“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)
I am guessing that when you were nine years old, there was an occasion when a sibling or friend of yours got to do something that you didn’t, and you cried out to your parents, “That is not fair! Why does she (he) get to go and I don’t?” And that would have been an appropriate reaction for you when you were nine. We are already developing a sense of what is fair or just by that age, and there are ways we need to take those concerns for fairness and justice with us, right through the rest of our lives.
And it may be that when you were a child, you also heard your parents or a teacher or some other adult say, “Life is not always fair!”
When Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard (above) comes up as our Gospel on Sunday morning - every third year, during September - and I am preaching, I usually begin by asking a question. “How many of you don’t like this parable?” Usually a whole lot of hands go up! And on one level, I get it. These folks all have a highly developed sense of what is fair and what is unfair, and that is a good thing. There is another part of me, though, that hopes to win them over… to convince them, by the end of my sermon, that this is a wonderful parable - one of Jesus’ best.
As with a lot of things in life, our reaction has a lot to do with our perspective. If you identify most readily with the laborers hired at 6 a.m… the ones who worked 12 hours… the ones “who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Matthew 20:12) - then you will not like this parable. “Why did we get paid the same amount as those who worked only one hour? It’s not fair!”
You might think, Why should someone hear, “My child, your sins are forgiven. Come enter into the joy of your master!”, when they made a death-bed confession of faith?
If you see yourself as someone who has basically worked hard for everything you’ve gotten… that nobody gave you anything (cf. the elder son in Luke 15:29, in Jesus’ parable of the father and the two sons) and that you rose from nothing to succeed in the world, you probably won’t like this parable. (You might even hate it, and want to sprint out of church on the Sunday when it comes around again.)
If, on the other hand, you have a sense that there have been many occasions in life when you received way more than you deserved - maybe with respect to where you were born, your education, the person who said “yes” to marrying you, the children or other family members and friends who are in your life, the places where you have been able to travel, the career you have had, and what emerged from the calling/callings you heard from God… to which you responded, “Here am I; send me!” - if any of these things unfolded in your life… and especially if any of things happened, from your perspective, just in the nick of time… then there is a good chance you will identify with the laborers hired at noon or at 3 pm or even at 5 pm, and you might be heard to whisper or shout out loud, “Thank you, Lord! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
This is not a parable of justice. This is a parable of grace.
Bonnie Raitt’s song - “Nick of Time” - is a story of grace, too.
“Just when I thought I'd had enough
And all my tears were shed
No promise left unbroken
There were no painful words unsaid
You came along and showed me
I could leave it all behind
You opened up my heart again
And then much to my surprise
I found love, baby
Love in the nick of time
I found love darlin'
Love in the nick of time”
Sometimes God - Love - comes to us… in the nick of time. That’s what grace looks like. And, of course, God showers his grace upon others, too. May we never ever be envious when God is generous.