There was a newspaper story some years back about a man who, when he reached an age when he wanted to retire, decided to sell the asphalt company that he’d invested his entire life in building. He found the right buyer, and negotiated a sales price of $422 million. While this was a pretty big deal, in the scheme of the world’s economy, it wasn’t exactly front page news. Businesses are bought and sold all of the time.
What made the story headline news wasn’t the actual sale, but rather what this man chose to do with the money he made in the sale. The now retired business owner took $128 million of his proceeds…his profit…he divided it up, and he gave it away to his workers. He gave it away. Each of his former employees was given between $1 million and $2 million depending on their years of service.
As you might expect the workers were overjoyed. With the looming sale, they were all concerned about whether they’d even have a job with the new owner. Now, not only were they secure, they were set for life.
In a very humble, and self-effacing manner the man who’d sold his company said he wanted to share some of his good fortune with those workers who had been loyal for so many years.
Many of us, myself included would react to such a story with amazement; that someone could be so generous. Meanwhile, the cynical among us might respond that, “Well sure, but he still has $300 million.” However you respond, no one can argue that this wasn’t a truly generous act toward employees who had no right to expect it.
This man is certainly not typical. And this is probably not considered good business practice…giving away your profits. Such generosity does not come natural to many people. That’s what makes this story front page news.
So, by that standard then, extraordinary generosity, it’s clear that the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel lesson today is also, front-page news.
It is also one of Jesus’ more controversial parables. It challenges how we think about things we receive…about fairness. An employee who shows up for work at 5pm, and is hired to work just the last hour of the day getting paid the same amount as someone who began work at 9am? That is a challenge to at least my sense of fairness. And fairness is a value that we hold dear. We are all concerned about being treated fairly.
But in this story, Jesus reminds us of something important: Fairness is not a religious principle.
You might remember that in our Gospel lesson last week, we heard a story about God’s gift of forgiveness. Of how God forgives, over…and over…and over…it’s an unfair gift…unfair only because we don’t deserve it.
This week, Jesus is reminding us that God never promises fairness. No, God promises grace. God’s way is not fairness, what we deserve…God’s way is generosity, and undeserved love.
I remember driving past a Home Depot in Biloxi, shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck there. There was a lineup of people standing outside the contractor’s entrance. I asked the local pastor, who was driving, what was going on. He explained that those standing in line were migrant workers who were waiting to be picked by a contractor to work on a re-building project. Their hope was that they would earn enough to feed their family for that day. To not find work would be to go hungry. It is the young and the strongest who are chosen first. They get the full day’s pay.
But the others, the older and the weaker, would remain in line, hoping that someone will still choose them for work. Maybe…just maybe, there will be enough work for those who cannot work as hard.
That is the hope, because to not be chosen is to not eat…and maybe for your family to not eat. To hire a person, even at the end of the day, is to provide the food they need to survive. And to stand in line, unhired and thus unfed, just because you might be looking at age 50 or 60 in the rear-view mirror…well that doesn’t seem fair.
You see, we tend to read Jesus’ parable as one about lazy people who have laid around all day, and who take advantage of the business owner to earn a day’s pay for only an hour’s work. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about here. Jesus’ parable is about the extravagant generosity of the business owner…and the need of all of God’s people to receive what they need, to survive. It is not a story about fairness, it is a story about sustenance. It’s a story about God’s grace.
And those people who worked all day, and received the same as those hired at the end of the day? Well of course, they complain. We all would. “It’s not fair!” we would claim. But the owner says to those who have worked all day, “Friend I’ve done you no wrong; did we not agree to a day’s wages?”
But we look at those who joined the work late and we want to say, “But…but…it’s not fair!”
Clinging to our sense of fairness reveals how we misunderstand God’s ways. God’s kingdom is not based on what is fair but on what we need. We don’t need fairness, we need grace.
The problem is, we keep wanting to compare ourselves to others. We want to look at what someone else gets and when we don’t receive the same thing, we become frustrated…even jealous.
But there is a fundamental truth that I keep trying to remind myself; and I try (but struggle) to live within. It’s this: “No joy comes from comparisons.” No joy comes from comparisons.
Rather than being content with what we have, or who we are, or what we’ve accomplished, we look at those around us to decide whether what we have is enough.
We all have to admit this deep-seated insecurity that makes it hard for us to establish some sense of ourselves, apart from an external reference:
- We’re content with the car we drive, until we see a neighbor with a nicer or newer one.
- We’re content in our relationship but wonder if the couple just down the street is happier.
- We love our kids, but wish they could be better-rounded, or more accomplished, like our best friend’s kids appear to be.
- We feel good about our grades until we hear about the kid who is acing all of her or his classes.
The list could go on and on, but you probably get the point: No joy comes from comparisons; only envy and resentment and bitterness, or occasionally a shallow and superficial pride because you’ve chosen to make yourself feel better by looking down on someone else.
Theologian Dr. David Lose writes that “This parable gives us choices:
- Do we count the things we think we deserve, or all the things we’ve been blessed by that we don’t deserve?
- Do we look for places in our lives characterized by scarcity, or do we name and give thanks for places of abundance?
- Do we focus on what others have and we do not, or do we delight in the wonder of all that we have been given, which we had no right to expect?
- Do we, in short, choose comparisons or do we choose joy?”
You’d think it would be easy to choose joy. But it’s not. Because of our insecurity, we make comparisons all the time, and no joy comes from comparisons. So, what do we do? Well, I have a few practical suggestions for you:
- Count your blessings. It sounds simple, but it is powerful. Start each morning in prayer by naming two things for which you are grateful. Start your day anchoring yourself in gratitude.
- Take a social media Sabbath…even just once a week for an hour before bedtime. Turn your devices off. Now let me be clear…I’m not anti-technology. I am a social media guy. But I’ve also become more and more aware that social media is driven by the desire to check in on how everyone else is doing. Connectivity turns quickly into comparisons. And our tendency is to compare what we know about ourselves to what we don’t know about other people. And in that comparison, we always lose. A quick break…even just once a week…can help ensure you don’t go to sleep with these comparisons on your mind.
- Third, practice vulnerability. Our culture loudly encourages us to show only what is strong and successful and put-together. Yet we all have our broken places; each of us has experienced loss and disappointment; each of us have both fear and hope. Maybe it’s time that we stop pretending and we show our true selves, that we be vulnerably honest. And we might find others willing to do the same.
At the root of our parable today is the understanding that God gives enough. Let me just say that again in case you missed it: God gives enough. Each of the workers received a day’s wage. Some labored all day…just as they’d signed up to do; others worked for just an hour. But at the end of the day, they all received just what they needed: enough. Enough.
And the really good news is that God does not give up! Rather, he keeps going out, looking to find and save all. The landowner in the parable keeps going out all day long, to find more and more people to labor in the vineyard. He will not stop until the field is full. And God will not give up on seeking out the lost, the vulnerable, and all who are in need; all of us.
We are all standing in line, and it’s always 5:00 somewhere; and the day is drawing to a close, and we are wondering if we will receive what God gives. We worry: “Will I get picked?” And the good news today is that God comes back, and picks each one of you. And you receive a day’s wages. Exactly what you need…actually, more than you need. Is it fair that this is what we receive? No, of course not.
But it is grace. And it is the work of God.
Thanks be to God!