Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
It’s not fair! We associate this with a playground yell or the tantrum between children. But let’s be honest we all think it, probably quite a lot of the time, and certainly when we don’t get what we want. Sometimes even when we do get what we want but then someone else gets even more! Fairness is something we cherish, something we think is an important part of justice, something that the law of the land is meant to help sort out. Fairness is biblical and Christian – well it should be!
So, today’s gospel is more than a bit shocking because it seems unfair. And shocking it should be because, that’s right, the kingdom of God is not fair! The Kingdom of God is built on Grace, not fairness. Grace is not earned by time served, grace is not earned by labours, be they in the sun or the rain! Grace is not dished out on a first come, first served basis. Grace is freely given to all, whenever they respond to the call.
I guess the disciples were even more shocked by the unfairness of it all because this parable is aimed at them, not at the Pharisees or any other group. They were after all the ones who responded first. They were the ones who gave up everything to follow Jesus through thick and thin. They could claim to have earned their place through loyal and even sacrificial followship. I am not surprised they expected to be first when the rewards were dished out. Indeed, we know that they argued about which of them would sit at the left and right of the Lord in his Kingdom.
But Jesus point runs counter to all that we hold dear in terms of fairness. Things like a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work are meaningless in this story. I am not sure that Jesus wanted to turn the labour market on its head and encourage people to think they would be paid for nothing. But I think he did intend to turn the religious market on its head and promise us we would get paid, no matter when we accept the job offer. The established workers had got their hopes up. If these part timers are getting this much, then we must be in for a bonus. But then there is disappointment. They get their dues and that is it.
We all get our dues from God but, in the words of Jonah “… I knew you are a gracious God and merciful”. And Jonah, to be frank, was more than mildly miffed. What Jonah wanted was a very earthly reward for his efforts. Yes, he had tried to run away but, eventually, he had carried out his mission and brought God’s word to the people of Nineveh. The outcome he expected was for them to be punished, that would be his reward for his labours, that is what he wanted. But he succeeded and the people repented, and God was merciful. And Jonah was extremely disappointed and upset because God’s vision of a positive, great even, outcome to Jonah’s mission was different. God cares about the one hundred and twenty thousand people (and animals!) and he is delighted that they have repented. Jonah has been a success. God is delighted that the late comers to the event have accepted the offer. After all Jonah’s trials and tribulations, recruitment has been a success.
But, of course, we are not like that. We are generous of spirit and don’t mind someone else coming in and getting a slice of the cake. It doesn’t matter to us that we have been faithful servants for years. We have attended services, bibles studies, courses, retreats. I may have studied through early mornings and late evenings, done essays and summer school, had my sermons marked and all that. Then someone just swans in and repents, and they are as good as I am! I am sure we have all felt a little threatened when that happens. When the new arrival upsets the apple cart and gets more attention, more action, more love. To be honest I have been both sides of this. I have been the established one who finds their position undermined; or perhaps more accurately PERCEIVES their position to be undermined by someone new with different ideas or a different style. And let’s be honest, we may put a brave face on it, but we don’t really like it. I have been the newbie who blunders in and makes mischief – even though I may not mean to.
So, when we get our hopes up about what is due to us, let us go back to the humility that runs through the Gospels. Whether it is comparison of the generosity of alms from the rich to the poor widow, whether it is publicly overt prayers or humble contrition in private. There is a consistent message that God is gracious and generous. God chooses to be generous to everyone who comes, no matter when, no matter what we have been through to get to where we are compared to them.
I probably cannot prove this beyond reasonable doubt for the lawyers, but having met Christians in some strange places and difficult situations over the years, I am constantly humbled by the fact that it is those who have least who are the most generous. It is those who face real, life threatening, persecution who are most welcoming and open minded. Those whose world appears most depressing and oppressive who are the most joyful and enthusiastic. Those who have suffered long term illness or impairment who live life to the full. Those for whom fairness is an abstract word because life has been unfair who celebrate and worship in love.
It is people like that who truly embody the words that “the last will be first and the first will be last”. It is people like them who truly understand the Grace and Mercy of the Lord. Oh, that I could be more like them……