As we began worship today, we sat for a bit with images that reminded us of the story of the prodigal son, or daughter in this case.
The question that I asked was simple:
Do you celebrate and rejoice when someone who is lost has been found?
Or are you like the brother or sister who stayed at home, the good child, the one who has always done everything right?
Do you feel like you are entitled to more because of your faithfulness and obedience and your work?
It is the question we wrestle with again in our parable from Matthew’s gospel.
It is the question the laborers must ask of themselves.
Do we think that we rightfully deserve something more than others? Are we resentful of what others get, when we are the ones who put in the time and the effort and the energy?
As we continue to think about the difficult relationships in our lives, competition, resentment, and jealousy can all play a role.
We can hold a grudge against someone that we feel has gotten an unfair leg up in this world.
We get caught up in that counting game of wrongs and rights, in who is ahead, and who deserves what.
And these kinds of sentiments can destroy relationships with friends, family, and co-workers.
The idea of fairness is built into our economic system. We believe everyone has a shot at the American Dream. We want the playing field to be level and we search out those who are cheating and throw them out of the game.
We want everyone to have an equal chance at greatness.
We want to be able to start at a place of fairness… and then the chips fall where they may.
Those who exceed expectations or break records or make billions have our attention. They have worked for it. They have earned it. They deserve it.
After all, we have worked hard for the things we have, just the same.
But when someone comes around who does little to no work whatsoever and gets paid the same as us…. Or when someone who has made millions does so by cheating the system… or when we lose our jobs because someone somewhere else is trying to save a little bit more money for themselves – then we start to feel that maybe the situation isn’t fair again.
As much as we like to use that word, fair, I have often found that the scriptures are full of stories that are unfair.
Like the prodigal son being welcomed back home after squandering his wealth.
And like our parable from this morning:
A wealthy man had a vineyard and needed workers. So he did what all landowners did: he went out and hired some laborers for the day.
Now, all of these day laborers started out with an even playing field. All of them were without work for the day. All of them were willing to work.
The problem was, there were always more people looking for a fair day’s work than there are jobs to go around.
In this story, if you got lucky, you would expect to work for 12 back breaking hours out in a field for minimal wages. You got to go home with your hands dirty, your head held high, and with bread for supper tonight.
But if you weren’t so lucky… then you went home to your family empty handed. You would have spent the entire day standing in the hot sun waiting for work, and you would have nothing to show for it.
There was no safety net. No food stamps, or welfare or unemployment.
No matter what you think about how our government today responds to the needs of the unemployed, the poor, the disabled, and yes, sometimes the lazy and the freeloader, that doesn’t change the fact that in the day and time of Jesus – if you did not get hired for the day, then you would not have money for that day’s food. It was as simple as that.
The laws of fairness would say – well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. No work, no pay. Little work, little pay.
But this is not how Jesus’s story goes.
Our landowner hires some workers first thing in the morning. They are eager to get to work and head out in the fields for their 12 hour shift.
But the work is plentiful and so the landowner keeps going back in to town to hire more people. Some at 9, some at noon, some at 3, and the last group gets hired just an hour before quitting time at 5pm.
And then they all get lined up to come forward and receive their daily wages.
Those poor souls who were hired for just an hour went into the fields because they were desperate for work. A few bucks would help buy a piece of bread for dinner, if nothing else. But as they were called up, they found themselves being paid the full wages for an entire day’s worth of work!
Well, the rest of the workers were simple peasants, but they could do basic math. And if they had worked for twice as long, they expected twice as much! Can you imagine how the mouths of those who had been working for 12 full hours watered?!
But as each group came forward to receive their wages… each one received one full day’s worth of pay.
And, boy… were they mad!
“It’s not fair!” those workers cried.
And they were right. It wasn’t fair.
But as the landowner spoke, do you remember what he said? “Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
There has been a meme going around on facebook illustrating the difference between what we might call equality and justice.
If we related this image to our parable for this morning, equality would look like each worker being paid the same wages per hour of work.
At $10 per hour, those who were hired at 6 in the morning would have walked away with $120 and those hired at 5pm would have walked away with only $10.
This would have been fair.
But as we look at this first image, we sense that something isn’t quite right.
Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher defined justice as proportional equality.
And in the second image, we see how the proportions of are changed, so that each person has the same capacity as another.
The parable of the laborers in the field is the story of God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives.
Each one of us is given exactly what we need.
Not what is fair.
Not what we deserve.
But what we need.
You see, each of us are like day laborers when it comes to our salvation.
We have no land, no rights, no security. The kingdom of heaven, like the vineyard doesn’t belong to us.
We don’t deserve anything.
But then God reaches out to us and says, come my children. Come and walk with me. Come and work with me. Come and be a part of what I am doing.
The thing is, we aren’t all the same. And when it comes to how God hands out love and grace, we discover that
God’s justice lifts up those who are bowed down and sets at liberty the oppressed.
God has compassion for the poor and the sick.
God shows mercy to sinners… no matter how small or great their wrongs.
In the incredible grace of God’s love, we don’t get what we deserve… we get what we need.
I think sometimes in our human relationships, we can grow resentful of one another when we feel like someone has gotten more than their fair share of grace.
We watch someone who continues to squander God’s love and keep making the same mistakes over and over again and don’t think it’s fair.
Or see someone live their whole lives away from God only to turn to our Lord and Savior at the last moment and start to imagine they won’t be living in the same patch of heaven as us!
But I think the lessons we are learning in our Forgiveness book study need to be applied not only in those situations where someone has willfully wronged us, but to all of our difficult relationships in general.
This week, Adam Hamilton introduces us to a simple acronym: RAP
R. A. P.
First, we have to Remember our own story. In the case of forgiveness, we need to remember the wrongs we have perpetrated. But in all of our relationships, we need to remember the blessings we have received, the advantages that have been afforded to us. We need to remember the times when undeserved grace flowed through our lives.
We have to remember.
Secondly, we have to Assume the best about another. We need to listen for their story. We need to pay attention to how God is working in their life. We might have one impression of what has led them to this moment in their life, but is it the most truthful one? Does it represent their struggles and triumphs accurately? Do we know their life well enough to discover what they truly need… even if it might not be what they deserve?
We have to assume the best.
Lastly, we need to pray for one another. We need to pray for patience. We need to seek God’s will in our relationships. We need to pray that the person we are encountering is experiencing the love and grace of God in this world. And, as a disciple in God’s kingdom, we need to pray that our eyes might be opened the the ways we are invited to love those who don’t deserve it. We need to pray for the strength to live lives of justice, kindness and mercy to all we meet.
We have to pray for each other.
When we focus on these three things: Remembering our Story, Assuming the Best, and Praying for one another, I believe the resentments and jealousies that plague our relationships will fall by the wayside.
We will discover instead that we all live, but by the grace of God, and will work together towards that day when God’s justice and kindness and mercy will reign – that day when we don’t get what we deserve… but what each one of us truly needs.
And on that day, we will rejoice with the lost who has been found.
On that day, we will celebrate with those who have come late to the party.
On that day, we will delight in bountiful gifts of another.
May that day come, and may it come soon. Amen.