After the service, a parishioner offered his unsolicited feedback to my sermon: “What do you know about running a business anyway? Paying workers that way is not fair. Just stick to religion and preaching, but not preaching about business.” He’s right. Pay a person a full-day wage for an hour of work, and you’ll be out of business in no time. Next time the unemployed see you drive the bus up, guess how many pass and wait for the day’s last bus? The problem with Jesus’ story – It’s not fair. You don’t reward people who don’t pull their own load.
Five times this vintner drives into town for hired hands one day. First we learn he plans poorly. Did he not know at the beginning what he’d need? And then who’d be sitting on the curb at the end of the day? They’re losers, the leftovers – those who’ll work long enough for a six-pack or pack of cigarettes. Maybe he’s the one with a business knowledge shortage.
The owner’s offering a good wage – $240 or about $20 an hour. They day ends and the whistle blows to signal quitting time. Everyone gathers around the foreman to receive his pay. The owner tells him to start with the ones who worked the least. They open their envelopes, expecting $20 for their hour, only to find they’ve earned $240 in cash – a full day’s pay. Word spreads like a wildfire: “$240 an hour? Let’s see. I came at noon. That’s about $1450.” And those who came at daybreak say, “Wow, $2900.” But as more envelopes are handed around, a different word sounds. Everyone gets the same $240. My critic’s right. This is no way to run a business.
If this is what the Kingdom of God is like, why not wait until last bus, and earn the same reward as those who’ve been at it from the beginning? Seems to encourage laziness if you ask me. Does this imply God may not be fair? For instance, you are the hard workers in the kingdom. We get here early. We come to church when we’d rather be doing other things. We serve on committees, weed the church yard, and serve food to the hungry, give our money. And somebody walks in at the last minute – and God rewards them same as us. That doesn’t seem fair. Life is unfair, but surely not God. God fixes injustices, rewards the faithful. We deserve better. This is a joke. Can’t you hear all the whooping and laughter coming from the 5 o’clock folks – and the grumbling and cussing from the early starters? “It’s not fair.” And the owner sharply tells them: “You agreed to your pay and you’ve received it. It’s my money – my choice. Are you envious because I am generous? Leave now.”
Where we place ourselves in this story determines whether we’ll grumble and cuss, or whoop and holler for joy. If you believe you worked all day, the story will sound different. You may feel like you’re being cheated. If you are down in the dumps, un- or under-employed, behind on bills, moving toward foreclosure and fresh out of hope, Jesus’ business plan sounds like great news. According to Jesus, “Get happy fast. God doesn’t put up those who begrudge his crazy generosity. The grumpy greedy go to the back, replaced by those who get rewarded for just showing up.” Got that – it’s not fair, is it?
I think we’re better off, though, to let God be in charge, even if we can’t understand. In God’s kingdom, all of us make out far better than we have earned or deserved. I suspect many good Christians won’t think we are the last hired – I mean we are here. Yet by acting as if we’re shortchanged, and angry that God is so unfairly generous, we set ourselves outside God’s vision of a new kingdom.
God’s way of doing business doesn’t make sense in our business of profits, bonuses, bottom lines, tax loopholes and all. So which kingdom do we choose? Can we celebrate God’s generosity? That’s the question. If we follow Jesus’ word, then we’ll be drinking wine, eating cheese cake, and prime rib – congratulating everyone – those who should have gotten less and those who should have gotten more. That’s life in the kingdom. So rejoice always! We won’t get what we earn. God love us much more than that. That’s good news that holds us and we are to share with all. And it’s darn tough to do in today’s world, where the vision is: “You should get what you earn.”
“I don’t understand. This makes no sense,” my friend says. “I know.” “It’s called grace,” I said. “God loves us all beyond our deserving, and I don’t understand why either. I do know you can’t earn what you’ve already been given. And you get it, whether you understand it or not. So accept it, and live it.”
Grace just doesn’t make sense, does it? Thank God. According to Jesus heaven’s party has already begun – here on earth, among us. Everybody gets full pay. Therefore, rejoice, and don’t leave yourself in the dark.