My father was a Teamster shop steward. He was passionate about the importance of his union to protect the rights of workers. I suspect he wouldn’t have been too fond of the landowner in the parable we just heard in the Gospel. For him, it was critical that workers be treated fairly, that they should be compensated appropriately for their work. The idea that someone who worked eight or ten hours would get the same wage as someone who worked just a couple of hours would cause him to say some harsh words about a boss whose actions seemed, at best, capricious. My father believed that workers should be able to know what they would get for their labor. He would probably say, in his usual brusque way, that the landowner should shut and play fair and pay fair. Fairness – an appropriate compensation for one’s labor – was at the heart of his belief system.
But Jesus’ story isn’t about fairness between workers and landowners, is it? It’s about something much larger.
Let’s look at the story through another lens. Imagine Steven Spielberg hires a bunch of people to serve as extras in that new “Lincoln” movie he’ll be shooting here in Richmond next month. He doesn’t know exactly how many extras he will need, nor does he know if he’ll use them all – it’s a function of how things flow during the shoot. They are to come to the set and wait. If he needs them, he’ll call them. He tells them they’ll get a fee of $150 dollars to be there for the day, whether he uses them or not. Midway through the day’s shoot, he realizes he’d like another two dozen people as extras, so the casting director phones the next group on the call list and says “get over here now.” Again, they don’t know if they will actually be used, but union scale says an extra gets $150, so whether an extra shows up at 7 am or 2 pm, they all get the same $150.
For some reason, the second scenario doesn’t bother us as much. Maybe it’s because the extras sit around and wait, and aren’t doing manual labor like the workers in the parable, or because the movie business is all about fantasy anyway, so it doesn’t seem quite as unrealistic to pay a flat fee no matter how hard the person works that day…
…working that day. That’s the key, isn’t it?
The workers in the parable are unhappy because they think, as my father the shop steward might have thought, that their compensation should be geared to what they deliver, to how many hours they work.
But the landowner says it is not about their work, it is about his generosity. He’s met his obligation – he told the workers at the beginning of the day what they would get paid, and he has given them what he said he would. He isn’t shorting them on their compensation. He is, however, being very generous to the latecomers…and that is his right. As long as he doesn’t short anyone from the first group, it doesn’t much matter what he gives the later group. But the morning group are unhappy with that generosity. Shouldn’t they, then get more? Wouldn’t that be fair?
But perhaps the work of the last group was better – perhaps they were more productive, perhaps they were gentler on the vines, causing less damage that would require pruning after the harvest. Who knows why the landowner has done what he did?
In my father’s warehouse, there was usually grousing about bonuses at Christmas time. Some people got them. Some people didn’t. It was the prerogative of management who got them, and for how much – it wasn’t something that was part of the union contract negotiations. And invariably when the bonuses were handed out, some folks who come to my father and say “How come John got a big check and I didn’t? It’s not fair. I only got a little check.” And my father would say “Shut up and say thank you. Anything you got in a bonus check, it’s just that, a bonus. A gift. It’s not guaranteed. Be happy. You could have gotten nothing.”
In a way, in this parable, Jesus is saying “Shut up and say thank you.”
We find it easy to grouse about what we perceive as unfairness in our lives. We can find ourselves wondering why good things happen to others when we have tried to be faithful disciples. We can think, “Why would God be so generous to that person when I’ve been plugging along doing the right thing my whole life?”
We might think it’s not fair somehow, that God is capricious in what gifts he bestows on whom.
And then it’s time to stop and think about it a little harder.
What does God give us? Life, a whole beautiful world. Family, friends, a great community in which to live. He gives us an understanding of who he is, through his son Jesus. He gives us his word, written down by faithful people who heard his voice. Most of all, he gives us second chance after second chance when we go astray, when we say cruel or petty things, when we are jealous or unfaithful or greedy. He gives us eternal life if we simply believe in him and love him and try hard to be faithful to him.
Eternal life. That’s a heck of a Christmas bonus, isn’t it? Too big to measure. Too extraordinary to ever deserve. And yet this generous God does this, simply because each of us, every one of us, is the object of God’s love.
This is not about hourly wages. If God paid us back in divine love in an hourly wage for each hour we were truly his faithful ones, we wouldn’t have earned that eternal life…we’d get maybe a small percentage of eternity. But God gives us the whole wildly extravagant gift of eternal life. Not because we’ve earned it, because he just loves us so very, very much.
If Steven Spielberg only paid the extras for the time they were actually doing something during filming, some folks would get $150 and some would get bus fare. If the landowner looked closely and carefully at what each worker was doing, some of the ones who worked all day would get $5 because they slacked off and didn’t work hard at all, and some of the ones who worked the last two hours would deserve $50 because they gathered many more bunches of grapes. That would be fair, wouldn’t it?
And if God gave us what we earned, if we used that measure of fairness, I suspect it wouldn’t be eternal life.
But God isn’t about what’s fair. God is about love and generosity and redemption.
And that isn’t about measuring what we perceive as gifts we’ve received from God here on earth. That isn’t about who gets the most toys or jobs or recognition or any of those things that we mistakenly use as measures of God’s generosity in our lives. And it also isn’t about what we may perceive as punishments: sadness or disease or lack of success. Those aren’t a measure of God’s lack of generosity in our lives.
No, this parable that Jesus shares is not about life being fair or unfair. It’s about the ultimate unfairness: God loves us so much that he treats us in a way that is inherently unfair – he gives us infinitely more than we have earned. God gives us eternal life. A gift of pure love and generosity we could never earn.
So it’s time to forget about measuring whether we are treated fairly by God in terms of what life has brought us. The only measure that counts is not here. It is not now. It is what awaits us, because a God who is as capriciously generous as the landowner in the parable has decided to give us well beyond what we have earned in the life that is to come.
It’s time to be grateful for that.
It’s time, as my father would say, to “Shut up and say thank you.”