Grace That Offends our Good Sensibilities
A few years back, I was reading scripture with a life-long church member and I came to the passage in Luke about the widow’s mite. You know, the one where Jesus is hanging out at the temple, watching people put their contributions into the offering plate. And he sees a widow drop in two mites – which is next to nothing – and Jesus responds by saying that she’s put in more than anyone else because “all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” At that point, the person with whom I was reading remarked “Well, that’s a nice story, but it’d be awfully hard to run a church that way. Don’t you think?”
And that might give us all a moment’s pause. After all, it’s true. The church, just like any other organization, has bills to pay. Whether its mites or pennies, Duke Energy is gonna make sure you cough up every last one you owe them.
Because that’s just the way the world works. And that’s why we work. Now really, how many Americans do you think would go to work every day if they didn’t get paid? Even if you feel like your work is meaningful and appreciated, there are still lots of days when we’d just as soon be hanging out on a beach or a golf course, strolling through the woods, playing fantasy sports or scrap booking. As I once heard someone say, “I like work; but I like not-work better.”
Now, not everyone is able to work. Most of us acknowledge that some are physically or mentally unable to work. And they deserve to be cared for. But, most of us get incensed when we read stories of people who are perfectly healthy, perfectly capable of work, yet choose not to. They’re getting all kinds of help and assistance just to sit around and do nothing. And frankly, I find no less offensive (perhaps even more so) top CEO’s who drive their companies into decline, downsizing the work force and cutting wages while their personal salaries, bonuses and benefits continue to soar. Their workers slave away all day and stock prices plummet while the CEO is out golfing, sailing on his yacht or wining and dining his cronies.
Now, if what I’ve just said resonates with you, then you may have found this morning’s parable from Matthew offensive. The landowner of this parable is clearly ignorant of the fact that what is fair is equal pay for equal work. And that equal pay for unequal work offends our good sensibilities.
Well, first let me say that economics didn’t work the same in Jesus’ culture. In Jesus’ day, people didn’t view wealth in the same way we do and people didn’t strive to be upwardly mobile. They believed that people were born into their social position and so that’s where they ought to stay. Furthermore, material wealth was not the most valuable commodity. The most valuable asset was one’s reputation, or one’s honor. Nevertheless, some were quite wealthy, and if they were to be viewed as honorable, they would handle their wealth in a way that reflected concern for those beneath them. They would function as patrons. And so a wealthy landowner ought to provide for the needs of his laborers in a way that was not lavish, but adequate for the meeting of their daily needs. And a worker ought to be satisfied with that because, to seek anything more, displayed a dishonorable arrogance. What we, today, would call incentive and self-motivation; they would consider arrogance and haughtiness.
So, let me draw your attention once more to this morning’s parable. In it, we’re introduced to a landowner who owns a vineyard. Now, we can’t say how wealthy he is. But, as our parable progresses, the fact that he continues to secure more and more employees, would leave us with the impression that he must be pretty well off. At least he owns land and most people in those days didn’t. He heads out to the marketplace one morning to hire day-laborers for his vineyard. Now, we don’t know how big the vineyard is or what season we’re in – is it harvest, pruning season? We don’t know. But they enter into an agreement – a contractual arrangement, so to speak – that they will receive one denarius for the day’s work. Now we don’t have strict or exact exchange values for ancient currency. But, roughly speaking, a denarius would have been a pretty typical paycheck in Jesus’ time. It wouldn’t have been extravagant. But, it would have been enough to get by. So, they head to work.
Later, the land owner heads back out again to secure more workers. Now, if you’re a curious person, you might wonder why. I do. Was the landowner a poor planner? Didn’t he know how many workers he’d need at the start of the day? What’s up with this? But here’s something important to notice. He doesn’t enter into a compensation agreement with these workers. To them he basically says, “Go to work and at the end of the day, I’ll give you what’s right.” Now, that word “right” is the root of our New Testament word for “righteousness.” And, “righteousness,” according to scripture, has to do with being in proper relationship with God and with people. So, what happens with these subsequent workers has a very different feel to it than what happened with the workers at the start of the day. “Right” may or may not have anything to do with the legal minimum wage requirement.
As the story progresses, about every three hours, this land owner goes out and hires more workers. And it is not until the last group that we get a little clearer sense of why this might be occurring. For to the last group, the land owner poses this question: “Why do you stand here idle all day?’’ They reply, “Because no one has hired us.” And he responds “Go into the vineyard.” With this group he doesn’t even mention payment. But, it gives us some insight that, perhaps, this on-going expansion of the work force has more to do with the need of the laborers for work than it does with the need of the land owner for extra workers. His motivation seems to be their idleness, not his need.
And so, this land owner is being portrayed in a very positive light. But things are about to change. When it comes time to hand out the paychecks, the landowner instructs his manager to begin by handing out payment to those hired last – those who have only worked for one hour. And they wind up receiving an entire denarius. Hmm. What’s up with this? Perhaps this land owner is a very generous man. For, if he has paid a whole denarius for an hour of work… well, imagine. Calculate the new hourly wage. A denarius an hour is hardly the minimum; it’s extravagant. But, those workers are in for a shock because as each one inches forward in the line, each one receives the same pay – one denarius. Well, that can’t be right. Those people who punched in at 9 o’clock are hot and sweaty and sun burned and just plain beat. And this is what they get for a hard day’s work – no more than somebody who showed up one hour before quitting time, when the sun was going down and the breeze was starting to blow? This isn’t fair and they’re not afraid to say so.
They challenge the land owner. They confront him in a way that questions his honorable character.
And so the landowner defends his honor. And here is his response: We had a deal, didn’t we? And didn’t I keep our deal? My money is my money and I can spend it as I please? “Is your eye evil because I am good?” In other words, do you envy me my graciousness toward others? Now, let me explain that, in Jesus’ culture, the eye and the heart were connected. So those with evil, envious hearts had that evil pass out of them into another person through their eyes. Now, that might sound silly to us. But, it wasn’t silly to them. Today, if there is a virus going around, I might be alarmed if you sneeze on me lest your infection enter my body. Something “evil,” so to speak, might come out of you and enter me. And so, evil envy might come from someone’s inner being and inflict harm upon another. Furthermore, let me clarify what envy is. Envy goes beyond wanting something for ourselves. Envy involves wanting someone else not to have it. And, that’s why envy is evil. It is not necessarily evil for me to want a nice, decent house or a decent, reliable car. But, it is evil if, along with wanting it for myself, I want you NOT to have it.
So, the bottom line of our parable is this: The land owner is, in fact, good and he has behaved in a way that is “right.” It simply did not match his employees’ definition of fair and equitable. Remember “right” isn’t about economics; it’s about relationships. For those who worked all day, this is grace that offends their good sensibilities. They do not want what is right. They want what is fair.
Now, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a parable about capitalism; it’s a parable about the kingdom of God. This parable is not a plan to reform Social Security or Welfare. This is not a “how-to” manual for state or federal government. This parable is for the Church which shouldn’t, after all, work in the same way. Because the one in charge around here isn’t nearly as big on “fair” as he is on grace.
So, people of God, if we are to labor in our Father’s vineyard, putting to use our talents and skills, then we’d better be prepared to throw our usual notions of how economics work right out the window. Because if we’re striving for the reward of a fair, hourly wage, then, long hours and hard work will elicit nothing but grumbling; nothing but hours of comparison with co-workers who, at least in our judgment, haven’t done their fair share. But, if we head out to labor for the owner of the vineyard, simply trusting that – in the end – he’ll give to us what is right – what we need – then, who knows, we might even end the day with a wonderful surprise.
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