Sunday is the first day that all of our youth programs start again. In Godly Play this fall, the children will be learning the stories of the Old Testament, the stories of the people of God and the development of their relationship with God and the development of the covenant. In the spring, they will learn the stories of Jesus and the early church. In Godly Play, when children are introduced to a parable, these are the words that are used: “There was once someone who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people followed him. As they followed him they heard him speaking of many things.”
Today we have a parable from the Gospel of Matthew. Every time I read the story of the laborers in the vineyard, the first thing that comes to mind is that it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that the people who have worked all day in the heat are paid the same wage as the people who are called to work the last part of the day. It’s just not fair.
We live in a culture that is steeped in a merit based system of fairness. Children are rewarded for good grades by being on the honor roll. As adults, we are given raises or special acknowledgment when we do well at work. We participate in a system that rewards the hard work and ingenuity of some, and ignores or punishes those who don’t achieve as much or do as well.
Fairness is important to us. I remember in high school when we were studying the poetry of Shakespeare, we were given the assignment to go home and write a poem in the style of Shakespeare--I think we were supposed to write a poem in iambic pentameter. One of the kids in my class found a website that helped him write his poem...he got an “A”. Those of us who tried to write it on our own didn’t do as well...I got a “B”. It wasn’t fair. In my mind, he had “cheated”. When I complained to my teacher, her response was “life isn’t fair”.
No, life’s not fair, but we want it to be. That’s part of why this parable is hard for so many of us...it’s not fair.
“There was once someone who said such wonderful things and did such amazing things that people followed him. As they followed him, they heard him speaking about a kingdom, but it was not like the kingdom they lived in. It was not like any kingdom they had ever visited. It was not even like any kingdom anyone had ever heard of. They couldn’t help it. They had to ask him. What is the kingdom of heaven like? One time when they asked him, he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard’.”
While this parable presents what seems to us an unfair situation, it is good news. The good news of this parable is that it reminds us that grace isn’t fair...God’s grace isn’t merit based.
Close your eyes for a moment and remember a time when you behaved badly towards someone, or you disappointed someone, or you felt like you failed. This memory may have anger, sadness or fear associated with it. In our world, the response to this experience might be shame, judgment, or punishment. But in the kingdom of God, the love of God is always filled with grace. In that moment of bad behavior, of disappointment or failure, God still loved you. It’s not fair, but grace isn’t fair.
It is so easy for us to be like the laborers who grumbled to the owner of the vineyard. The workers assumed they would be paid more for their labor than the late comers. They are assuming that there will be fairness. We assume that there will be fairness in life as well. But wouldn’t it be better if our assumptions were based on the belief that God’s generosity is beyond our wildest imaginations! How different would we look at the world and how different would we understand our daily experiences? As theologian Charlotte Cleghorn wrote, “God’s generosity often violates our sense of right and wrong, our sense of how things would be if WE ran the world…[this parable calls us to look at ourselves as God sees us]. It invites us to turn from holding grudges because things did not go our way, to let go of the stuff of our lives that keep us from being joy-filled and grateful people.”
On Wednesday I was having a conversation with some of my clergy friends, and we were talking about people coming to the faith later in life. One was telling me that they had 9 new people at church since January. Another told me that they had no one new at church, but that the members were still being faithful and serving as always. Both of these churches were blessed by God in their own ways, and it is a great example of God’s mercy...regardless if the person is a newcomer, or an old faithful, both are equal recipients of God’s love.
In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus reminds us that we don’t get to determine who is worthy of God’s love, grace and mercy. Another’s worthiness is not our’s to judge. Kathryn Blanchard said, “Despite earthly appearances of inequality with regard to who has earned a greater or lesser reward, this parable makes clear that there is radical equality before God. Reward comes not from each worker’s individual merit, not from the quantity or even quality of their labor, but rather from the gracious covenant offered by the one doing the hiring. God promises and delivers but one reward for all.”
As I was preparing for Sunday, I came across this quote that I want to share with you to reflect on this upcoming week:
What happens when love and fairness clash:
Fairness counts, love loses track.
Fairness calculates, love lets go.
Fairness holds all things in balance, love gives away.
God chooses love.
When it comes to our relationship with God, when it comes to the kingdom of God, we don’t get what we deserve. We get far more than we could ever hope or pray for. This is the good news of the parable.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.