Do we choose fairness, or generosity?

Across the country, the typical day-laborer’s story goes like this: you show up very early in the morning at some unofficial, designated site—usually a parking lot; you hope for work; you take whatever job is available, such as roofing, pouring concrete, ditch digging; you work for eight-plus hours; you get paid minimum wage. The next day, if the job is still available and you’re still able (meaning, you are not sick, not injured; or, you have child care and reliable transportation) you repeat the process all over again.

The fringe benefits? None to speak of. No sick days, no health insurance, no job security.

Jesus’s parable today puts us squarely in that parking lot pick-up area, indeed into every labor market where men and women desperately needing work persistently press forward, hoping to be chosen. It is a scene repeated thousands of times every day around the world.

But this is a parable, and as parables tend to do, we soon see that fixed notions of how the world operates are overturned, and all attempts to make the story obey the rules of the “real world” fall apart.

In this parable, there is a virtual flipping of the order of the world. Jesus often relates this inversion to the kingdom of God, which he says can be anywhere, among us now, today, or in the future, after our death. The kingdom of God is present wherever there is grace.

When I first read this parable I thought that it was about the need of the landowner. But in fact, nothing at all is said about the need of the landowner. What is highlighted is the need of the workers. The landowner sees them “standing idle” and that sight prompts him to offer them a job. The order of the world is flipped since in the real world, the economy revolves around the need of the bosses, but this story is pulled along by the need of the workers.

Then there is the motive of the workers. Those who were hired first negotiate with the landowner to make sure they will be fairly paid. But the subsequent groups of workers go into the vineyard not based on a contract but simply trusting the character of the landowner that they will be compensated. The order of the world is flipped a second time, since usually in the real world you don’t offer services without a guarantee of reward.

Then there’s the issue of payment and compensation. The workers are paid in the reverse order of their hiring. The workers hired last, were paid first and received a denarius, a whole day’s pay. The workers who were hired first got exactly the same pay. “This is unjust!” they protest. The landowner responds in effect, “You have some nerve accusing me of injustice. You got just what you negotiated for in the beginninga day’s pay for a day’s work. The order of the world is thus flipped a third time since, in contrast to a real world scenario that operates on deals, bargains and rules of fairness, ithis parable, the whole thing revolves around generosity, and everybody gets enough to live on.

As one commentator keenly put it: “This parable allows us to enter for a moment into an alternate world, one that operates on generosity rather than greed, ambition, and competition. It allows us to experience a world in which those who stand ignored, idle, and discarded by society are nevertheless of great value to God – worthy, regardless of their circumstances, to live with dignity each day.

This story also clashes against our rules of fairness, and challenges us to reconcile those rules with our generosity. Are fairness and generosity so different from one another?

In recent days we have been embroiled in a public debate about generosity and fairness, specifically about whether or not to afford generous hospitality to Dreamers, those adults who have lived in the US since they were small children, whose parents brought them here undocumented. They have never known another country. English is their language. They have attended American schools all their lives, and many are now productive tax-payers, doing all kinds of skilled work and contributing to the support of this nation.

Yet, their status is still as an undocumented person living in the United States. DACA—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation– would allow those who fall into this category to stay here. But there is the opposing side who feel it is unfair.

Do we choose fairness, or generosity?

And in Jesus’ parable, the same reality is present. Those who worked the fewest hours would not have been able to live on the little pay that those few hours would have yielded. They needed a full day’s pay. Again, do we chose fairness or generosity?

Can the United States be a place where we have to do the difficult work of making room for people whose experience isn’t like ours, but who are just exactly the people we need? Can we reconcile our fairness and our generosity?

The parable today is about grace. And mercy. And hope. It is about sheer generosity; unexplainable, unfathomable generosity, for no reason at all. It is kingdom thinking. It is when we say each week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The kingdom of God is present wherever there is grace. And grace, by definition, cannot be computed or calculated. Where fairness calculates, love lets go. Where fairness holds all things in proper balance on the spreadsheet, love and generosity give everything away, upsetting the balances we have so carefully constructed.

When, for instance, we overlook the thousand kindnesses a partner or friend has bestowed upon us on our behalf, but nurse a grudge about the one thing they did to hurt our feelings, will we call for fairness, or will we live out of generosity and love?

And let’s be honest– living out of love? That’s really hard, because we seem almost hardwired to count our hurts and disappointments rather than our blessings. The owner of the vineyard asks those who have worked longest and (most likely) hardest for him, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

God was overwhelmingly generous in giving us Jesus Christ. And because of Jesus, God looks at us in love and therefore overlooks all those places we fall short and chooses to treat us with unmerited grace, mercy, and generosity. We are all equal recipients of God’s gifts. We are all God’s beloveds.

May the grace and power of God’s Holy Spirit enable us to offer to others the same awesome generosity that we ourselves have received.

Please pray with me:

We are thankful for all that you have given us. May our thankfulness overflow to all areas of our lives and may you provide us with opportunities to share our gifts with others. Thank you for giving us new life through Jesus Christ, and enable us to live in the reality of that new life today and in the days ahead.


Proper 20, 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

September 24, 2017

The Rev. Deborah A. Lee

Matthew 20:1-16

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