Summary: We do not want what we deserve but what we need. That is forgiveness and grace.
18 Pentecost A Matthew 20:1-16 September 22,2002
There was a newspaper story some years back of a man who sold his asphalt company for $422 million. That was not the reason for the story, but it became a story worthy of newspaper attention when he gave $128 million to his workers. For those with pensions he gave $2000/year for each year worked and for those without pension he gave between $1 million and $2 million depending on years of service.
As you might expect the workers were overjoyed. They were not simply without a job, they were set for life. In a very self-effacing manner he said he wanted to share some of his good fortune with those workers who had been loyal for so many years. This was one of those feel-good stories that newspapers runs on occasion, put next to the comics in a Saturday edition. Odd and quirky sort of news.
Our reaction to such a story is one of amazement – that someone could be so generous. We might go so far as to say that, “Well, he still has $300 million.” No, this was truly a generous act toward employees that had no right to expect it. This was truly a strange sort of generosity. Who ever heard of a professional athlete saying, “I only need $60,000 to care for myself, so I will give the other $6 million away.” The bank CEO’s do not make news by announcing that their stock options for the year have been turned over to the poor in the inner cities.
This man is certainly not typical. This is not good business practice. It is at best off-beat and quirky. Such generosity does not come natural to many people.
Henry Ford is reported to have once said, “What is good for business is good for religion. Well, you read this parable and you wonder. An employer handing out the same wage to those who worked one hour as those who worked twelve. If this parable has something to do with religion it is still unfair. When God checks the heavenly bank accounts, will there be no difference? Will the every-Sunday life-long Christians receive the same as the Christmas and Easter irregulars? Perhaps God’s ways are not our ways but they should at least be fair. There is an old Jewish story where the old rabbi says, “When I get to heaven, I’m going to grab God by the beard and say, ‘God, you don’t play fair.’” Well, if God is the boss, then, no, God does not play fair.
In some third world nations the people gather daily in the town square looking for work in the hope that they will earn enough to feed their family for that day. To not find work is to go hungry. It is the strongest and the young who are chosen first. They get the full day’s pay. But the others, the old and the lame, remain in hope that someone will still chose them for work. If more workers are required the employers will come back. The strong who are still waiting are chosen first and just maybe there will be enough work for the old and the lame. To not be chosen is to not eat. For all of these people who gather, work is not a luxury or something to avoid, it is essential for survival. To hire a person at the end of the day, possibly the old or lame, is to provide the food needed to survive that day.
We have read this parable often as one about lazy people who have laid around all day. To be hired at the end of the day was to insure that these people also, received what they needed to survive. It is not a story about fairness, it is a story about sustenance. The owner says to those who worked all day, “Friend I do you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual day’s wages?” And we want to answer with the first chosen, “But. . . but.”
We want to read this parable as one about fairness, but is that what we want or need? An old proverb says:
When we get what we deserve, that is justice.
When we don’t get what we deserve, that is mercy.
When we get what we don’t deserve, that is grace.
Clinging to our sense of fairness reveals how we misunderstand God’s ways. God’s kingdom is not based on what is fair but on what we need. We don’t need justice, we need grace. Grace that overlooks all we are and all we have done and said. Grace that allows us to stand in line hoping that God will smile upon us. Fairness is not what we want because if fairness were the measure I would have to admit that I am more like the 5:00 p.m. worker than the 5:00 a.m. worker.