Pentecost 14A, Proper 20
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is a difficult parable for many of us to hear: those who do the least are rewarded the same as those who do the most. Particularly to our American ears - so steeped in the Protestant work ethic and the promises of meritocracy and against the dominant cultural symbol of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. It just doesn’t seem to add up against everything that our culture teaches us.
It might be particularly troubling to hear this lesson in these days of a down economy. Prices for nearly everything that we need to buy keep rising, but wages aren’t keeping pace. The basic structure of this parable resonates with us: unemployment rates have remained too high for too long, so many of us understand what it’s like to be the late laborers - looking for work, perhaps even just enough to get by on, and too often without success. And even those of us who haven’t experienced that anxiety directly know someone who has.
So why have these people in the story been compensated for work that they didn’t do? Moreover, why did those poor laborers who had been working all day get the same as those who just worked for a bit?
It’s not fair.
And we’re not the only ones to think so. When those workers who had given their whole day received their pay, “they grumbled against the landowner saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” In essence they were saying, “It’s not fair!”
And it’s not. At least not the way we usually define “fair”.
The story we read about the Israelites’ time in the desert from the Exodus offers another perspective.
They, too, were grumbling against their leaders. Times were hard, wandering through the desert. Resources were scarce. The people were afraid, and they began to wonder if being freed from Pharaoh’s bondage was really the best thing for them after all - slavery had been hard, but at least they hadn’t been starving!
God heard the people’s grumbling and said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.” In the evenings quail came and gave them all the meat they needed. In the mornings, the bread for the day was scattered across the desert floor. In this way the people of Israel were sustained.
They were sustained with enough for the day. Not with storehouses of food, but just with enough for the day.
They couldn’t rest on a one-time gift from God that brought them through the forty years of wandering. Each day they went out to get ‘just enough’.
In God’s economy, the defining measurement is not fairness, but enough-ness.
We often talk about God’s abundance, but that doesn’t mean the streets will be paved with gold, or that our pockets will be overflowing with money. It doesn’t mean we will have resources to waste, and certainly not that we’re guaranteed to have as much as some of the people around us. It only means that we will have enough.
Think about the Lord’s Prayer - those familiar words written on all of our hearts. When Jesus taught us to pray, he said: ‘give us this day our daily bread’. Not ‘give us this day our winning lottery numbers’. Not ‘give us this day as much as our neighbor’. And certainly not ‘give us this day what is fair’. (The truth is, none of us want that.)
But no, it’s ‘give us this day our daily bread’. Give us this day enough. Help us get through today and we’ll think about tomorrow when it comes.
It’s a humble prayer. And it’s how we were taught to interact with God.
The people who worked in the vineyard for just one hour earned enough to sustain them for the day. So, too, did the people who had worked all day. They didn’t get rich; they got sustained. They got enough.
God’s grace is not bestowed on us according to how much we deserve it, but according to how grace-filled God is.
It doesn’t make sense in a capitalist system. It doesn’t make sense to a culture that teaches and values the concept of meritocracy. In God’s economy no one ‘pulls themselves up by their bootstraps’.
We are all sustained, not by our own merits, but by God’s grace - God’s overflowing and abundant, though never wasted grace.
It’s certainly not fair.