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Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 21, 2014

When I was nearing the end of my freshman year in college, it became known that not everyone who wanted a room for next year was going to get one. The way we were going to decide was going to be on a first-come, first-served basis. At a certain time, we were all going to make a mad dash for the lobby and those in line first would get rooms. Those who were at the end of the

line would not. I was lucky. My dorm room was just off the lobby. I didn’t have to run very fast or very far to ensure a good place in line. Others were not so lucky. They had to come from the third floor, pushing and shoving their way down two flights of stairs to reach the Promised Land, so to speak. One girl even broke her ankle in all the confusion. It was a horrible way to select who was going to get rooms. It was not fair because some people had farther to travel than others. It was not generous either, because everyone didn’t get what they needed. There was no offer to put three people in a room, no promise to make sure that by the end of the summer, there would be rooms for all.

Today’s parable talks about the relationship between justice and generosity. We live in a world where we like to emphasize justice – people get what they earn or what they deserve. Businesses soon get rid of workers who come in late or leave early or do not do their jobs. If businesses paid people who worked one hour the same as those who worked eight, the economic system would collapse, though some people expect the government does just that. Very seldom do you see employers give employees lighter duties because of illness or other disability and pay them the same as those who are working at their regular duties. People insist on justice in the courts system – prison time or capital punishment for those who have committed crimes. It is only fair, only just. Very seldom do you see a family pleading for the life of a criminal who has murdered one of their own. That is just not our system. People should get what is fair for what they do, good or bad.

This story offers us three perspectives on the difference between fairness and generosity. First there is the landowner. He has a harvest of grapes to bring in. If they are not harvested at the best time, they will spoil. It is typical for landowners to need extra workers to bring in a harvest. So he goes to the marketplace early in the morning and hires workers and agrees with them on the daily wage of one denarius. You would expect he would hire all the workers he needs then. But maybe he has underestimated the labor he will need or maybe he wants as many workers as possible to be employed. He promises the others to pay them what is just. To the five o’clock workers, he does not promise anything. He just tells them to go into the field. All of these workers are dependent on the character of the landowner. They don’t know how much they will get, but even part of a denarius, which was considered enough for a person to sustain themselves for one day, was something. Then there are the workers who come to work at six am and stay until six pm. While all this hiring is going on, they are laboring to harvest the grapes. The work is boring, and the sun is hot. They are glad for the job, but probably wish they didn’t have to work so hard.

These perspectives clash when it is time to pay the workers. Though it was customary to pay the first workers first, this time the landowner puts the last workers in the front of the line. They all receive the full day’s wage of one denarius. Their response is gratitude. They go away thinking how generous this landowner has been to them. They are thankful that they will be able to feed themselves for one more day. The ones who worked all day get excited. They imagine that they will get a bonus because they worked the full day. Imagine their surprise when they only get the one denarius that was agreed upon. They are unhappy, and they grumble. It is not fair that the landowner has not been generous to them too. They deserve more. All the workers have been treated equally, and that is not the way it is done. The workers have a legitimate gripe. We would certainly complain if we were in a situation like that. To make everyone equal is to not give credit where credit is due.

But the landowner has something different in mind. He wants everyone to have enough. He reminds them that they had agreed on that wage and asks them if there is not a deeper problem than the difference in pay. It is the equality assumed by the owner’s decision. We live in a culture full of competition – rich vs. poor, superior vs. inferior, insiders vs. outsiders. And we all want to be on top. We all want to get what is coming to us if not more. We all want to be in the position of advantage. And the landowner disregards all those norms. They are envious because he is generous to others and not to them. They are angry because of the radical equality the owner’s actions demonstrate.

Jesus has said that the kingdom of God is like the landowner. It is a kingdom where everyone is invited to work and those who come early to the vineyard and those who come late are given the same reward – eternal life. The first to come – like the disciples, like those of us who have given a great deal to the church – are equally as important as the last to come – those who experience conversion late in life for example, and do not have much time to work. God invites people indiscriminately to work in the kingdom and be God’s people. God invited the Israelites, then God invited the Gentiles. The twelve disciples came first and many people came after, but all will get the same reward. In a system based on who has done the most, this does not compute. Before the story, the disciples ask what they will get for leaving everything and following Jesus. After the story, James’ and John’s mother asks if they can sit beside him in the kingdom. They are still thinking on the merit system, which is why Jesus tells this story.

I tried to find an article to share with you showing an example of what Jesus is trying to get across about the kingdom, but I could not find one, and I am not surprised. The articles were about corruption and war and murder and winning and losing. They were not about the extravagant generosity of God, who gives us the gift of good work for the kingdom, as well as the gift of reward for work done. For God, to be fair IS to be generous. God wants everyone to have enough – to have their “daily bread”. God wants everyone to be saved, no matter what the circumstances. This parable is about the physical and the spiritual realm.

What can we do to bring God’s way of radical generosity and equality into our daily lives? First, we can remember that all we have is a gift from God. God has given us abundant life to use for God’s work. We can stop comparing ourselves to others and be thankful for what God has given us. It is harder to do than you think because the social inequities of this world almost drag us to a different perspective. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. We would like to be the former. We can think about fairness in the work we do for others. St. John’s is working for fairness when it packages food for AFAC or makes lunches for the Bailey’s Crossroads Shelter to help make sure everybody has enough, no matter their circumstances. We can be radically generous in our giving to the church, which changes and save lives to help bring in God’s kingdom. We can trust more in God to be generous to us. God’s generosity extends way past our views of fairness based on the merit system. In God’s kingdom, what is fair IS what is generous, and that is to give everyone who wants it eternal life with God. Play fair, but play God’s view of fair. Be generous, realizing that all are loved and cared for by God, including us, and that we will get what we need – a chance to work in God’s fields and help bring in the kingdom.


     - Rev. Ann Barker