Grace Beyond Deserving
The Rev. Laurel Hart, Deacon
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his name make known his deeds among the peoples. Amen.
Mommy! Brother’s piece of cake is bigger than mine! Mommy it’s not fair! I’m sure at some time in my childhood I said those words – or at the very least thought them. I do clearly remember that my younger brother, Russ, would earn five dollars during a couple of hours on a Saturday morning, as a caddy at the golf course near our home. I would have to babysit for fourteen hours (at the going rate in my time of $0.35 per hour) to make the same five bucks. So, I can relate to the workers who were hired in the morning in their resentment of those who worked less. I resented my brother’s good fortune and I didn’t think that it was fair at all. When I complained to my parents, I heard my dad saying something like “life isn’t fair”. Words I didn’t like to hear – ever.
The scripture tells us the landowner paid the workers the usual daily wage – one denarius –the subsistence amount needed to feed a family for a day. One denarius is the amount the master paid to all workers he hired for this day- those hire early, the folks hired later in the day and the persons hired near the end of the day. Now, we don’t know why some labors were late in coming to the corner where men gathered, hoping to get a day of work – this was like Labor Ready is today – a hiring location for day workers. Maybe the men, who showed up at 9AM, had chores at home to complete before they could go out looking for a daily wage. Did the folks who came to the spot at noon spend the morning assisting an elderly family member or young children by helping them dress, then prepare food for a meal leaving them alone for several hours? Were the people who came last just lazy, sleeping in until noon? Or did they harvest their own crops, tend to their livestock, and come late hoping for some work to subsidies a meager existence. Jesus – as he frequently did, gave us a parable which is rather political – he is suggesting a society where no one is above the other. Jews are not better or more deserving than gentiles. The landowner in the story acted in an uncommon manner, he paid everyone who worked, regardless of the time, the same amount.
This parable is upsetting on face value because it serves to challenge and even reverse commonly held standards which speak to a sense of justice and fairness. Its human nature, when a person believes that they have worked harder, to expect more than someone who has been judged by us to have labored less. After all, if you have a smaller bank account, marginal housing, less worldly goods, doesn’t it reflect the work ethic of a person? As someone born into and living all my life in the sphere of white privilege, I grew up believing this adage. Only to come to the realization and understanding that the systemic racism in our country has created an extremely uneven playing field for our sisters and brothers of color. Sometimes working hard just doesn’t allow for a person to receive the fruits of their labors when it’s the curse of social structures against them. I didn’t hear those who worked all day object to the grace others received - but didn’t they expect to get more because they’d worked more hours? Isn’t that our expectation of the way the world is supposed to work? Jesus is telling us a story that is meant to unsettle. Jesus is attempting a shift of thinking and to align all of us with the purposes of God. Go figure. Some individuals have what they have because of justice and other people are made equal by grace.
What is the good news in the telling of this parable? The good news is “God doesn’t keep score”. The point of the story is not that God will welcome late-comers. The point is that God doesn't keep score (the way I did with my brother, the way most of us human beings do, certainly the way these workers did). God acts according to GOD'S standards, not ours. The landowner gives each what they NEEDED for the day, not what they deserved for the time they worked. Guess what? Grace is not about each of us personally. It is God's gift to all of us – those who feel they deserve to be loved - and those who feel they do not.
Today Rev. Sara will lead us as we say, "Give us this day our daily bread". We don't pray, "Give us what we've earned." We don't pray, "Give us what we've worked for." Using words taught by Jesus we’ll ask that God would give us what GOD has in mind, according to GOD'S standard. God doesn't give us what we deserve – thank heaven for that fact. God gives us what we need and even what we don’t know we need sometimes. Even when we complain - it's not fair!
This makes me wonder - Could Jesus be speaking of concepts other than social justice or payment for work? Another way to look at this passage might be to view the vineyard as metaphor for taking part in the work of God’s kingdom. Currently in our world that work must be participating in the “black lives matter” movement anyway we can and by proclaiming God’s love for all people and helping build a world based on love, justice, and peace. Everyone, no matter when where or how they entered the service of God, will receive the same gift of a new relationship with God. The word for the action of the landowner is GRACE. Yes, we might think – this gift of grace does indeed offend our ideas of fairness. Yet isn’t this at the heart of our faith? We are loved, not because we deserve it, not because we earned it or are better than others, but because that is our God.
This parable could be summed up with two sentences:
God comes to us where we are. God loves us as we are. The invitation is always there for us to enter heaven right here in the same world he ate, slept, and labored in. I’d like to close with the final paragraph of the Lord’s Prayer as found in the New Zealand Prayer Book:
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
Now and forever.