When I was a kid I had a keen sense of fairness – particularly when it came to my brother. If he got more than me – no fair. Or maybe it was the question “why did he get to do that and not me?” No fair! Maybe it wasn’t so much a sense of fairness but it seemed that it should be the same for both of us. As a parent now, I know m parents must have grown weary of my cries of no fair because sometimes I would be told, “Life’s not fair.” Fair doesn’t always mean the same. At the heart of the no fair complaint is the idea that somehow we are missing out on something a sibling or neighbour has or that someone has received something more or better. This not something that exist between sibling. It is part of our culture. We expect that that who work the hardest, longest best will get the biggest reward. We expect that those who’ve done the right things be held in higher esteem than those who have not.
I’m guessing things weren’t much different in Jesus day. Somehow, we want what the other has. Then Jesus comes on the scene telling parables that open our minds and change our hearts. Today is a kingdom of heaven parable. Parables about the kingdom of heaven remind us of the difference between our world and world shaped in God’s image. Today’s parable gets to the heart of what’s fair. This parable reminds us that our sense of what is fair is so different what God says is fair. It is one of those challenging parables because sometimes I think we would like to keep God’s grace in a box and dole it out only to those we think are worthy or who have earned it.
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out to hire day labourers.” They agreed to work for the usual daily wage and went to work in the vineyard. Life for day labourers was extremely difficult. They went to the market place each day hoping and praying that someone would hire them. It was a precarious way to earn a living. The usual daily wage for day labourers is barely enough to support a family. You can imagine how important it was to get hired. The landowner returned to the market at 9 o’clock, and noon and three and saw people waiting to be hired for the day. So hired more workers each time. Each time the landowner told the workers hired later in the day that he’d pay them a fair wage. At the end of the work day all the workers are told that those who were hired last would be paid first. So the labourers all line up. The landowner then pays those hired later in the day the usual daily wage. They must have been shocked. They did not expect this at all. They were only expecting a portion of a day’s wage instead they got the whole thing.
As the line worked its way toward those who were hired at the start of the day, you can almost feel the expectations rising. Can imagine what those hired first are thinking? They ones who’d worked hard all day. The ones who saw everyone get the full days wage. They were expecting some kind of a bonus. They are probably thinking to themselves, “If they got the full day’s wage, then I surely will get more. I worked through the heat of the day” Not unreasonable. But when the land owner hands them the same as those who’d been hired late in the day, they cried out, “no fair. I worked all day, through the heat of the sun and I get the same as they do? No way.” The landowner says, “'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:13 – 15) It is the kind of parable that turns people’s expectations upside down.
In this kingdom of heaven parable there are no favourites. This is God’s generosity at work. The truth is no one has been robbed of anything or treated badly. It is more a problem of expectations. Those who worked longest and hardest expected that they would get more than those who only worked a portion of the day. It does not jive with their sense of justice that says, “those who work hardest and longest deserve the most.” From the perspective of the one who was hired late in the day – it is an unimaginable gift. He is the one who worried about going home yet again with no money for food. For him it is a story of incredible grace.
And so it is with God’s grace. It is generous. It gives us all that we need. It is a parable that reminds us that God’s kingdom is for everyone those who laboured through the heat of the day and those who come late. We all get the same gifts of grace, forgiveness and abiding love.
It is perhaps easy imagine that this parable has nothing to do with our daily living. But maybe there are times where we too might confess that we resent that others have something we want or don’t have. I know I’ve been there. It is hard place to be because the resentments grow and fester and it has a way of blinding. When hearts are filled with resentment it is difficult to appreciate what you do have. Filled with longing for what others have we miss the signs of God’s grace at work. Jesus reminds us that God’s generosity is not limited by our expectations of what is fair.
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out to hire labourers for the work of the vineyard – and gives everyone gifts of grace. The kingdom of heaven is not like the world we inhabit day to day. The kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with fair or not fair. It is the promise that all who follow in Christ’s way will receive gifts of grace, forgiveness and abiding love. It is generosity beyond our imagining. Whether they worked through the heat of the day or were hired at the last minute, we God’s grace defies expectations. The gifts of the kingdom are for everyone. That is good news. That is grace. Amen