Grace and peace to you, from God our Creator and from Jesus, who is love and grace. Amen.
In college, I worked as an audio technician in the school’s media services department. We set up and ran sound and video systems for everything from small, one-person presentations to major concerts hosted on campus. This was back in the day before we really cared much about details, like safety, and liability. So sometimes as student workers, we’d find ourselves in kind of precarious positions. We’d be in the hockey arena, prepping it to host a conference. We’d have to climb ladders up into the rafters, 50 feet over the concrete floor and pull large speakers up to hang there by rope. Safety harnesses? Nah…they didn’t exist. I remember joking with my boss and asking him “Do we get hazard pay for this?” He’d just frown and kind of grunt at me.
That night, we got back to the office and as we were putting away equipment, our boss walked in and tossed a Domino’s pizza on the table. “There’s your hazard pay!” he’d said. Pepperoni, sausage with extra cheese? “Excellent!” We were college kids. It seemed like a fair deal to us!
Or mounting new speakers at the football field by standing on top of the scoreboard…about the width of a balance beam. Hazard pay? Another grunt, and another pizza. Sounded fair to us!
Ah yes, compensation and fairness: There are very few topics of conversation that will make people more uncomfortable…or raise blood pressure more than talking about who gets paid what.
The results of a large survey, released in April, indicated that 39 percent of all employees across the country don’t feel like they are compensated fairly. The study showed that this percentage has been steadily climbing over the last 15 years. Those who led the study said that there is a direct correlation between how people feel about their own salaries, and how they feel about the salaries of their bosses. And as CEO salaries have climbed, it has created angst among their employees.
In 1983, corporate CEOs earned on average, $46 for every dollar their employees earned. In 2014, CEO salaries had climbed to $331 for every employee dollar; this while companies are cutting staff, and employees feel like they are being asked to do more and more for less and less. They can’t help but wonder “where is the fairness?”
And then, you look into the world of professional sports, or entertainment, and you see the disparities widen. This is especially striking when you regularly hear stories of the bad behavior of the rich and famous.
I have to admit that I too have some frustration with our societal values. I hear about wild numbers that some people earn. I think “Really? Kobe Bryant is making $23.5 million this season?” And I compare that salary to a school teacher…or a registered nurse…or a social worker…and all I can do is to just shake my head and wonder: How do we assign value to what people do? Sometimes it just doesn’t seem “fair.”
It’s kind of like we’re wired to detect things that we’d consider “unfair.” I remember growing up in a house with two brothers. As kids, when the Christmas presents would appear under the tree, we’d run and look, yes, to see the gifts we received…but also to see the gifts the my brothers received. The same number? Approximately the same size? Is it fair?
And I do have to admit that when confronted by my own children with the claim that ““it” (whatever “it” is) isn’t fair!” I have been known to comeback to them with the response “Life isn’t _______.” Exactly. Anyone else? Anyone? Yep. I’m becoming my parents.
So I think it’s just a bit natural that when we first look at today’s gospel lesson, the hairs on the back of our neck stand up, just a little, tiny bit. We read it and instantly our mind defaults to the question of fairness.
In this parable, Jesus takes another common life experience and uses it to teach a lesson on what the Kingdom of God will be like:
There was this man who was an owner a vineyard and he needed workers to harvest his grapes. He went to the village square at six o’clock in the morning and hired workers who went out and worked all day for twelve hours until six at night. He needed more help, so more workers were hired at nine o’clock in the morning and they worked for nine hours. Those who came at noon worked for six hours; those at three o’clock for three hours; and those who came late in the afternoon at five o’clock worked one hour. At the end of the day, the laborers gathered together and each was paid…the same amount. The 12 hour workers, the 6 hour, the 3 hour, the 1 hour…it made no difference. They each received the same. And they noticed. Oh, did they notice. Those early birds and industrious people, who had worked all day, from six o’clock in the morning, for the full twelve hours under the heat of the sun, those workers were unhappy. What? What is that about? That’s not _____________!
I get this! I do! And I agree! It’s not fair! Don’t you get mad when you have been working your tail off all day long and someone else comes in and does a little bit of work and they get the same wage, or the same credit as you who worked so hard all day long? Or maybe you’re working on a group project at school, and everyone is working hard, except one person who kind of slacks off. And when you do your presentation, it goes great, and you all get an “A,” including the slacker. Doesn’t that drive you kind of crazy? Doesn’t it make you mad when you’re working hard? When you are putting in the time, doing all the work, and someone else near you is sloughing off, and they get the same salary. Doesn’t that make you mad?
In our economy of “fair,” it makes sense to get upset! But in the parable, Jesus is introducing something different to his disciples…a different economy; a different operating system. “The Kingdom of God isn’t just about fairness,” says Jesus. “The Kingdom of God is about generosity.”
If you look closely at the second half of verse 15, the landowner in our parable asks the angry laborers “are you envious because I am generous?” If you were dig into the original Greek text in this lesson, the actual, literal translation of this verse has the landowner asking “Is your eye evil because I am good?” “Is your eye evil because I am good?” What? Your eye? Evil? What is that about?
The Jewish people during the time of Jesus believed that the eye was quite literally the window into the soul. To look into someone’s eye was to see straight into their heart. I think there may be some truth in this.
Looking into someone’s eyes? I remember my Dad, when he wasn’t completely convinced that something I’d told him was true, would say to me “look me in the eyes and tell me again.” It’s difficult to pretend with our eyes. There’s a lot we can fake with our voice, our body and gestures, our expressions. But the eyes? That’s harder. Maybe impossible. We look down, look away. There’s a reason when we feel guilty, we avoid eye contact; because to see into someone’s eyes is indeed to see into the soul. And if they see into our soul, they might see that we are indeed guilty.
And so the landowner asks the laborer: “Is your eye evil, because I am good?” In other words, is there something wrong in your heart? Are you jealous, envious, are you coveting something, just because I’m choosing to do something good?
This question makes me wonder: What would we see if we would get a chance to look into the eyes of God? What is at the heart of God? What will you see looking into God’s very soul? Well, at least according to this parable, you will see generosity. Sheer generosity.
You see, at the root of this parable is the fundamental understanding that there is a difference between fairness and generosity. Fairness is about making sure that all things are balanced. And fairness is good…it is important…and we should work towards fairness. And clearly, the workers in the field are thinking about fairness.
But generosity is something different. Generosity about a radical giving that changes and transforms lives. It is giving with no strings attached, and no expectations. It gives without regard to fairness. It just gives.
The key to the story is the contrast the reactions of those who came at the last hour and those who came at the first hour.
Can you imagine being one of those who were given a full days wage when they had only worked that last hour? They felt that their wage was undeserved, extravagant, unearned and a wonderful gift from the owner. The wage was a joy, a surprise, a wonderful delight.
I know people of faith who walk around with this worldview. To them, God’s generosity is unearned and undeserved. They are continually surprised and joyful at the gifts of God. Such Christians have this attitude that life has been a wonderful gift and they approach the world that way. I believe that if you look these kind of people in the eye, it would reflect the grace of God. I want to be like these people!
But what about the people in our parable who were hired at 6am? The grumpy people? The ones worked all day? Who were upset at the landowner’s generosity? There is a faith parallel here too. These people take pride in their faithfulness. They are active and busy. They get annoyed at those they consider slackers, and kind of like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they are concerned with following all the rules. They wear their faithfulness like merit badges. I have been around these people. I actually think that from time to time, I probably have been one of these people.
I think we sometimes take for granted that radical generosity and love that comes from Jesus. And we sometimes lose that sense of “wonder” that comes from experiencing God’s grace…God’s generosity.
Like those workers in the morning, we can sometimes say “hey, what about us? We’ve been faithful for a long time! We deserve! Shouldn’t there be something extra for us?”
God looks at us and says “what’s in your eye?” Is that jelousy? Do you covet? It need not be. I am the giver of all good gifts…and grace is for you just as it is for these others. And I am God, and I get to choose how and to who I give.”
And then we are reminded to keep the horse before the cart: Our God is not measuring fairness. Our God is not counting good deeds, or offerings, or hours spent in church. Our God gives abundantly to all! Our God provides love and grace for all! And God sent Jesus to bring life, love and forgiveness for all. Our God is generous. And because we receive these things, then we are free to serve, to love, and to live faithful lives.
Like little kids under the Christmas tree, we don’t need to count the presents. We don’t need to worry about God’s fairness. We just need to receive the abundant gifts of God. Because of Jesus, there is more love, more grace, more forgiveness, more peace than we could ever possibly need.
The eye is the window into the soul. Today and everyday, look into the eyes of God, see the love, goodness and generosity that is there. And then pray, that our own eyes can reflect this grace, so when others look into our eyes, they come to know the gifts and generosity that God brings through Jesus.