1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 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?’ 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 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.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 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? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Lauren and I were out to dinner at Andiamo last Friday night. They were packed of course and Lauren and I had this short window of time. Of course. So we rush in, ask how long the wait is, and figured that we could make it work.
But then as we stood there, and as the hostess seated people, with every passing couple, we did this sort of mental calculation…Have they been waiting longer than we have? I’m pretty sure we got here before them. Have they forgotten about us? What kind of an establishment is this? And there were moments when we were certain that we had been overlooked, as people seemed to come in, and were immediately seated. It felt totally unfair. (As a side note, we were soon seated and had a lovely meal. Nothing against Andiamo).
Or imagine you are one of those insane Apple fans who sits outside for weeks in line, just so that you can be one of the first people to get the new iPhone 6, and the moment the doors open, the store manager walks out and says, “Okay, we’ll be starting at the back.” And you watch as the guy who showed up 10 minutes ago, freshly showered and clean shaven, and fully rested from a night’s sleep in his own bed, walks past you to go and claim his reward. It’s totally unfair. You can imagine the feeling, I suspect.
Well, I think it is that kind of feeling the creeps up in all of us when we hear that parable about the generous vineyard owner. It is a parable that grabs a hold of that nerve of fairness that runs through all of us and then sticks pin in it, causing us to writhe and twist in discomfort.
Jesus is talking about the kingdom of Heaven again. And a friendly reminder that Jesus isn’t talking about us going off to Heaven when we die, but more so about the kingdom of Heaven, the kingdom of God, coming here. To this place. And what that will look like. And according to this parable, it will look radically different than what we are used to. Or than what we want it to.
Jesus tells a parable saying that the kingdom of Heaven is like a vineyard owner who gets up early in the morning, goes down to Mills Fleet Farm, and finds some people looking for work. He hires them on the spot and they agree to a fair price for the day. A couple hours later, he’s back at Fleet Farm, and he still sees some people standing there looking for work. He motions to the back of the pick up and tells them to get in and he hires them for the day. This happens again at noon and then at 3pm. All these workers coming to his vineyard throughout the day to work. Finally, 5pm rolls around, and he swings past Fleet Farm one last time and there are still people there looking for work. “Why have you been standing here all day?”, he ask. “No one has hired us!” they say. “Get in,” he says, motioning to the back of the truck.
Night time comes and the landowner tells his manager to go and pay the workers, starting with those who came last. All the laborers come in from the vineyard, tired but anxious for that envelope of cash. The ones who came in at 5pm get their payment and discover it is an entire days wage. Or here in America – about $70. The gasps and the shocked look on their faces was probably hard to hide. $70 for one hour. Awesome. So word starts getting out and down the line. They got paid for a full day!. They got paid $70 an hour! How much do you think we’ll get? How much?! And things start to escalate as each group starts doing their own form of mental calculation, trying to figure out how much they will rake in.
But as they all received their payment, the room goes silent as they all realize that everyone got paid the same. $70. Everyone. Whether you worked 10 hours. Or 1.
So they start to grumble. And grumble. And you know what they said. All together with me now… BUT IT’S NOT FAIR!! They only worked 1 hour and we worked all day! To which the vineyard owner replied, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
It’s just not fair. It’s not fair if you’ve been waiting for a table for 20 minutes, and another couple walks in and gets seated right away. It’s not fair if you’ve waited in line for hours for something and then they start at the back of the line. It’s not fair if you work your tail off for hours and hours and then get paid the same amount as someone who just showed up at the end. It’s not fair; life is not fair. Which, as one preacher likes to put it, is exactly why we feel God must be fair and why this parable about God drives us nuts. “God should be the one authority you can count on to reward people according to their efforts, keeping track of how long you have worked and how hard you have worked and who does not let people break into line ahead of you…Life may not be fair, but God should be.” (BBT, p.104)
But the vineyard owner pays them all the same. And it’s not fair, when you view yourself as the one who has been working all day. Which what we all do, right? We all view ourselves as the one who showed up early and worked the longest day in this parable. Which is kind of funny, because if we are honest with ourselves, there are some of us here who are really skilled at looking like we are working hard. Like a couple of months ago, when a group of us got together to build the playground set, I was here for most of the time, but I was not working very hard. I was just the guy in the background saying, “Oh, yep, yeah, that bolt looks good there. Why don’t you just put that in there, Jared. Oh and we will probably need someone to hold that up. Hey, can someone come and hold that piece up for Brett?” And yet, I still got to eat all the yummy snacks and sandwiches that Alicyn Prestegard brought. But I was not working hard.
But that’s what we do. We assume that we are the ones who have been working all day in the parable. And therefore, absolutely, it is unfair.
But what if you are the person who only worked an hour? You see, that’s another assumption that we make. We assume that the people who worked less hours were lazy and latecomers. Like they slept in and didn’t get to Fleet Farm on time. But that’s not what the text says. The vineyard owner asked them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” Because none one would hire us, they replied. So it’s not that the people who worked less were lazy or irresponsible. They’ve been there all day too. It’s that no one would hire them. And they were probably ready to call it a day. They had given up hope and would soon make a long shameful walk home back to their family, with nothing and no money to show for the day. But then imagine the moment when that pick up truck, that’s been gathering people up all day to work, pulls up to Fleet Farm one more time. And finally, you’re picked. You’re chosen. And then not only that, but you are paid for the entire day.
It is sheer grace, isn’t it? Grace meaning God’s unconditional love that is free and forever and for all. It is this underserved gift that can never be lost.
We call it amazing grace. How sweet the sound.
If you are the person standing around all day, waiting, it is complete and utter grace. But it is also unfair. Grace is unfair. And thank God for that. Because if grace was doled out to those who deserve it or have earned it, all of us would be out of luck. None of us, in the end, could measure up. But grace is this amazing thing that is given not to those who deserve it, but to those who need it. And we all need it.
Because the truth is that at some point we all are the ones left behind, standing there at Fleet farm, waiting to see if someone will pick us. We all feel unchosen. Unpicked. Insecure. Not enough. None of us have our life fully together. We all fall short of who we wish we were. And yet, God chooses us anyways. God is there for every single person. And it is not fair. Because none of us deserve it.
And so that’s what we learn about God today. That God is not fair. But God is loving. God the landowner does not give the workers what is fair. God gives them what they need – a daily wage. Enough for all of them to get through the next day with food on the table.
It’s not about fairness. It’s about need. And we all are in need of God’s grace and love and forgiveness.
Last week I asked the question if we are surprised by God’s forgiveness and grace anymore or is it just assumed? Are we amazed by grace? Or are we just kind of bored with it?
This past week, I had the joy of getting to meet and hear Jay Bakker speak. Do any of you remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker? They were widely popular televangelists in the 80s, until everything came crashing down. Tammy Faye became addicted to drugs, news leaked that Jim was having an affair, and then the final straw was that Jim Bakker was investigated and found guilty of fraud and conspiracy with their business. In fact, Jim Bakker spent 5 years over in Rochester at the Federal Prison.
Well Jay is their son. He spent his whole life in the public eye as Jim and Tammy’s boy. Well, naturally, he started to spiral down too. At 13 years old, he started drinking and doing drugs just to get away from the chaos that was his life. But now he has been sober for 18 years and is a pastor in the Cities and a well-known speaker and author.
But this is what Jay told us last week. He said that he was in church his entire life, but never discovered grace until he was 20 years old. Sure, he heard people talk and sing about grace, but it always sounded empty and meaningless. Instead, the message he was really taught was that God hated him and that he was bound for hell unless he could be a good enough person. Which is not grace, right? No, that’s the message of the people at the front of the line in the parable. I’ve worked my tail off all day. I’m a good enough person. I deserve grace and forgiveness. They don’t.
But Jay said that grace, real grace, amazing grace, saved his life. Because Jay was the guy at the back of the line, who felt over looked and unchosen all day. One who thought God didn’t love him for squat. Until finally someone came along and told him – Jay, God loves you unconditionally exactly as you are. Whether you are drunk or sober. Whether you’ve got it together or whether you don’t. God loves you the same as everyone else.
And then Jay told our group that when he was invited to speak to us, he was told not to spend too much time on grace, because we’ve all heard that before and the organizers didn’t want u getting bored and to start playing on our smart phones. And so Jay said, “Well, I know you guys know grace. But I’m afraid you’ve become bored with it. What you need to know is that there are thousands of people out there who have never heard about grace.” (paraphrase)
Friends, we are accepted by God. You are accepted by God. As you are. Right now. Not when you are nice and all cleaned up. But when your life is a mess and you don’t have it all together. That is grace. That you are accepted. All of us are. And by “all”, I mean all. Even our enemies. Grace is this unfair and offensive thing, because there will always be someone who we think doesn’t deserve it. But it is the message that Jesus has called us to proclaim. But people aren’t hearing the message. And Jay Bakker says we need to be louder. So let’s be louder.
We have this great honor and gift to preach this good news of grace to people. But they can’t hear us. So let’s be louder. Because people like Jay, and let’s be honest, even us, really need to hear it. May it be so.
 Barabara Brown Taylor, The Seeds Of Heaven, pg. 104.
 Jay Bakker, Fall to Grace, pg. xiii.