By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
If you have ever taken the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, you might recall that there is a question on the inventory that asks you to select which of the two seem most appealing to you: justice or mercy.
I find that an interesting question because here’s my theory: as flawed, sinful human creatures, I think we generally want to receive mercy for ourselves and mete out justice for others. Here’s an example for you… You have a meeting at a local coffee shop on the same street you drove down two hours ago to get to the office. There’s no parking near the coffee shop and you notice that one car is in the same 2-hour parking space it was in when you drove to the office two hours ago. You are now running late and frantically trying to find a parking space. You mutter under your breath that whoever is in that spot has little regard for others and you find yourself silently hoping they get a parking ticket for their inconsideration. But on a different day you are about to leave a meeting at the same coffee shop when you see someone walk in who you’ve been trying to contact repeatedly in recent days and they have not returned your emails or texts. Aha, they are now a captive audience, but you only have five minutes left on your parking meter. Your conversation with them is important so you hope that, should a parking attendant come by, they will show some mercy. This, I suspect, is as good an explanation of human nature as any. Justice is a great cosmic concept. But, on a personal level, I’m definitely partial to mercy.
When I was in high school I sang one year in the regional chorus. It was very competitive and I was excited about the opportunity. We received our music in advance and the choir director informed us on the first evening of rehearsal that there would be open auditions for the various solos in the choral selections. However, no student – regardless of ability – would receive more than one solo. At the first opportunity, a young woman from a very elite local school expressed her desire to audition. That school district was the crème de la crème of our region. The homes in that community were tremendously expensive; the parents were all upper income, white collar professionals. The young woman had a lovely voice so it did not seem unfair when she was awarded the solo. But about 20 minutes later we began to rehearse the next choral selection with a solo and she raised her hand once again. The director reminded her of his earlier announcement that no student would receive more than one solo. She proceeded to express that she preferred this solo to the prior one. Would there be a way she could switch to take this solo. Clearly growing impatient with her negotiating tactics, the director looked at her intently over the rim of his glasses and said, “Young lady, I am not Monte Hall and this is not ‘Let’s Make a Deal.’”
Again, I think the question of whether mercy or justice is more appealing depends pretty significantly on your personal experience and where you factor in to the equation.
Fortunately, God seems to view things differently as this morning’s parable makes clear.
This is a parable about life in the kingdom of God. Although it may sound like a cryptic term, the kingdom of God is pretty self-explanatory. It is that space, that realm, within which God always gets God’s way, in which God’s sovereignty is acknowledged and upheld. Yet God’s way, throughout scripture, is described as embracing both justice and mercy. So we discover that two terms, two concepts, which often appear as opposites from our human perspective are held in a divine perfectly-balanced tension.
There are a few things to notice in this morning’s parable. First, the employment conditions entered into with the initial laborers are not the same as those expressed with employees who arrive near the end of the shift. Before the start of the work day, the land owner goes out to secure workers and they enter into an agreement together that reflects a typical labor employment agreement in that time and culture: one denarius for a day’s work. This is their agreement; it is a mutual decision. But, for a reason undisclosed, the land owner returns to the marketplace repeatedly as the day stretches on. Did he actually need more workers to get the job done? Did he plan that poorly? If he did, the parable does not explicitly say so. Rather, it seems as if he responds not out of his own need for laborers but out of the laborers need for employment. With the last group of workers he asks the question: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They respond that no one has hired them. He replies, “You also go into the vineyard.” Now notice that, with these subsequent workers, the employment agreement changes. They do not arrive at a mutual agreement of the culturally accepted and expected daily wage. Rather, the land owner indicates they will be paid whatever is “right” or just? Were we standing in that market place, we might want to know how that “right payment” translates in dollars and cents. But the laborers don’t appear to seek any further elaboration on this deal. They just go to work. That word for “right” or “just” in Greek (the language of the New Testament) is the same word used by the apostle Paul when he speaks of sinners being justified before God by trusting in the grace of Christ. This kind of justice or justification is not something we earn; it is a gift from a generous God.
As the day draws to a close, it is time to get paid. Jewish law dictated payment to be made to workers before the sun went down. So the workers line up to pick up their checks, so to speak. Curious directions are given by the owner to his manager. Those who were hired last are to be the first ones paid. It’s an important detail to notice because immediately before telling this parable, Jesus tells his disciples that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” It seems to have been a prediction of sorts for that is precisely what takes place within the parable.
But things grow stranger still. Those hired last receive an entire denarius for their meager contribution. Talk about generous! This goes beyond generous; it seems wasteful and foolhardy. Those farther back in the line are no doubt eager to find out what this generous employer will dole out to them.
Yet they will not like what they discover for everyone receives equal pay for unequal work. That’s not fair. That’s not just or right, right?
Or, is it?
There is another social factor at play in this parable. The ancient eastern culture believed in something known as “limited good”; that there was only so much good stuff to go around. Years ago, thanks to automation and mass production, I would have said that we no longer think in those terms in America today. If something runs out, you just go to the store and buy more. But I’m afraid that, in recent years, the concept of limited good is back in vogue as, within our American culture, we seem increasingly concerned that your success has a direct correlation with my failure; that my advancement is dependent upon your regression; that we only have so much and so must jealousy guard what we have even if it means that others go without. So we find resistance even to legal immigration and laws such as affirmative action. We become fixated on separating ourselves from one another and we’ve succumbed to the divisive myth that the progress of those who are different will somehow lead to my inevitable demise.
But the message of this morning’s parable is something quite different. Within the kingdom of God, the space that we are being called to inhabit, our paradigm, is not one of limits, but one of generosity and solidarity.
This month is Pride Month in America, finding its origins and its voice through the Stonewall uprising in NYC in 1969. I trust all of us are aware of the debate that continues to rage within the United Methodist Church around LGBTQ rights to marriage and ordination. Due to COVID disruption of General Conference, the debate will continue to rage for quite some time I fear. But as a Reconciling Congregation it is important that we celebrate this month; that we celebrate LGBTQ persons here at Trinity. They bless us abundantly with their presence and their gifts.
I chose this parable this morning as a reminder to us of what life in the kingdom of God is intended to be like: a celebration of generosity and abundance and inclusion that sets us free from envy and fear and resentment. We are, too often, stingy with God’s grace. But I pray for our church and our denomination that, should we err, we may always err on the side of grace and generosity for the world around us has more than enough judgment and stinginess. How sad it would be if we were to reduce God to some kind of cosmic parking attendant, a heavenly meter maid. Life in the kingdom of God is anything BUT a zero-sum-game because when God truly gets God’s way, there is never a shortage of grace. There is more than enough for all of us. Thanks be to our generous God!
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