Two blog posts in two days is a little much, so I’ll keep this one short. I was so excited when I went to church this morning and discovered that the Gospel reading was one of my very favorite parables of Jesus: the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. If you can’t call up the story immediately, it’s the one where the landowner goes out to hire day laborers for his vineyard 5 times over the course of one day [early in the morning, 9:00, 12:00, 3:00, and 5:00] and contracts with workers for a day’s labor. At the end of the day, he starts by paying those last hired, and surprisingly, he pays them for a full day’s work. Needless to say, those hired early in the morning are deeply chagrined when they get the same amount of money, even though they worked much longer and harder. Jesus silences their grumbling and ends the parable with the fabulous zinger: “are you envious because I am generous?” Then he reminds us that “the last will be first and the first will be last.”
I love this parable because, unlike so many other saying of Jesus, you don’t really have to work too hard to get his point here; and the meaning translates seamlessly into our own 21st century context. OF COURSE we are envious because God is generous! Oh sure, we want God to be generous with us, those “insiders” who believe, who have faith; but we certainly don’t want God to be generous with “them”—those who have skated in at the last minute, those who have not proved themselves with hard work, those who woke up late or are simply lazy, and those who are too preoccupied to be in the right place at the right time. No, we insistently reject God’s generosity with “the last” and continually demand that God be “fair”: that God meet our own standards of reward and punishment, just desserts, and evenhandedness.
However, in spite of all our griping and whining, just as insistently and continually God rejects our standards, and chooses instead to be lavish with God’s mercy, prodigal with God’s giving, and excessive in God’s grace—even with those, like us, who sulk in envy when someone we believe to be much less deserving than us gets the very same reward in God’s kingdom. It’s a bitter pill for the hard working Christian to swallow, as much today as 2,000 years ago. It just isn’t fair!
But look, this attitude is unworthy of the children of God, and it should shame us—we, who know better than anyone the joy and gratitude of being on the receiving end of God’s compassionate favoritism. It would be so much better if Christians could just chuck out the window this whole idea of “fairness” and embrace God’s radical bias towards the lost and the least. The good news of this gospel story is that God isn’t fair, and you and I don’t get what we deserve. Instead, we get more than we could ever imagine, more than we would dare hope for, more than we can dare dream of. Who wants fair, when we have God’s loving partiality? God refuses to be limited by our notions of fairness, and for that, we should be deeply grateful.