers were usually Gentiles- barely accepted and not considered as deserving as Jews. How many churches do you know who are glad to welcome newcomers to help pay the bills as long as those new people don’t try to change anything or get in positions of power or decision-making?

May God bless us as we attempt to live out the implications of this parable.

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