Grace to you and peace in God whose generosity is beyond imagination, whose grace is beyond measure. Amen.
As you may know, my wife teaches Grade One. Now in Grade One, everything needs to be fair. If something doesn’t seem fair, no matter how small it may seem, you’re gonna hear about it. “Why does Susie get chocolate milk in her lunch, and I only get strawberry milk?” “Why does Johnny get to go first? He was first last week!” “It’s not fair!”
You know, you could be giving out prizes, right? And let’s say you give a kid a sticker. They’ll be so happy about that sticker, until they see that another kid got a sucker. Then it’s, “Why did Sally get a sucker? I want a sucker too! It’s not fair!”
Jesus' parable today challenges our sense of what is fair, and what isn’t. Just like kids in a Grade One classroom, some of the characters in the story were complaining, “It’s not fair!”
Now you may recall that the thing about parables is that there’s always a surprise. And there are all sorts of surprises in this parable.
It starts off with an owner of a vineyard going to the market at six in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He finds the workers he needs for the day, and each of them agree to work for a denarius for the day. Now the denarius was the usual daily wage. It was like minimum wage. A denarius could put a humble meal on the table, and maybe buy a little wood for the fire, but that’s about it. You could get by on a denarius a day, and most labourers did, but you’d always be living paycheque to paycheque.
So the workers agree to the landowners offer – a days work for the usual daily wage. They shake on it, and then head out into the field to start working.
Now a few hours later, the vineyard owner goes to the market again, and he hires more workers. And then he goes again around noon. He says to the workers, “Come work for me today, and I’ll pay you what is right.” Note that he doesn’t specify the amount. The workers go out, and they have to trust that the landowner will be fair.
The landowner goes out again at 3 pm, and again at 5. Now, this is one eccentric landowner! Why would he go out and hire more workers when the day is almost over? Is he desperate? Or crazy? Or is there something more going on here?
At six pm, the sun is going down. It’s time to pay the workers. Now you would think that those who worked all day would get paid first, right? That would be fair. But those who only worked one hour get paid first. And not only that, they each get a denarius, even though they only worked one hour!
Now imagine if you were at the back of the line, waiting to be paid. You might be thinking to yourself, “Look at those lazy bums! They only worked one hour… they barely broke a sweat! And they got a whole denarius? I’ve worked twelve hours today… maybe that means I’ll get twelve denarius! Wow, think of what I could buy with twelve denarius! We could get groceries for the whole week, and maybe some new sandals for my kids as well! This is the best gig ever!”
Now imagine your disappointment, when your turn comes to be paid, and you only get one denarius! “What’s this?? Only one lousy denarius? Those lazy bums who only worked one hour got paid the same! Look at all the grapes I picked! Look at the calluses on my hands! Look at the sunburn on my neck! Surely I deserve more than they do!”
But the landowner says, “Friend, did you not agree to work for a denarius? Did you not agree to the usual daily wage? I did you no wrong. What is it to you what I have given the others? Are you envious because I am generous?”
Let’s look at the story from a different angle. Picture yourself as the last one to get hired. You got the marketplace late that day. Maybe it was because you were drunk and slept in. Or maybe it was because you were up all night taking care of a sick child. For whatever reason, you were late, and when you finally got to the marketplace, all the jobs were gone. You have waited and waited, and no one came to hire you.
You are about to give up and go home, but you know what that will mean. It means that you’ll have no money to put supper on the table tonight. It means that your children will go to bed with no food in their bellies, and no fire on the hearth.
So imagine your joy, when this landowner comes to the market and hires you, even for one hour! And imagine that joy multiplied, when you receive not just a few pennies, but the full day’s wage! You’ll be able to put supper on the table tonight! Imagine your gratitude for this mysterious landlord, and his lavish generosity!
The fact is that everyone who was invited to work in the vineyard that day – from the first to the last – received the usual daily wage. Which meant that each person was able to go home to their families and put dinner on the table. When the landowner said to the workers, “I will give you what is right,” he didn’t mean, “I will give you what I think you deserve,” but rather, “I will give you what I know you need.”
So perhaps this story about workers in a vineyard was never about wages after all, or payment, or what we’ve earned, or what we deserve. It was never about what is fair. Perhaps, instead, it’s actually about grace. By grace, you were invited to work in the vineyard. And by grace, you have received what you need.
By grace, each one of us has been invited to work in God’s vineyard. Each one of us has been invited into this beloved community called the Body of Christ. And in this beloved community, God daily provides for us not what we deserve, or what we have earned, but what we need. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Love beyond measure.
And life, abundant and everlasting. All this, from a God whose generosity is beyond what we could ever deserve, whose grace is beyond what we could ever imagine.