Life is not always fair. And for sure, God is NOT fair!! God is just, but God is NOT fair, according to human standards. And that’s lucky for us! Because NONE of us DESERVES God’s grace, but we too are included in it.
From Matthew’s gospel and our OT lesson from Jonah, we come face to face with the nature of God and the nature of humanity.
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding steadfast love.
We human beings are often quite the opposite of God: quick to anger, prone to resentment, good at holding grudges and keeping score. We are not only resentful of one another, but we may also be resentful of mercy shown by someone else who carries greater responsibility and has a grasp of the larger good of a situation (resenting kindness by a parent, a teacher, an employer, even God’s mercy).
We have a tendency, as our gospel parable illustrates, to covet, to be resentful of what others receive from God. The owner of the vineyard asks those who have worked longest and (presumably) hardest for him, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” The point is that God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness are God’s to give away as God sees fit.
As a result of this, we may also covet God’s power to forgive and God’s control over who is forgiven and how.
This parable is perfectly matched in the lectionary to the parable of Jonah, who has run away to avoid delivering the message of forgiveness that God has sent him to proclaim. Jonah complains (he complains!), “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” and surely this cannot be for them? It is ironic that Jonah, who had earlier declared that “deliverance belongs to the Lord” (2:9, a deliverance he himself has experienced), has rejected the good news of who God is for others.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is about coveting, about our frustration with the grace of God as it applies, not to us, but to others, especially when we think we got here first or deserve something more.
I dearly love both my granddaughters who are now 13 and almost 11 years old, and thanks to training in several sports they have both learned about sportsmanship and working as a team. But the envious eye of first–born Ava towards her little sister Ella was quite obvious 10 years ago. Two-and-a-half year old Ava barked at her mother holding new-born Ella: Put her down! Give her to Dad!
Ava’s ego-centric view of what was most important or who needed attention at that moment was astounding. She arrived first in her parents’ 30-something lives and received their full attention for a couple years before Ella came along. So sharing became a new concept that she had to come to terms with. It goes both ways between the sisters of course, but first-comers sometimes get a particularly skewed perspective about where the center of the universe lies.
And of course we do not naturally outgrow resentment just by becoming adults. We may wonder inside our congregations why participation is declining even in places of population growth. We may be blinded to how “inside” our perspectives towards others have become over the decades. Newcomers may no longer be willing be involved in “the way it’s always been” or to the expectations that earlier-comers may continue to carry.
Beyond our congregations, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard carries particular meaning for the demographics of employment in the state of Minnesota and elsewhere in our nation. With the aging and retirement of “baby-boomers” there may soon be too few workers to maintain productivity levels. With current trajectories, there will be more retired folks and fewer workers in the active work force, not enough caregivers for our aging population and not enough workers to keep production going. Resenting new workers in our midst may not be in our own self-interest in the long run. Who’s going to take care of us?!
It may be tempting to see ourselves as being the first-comers in this parable. As Gentiles, we are actually late-comers to the gospel of Jesus that was first shared with the Jews. As descendants of northern European immigrants to the United States in the mid-to-late 1800’s, we are late-comers to a place inhabited for several 1000’s of years by First Nation peoples.
But we become the early workers in this parable every time we resent God’s mercy extended to others. Whenever we complain about perceived unfairness, we become the early workers. And grumbling in community is a deadly poison. We become like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, longing for the good old days of slavery back in Egypt, turning our backs on the future.
Jonah is the ultimate grumbling servant . . . nothing prophetic about his behavior! It is human nature to want mercy for ourselves and justice for others. Only by God’s grace are we able to see others with God’s eyes. Only by God’s grace can we love our neighbors as ourselves, taking their perspective, understanding that they too have human needs and human rights.
Living in gratitude is a primary way of living a life worthy of the gospel. It is impossible to be resentful and grateful at the same time. We have a choice to count our blessings, whatever we have, or to resent our neighbors, our life circumstances or maybe even God that we don’t have as much as we would like to have. All that we do have is lost, meaningless, when we live in resentment.
Think again for a moment, of what resentment does to the grumbling day laborers. Rather than feeling fortunate to have found work for the day, they feel unfortunate at not having received more. Rather than rejoicing that these later workers — who waited all day for the prospect of work . . . . And have you ever been unemployed? How much work and stress does that mean to be out of work?! The later workers can return home blessed to be able to feed their families, but the early workers only begrudge them, perhaps even curse them, their good fortune. And rather than be grateful to the landowner who has given them an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work, the early workers only grumble with resentment.
God calls us to live abundant lives, lives focused on gratitude, instead of wanting more. We are only truly alive when we are giving thanks.
Jesus’ parables challenge our basic assumptions . . . and that is a good thing . . .
Here are some assumptions for living in abundance vs. assumptions of scarcity:
God loves me and all of creation deeply and profoundly.
I am made in God’s image and so is everyone else.
There is nothing we can do to earn or deserve God’s generosity. It is pure grace.
There are enough resources in our congregation, community and the world for everyone. Distribution is our primary challenge.
God’s generosity is beyond our wildest imaginations!
These assumptions of abundance make me feel lighter just in expressing them!
It’s true as stated in the prophet Isaiah that our thoughts and ways will never reach those of God, but when we live and act in gratitude we do indeed draw closer to God.
In Jesus’ name.