One of the permanent employees quit after I had been at the restaurant a few weeks. While they were looking for a replacement, they asked me to do much of what he had been doing. To get it all done, I had to extend my hours and push myself as hard as I could every minute of the day. I went home so exhausted I had trouble sleeping. I kept dreaming I was still at work.
Eventually I went to my boss, and I told him I needed more money if I was going to keep doing everything I was doing. After all, I told him, I was working harder than anyone else in the restaurant.
My boss just laughed.
As you might guess, I found that response unsatisfying.
But this morning Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like my obnoxious boss! The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who pays all his workers the same even though some are doing a lot more work. What are we supposed to do with that?!
Like all of Jesus’ parables, this one startles us, it makes us pause, it forces us to reflect on what we think we know about God and about our relationship with God. Like all of Jesus’ parables, this one challenges us to reexamine our values, to think differently about God and God’s kingdom.
We in America are very committed to the idea that things should be fair, that people should get equal pay for equal work, that people who work harder rightly expect to be rewarded for their extra effort. It doesn’t always happen, of course. But when it doesn’t, we don’t like it.
For the record, I am glad we oppose discrimination, and I wish we did it more effectively. I am glad we want things to be fair, and I wish things were more fair.
But apparently God’s economy works differently than does ours. At least in Jesus’ parable, some people work all day. Others work a single hour. And they all get paid the same. Apparently God’s kingdom is like that.
That doesn’t seem fair. What about those first workers, the ones who worked all day? People who worked less than they did get paid the same anyway.
And with that, Jesus parable starts to work on us.
The parable is about our relationship with God. In effect, the early laborers are asking God to “pay” them what they believe is their due. In their own minds, they were clearly more valuable and better workers than the people around them, so God owed them more love or more grace or more whatever else it is that God might give than others get.
If we are perfectly honest, it is easy for many of us to identify with those first laborers. It is natural for us to think about how we compare to the people around us. It is natural for us to feel superior to some and inferior to others.
But Jesus is showing us that God doesn’t see us that way.
I have seen a bumper sticker that I hope is a joke. “God loves everybody. But I am God’s favorite.” In our parable, Jesus is telling us, God doesn’t have favorites.
We know that. And it can still seem unfair to the people who work more than others.
So we keep wrestling with the parable. And we can find help in what may seem an unlikely source.
Next month is the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther put up his 95 Theses, beginning the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s great point, which Luther got from the apostle Paul, is that we are justified by the grace of God received in faith.
Luther says we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. None of us obey God’s will in all things. None of us love God or our neighbor with a perfect love. We all have to rely on God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness. That means God does not owe us anything.
Come back to our parable, but now with that twist from Martin Luther.
The owner hired laborers throughout the day. But none of the laborers could actually do the work. They did not have the necessary skills. They were unfocused. They messed up the job. They damaged the owner’s property.
Then, at the end of the day, some of the workers demanded a bonus.
Seen that way, the parable is about the presumption of those first laborers. Jesus is teaching us that none of us can make claims on God, as if our work required God to reward us. We have to let go of whatever entitlement we feel towards God. We can never insist on God’s love as our due. We can never assume that God has a moral obligation to love us more than God loves other people.
That can be hard to take because we all want to be God’s favorites, those first laborers, the ones who contribute the most and are the most valuable.
But as this parable works on us, as we recognize where we truly stand before God, we come to see more and more clearly that we really belong with the last hired, the ones who have no claim on God and know they have no claim on God.
Then we can see the good news of this parable.
Day laborers were at the bottom of the economic heap in the ancient world. They lived literally from day to day. The owner of the vineyard has paid the last hired enough to cover a day’s expenses, even though they didn’t earn it. The fact that he gave them more than they earned means they get to eat. They will live for another day.
This landowner ensures that all his workers have enough, regardless of whether or not they deserve it. That is really good news for people on the edge.
And when it comes to God, we all live pretty close to the edge.
Some of us have lived checkered lives, while others of us have mostly stayed on the straight and narrow path. Some of us have been trying to follow Jesus as best we can for a long time, while others of us are pretty new to the Christian life or maybe haven’t even really begun.
But none of us can claim to have worked for God all day, giving God good value and truly earning God’s reward.
And yet we who are unworthy workers in so many ways still receive God’s love, God’s gifts, God’s abundance. We are God’s beloved children. We get from God the grace and love and forgiveness that we need.
We don’t receive God’s grace and love because we earn it. We receive God’s grace and love because God gives it.
And God loves us not because of what we do but because of who God is. Thankfully—this is the good news of Jesus Christ—thankfully, God is love. Thankfully God loves us with a perfect love.
Best of all, that means we can rely on God’s grace and love even when we don’t do right, which is true of all of us at least some of the time. We can rely on God’s gifts because God is reliable even if we are not.
And so I give thanks to God for God’s inexhaustible grace and love to us. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.