Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A
IT’S ABSOLUTELY NOT FAIR. No self-respecting American worker would stand for it. We’d go straight to the boss and complain. We’d file a union grievance. We might even sue the company or lead a walk-out: equal pay for equal work. It stands against everything we know about freedom, equality, and fairness. And it is simply unforgivable behavior in the modern workplace.
Everyone knows that the way to get ahead is to work harder, and that those who work harder and longer are supposed to be rewarded for their trouble. But this landowner ignores all that and pays everyone the same, even though they didn’t work the same. Any good capitalist will tell you that that only encourages laziness and ill-attention to work. After all, if everyone is going to get paid the same each day, whether they work 1 hour or 12 hours, then of course everyone will choose to work just one hour and collect their full paycheck. None of the work will get done, and the landowner will soon go bankrupt.
He goes to the marketplace in the early morning, and hires some of the day-laborers standing there to go and work in his vineyard. They don’t come looking for him. They don’t mail in their applications. He goes out and finds them. He promises them one denarius, the usual daily wage.
A few hours later, he sees more workers standing around idle. He hires them too. But he doesn’t say how much he’ll pay them. He does the same throughout the day, right up until quitting time, telling each new group of workers, “I’ll pay you what’s right,” but never specifying an amount. They don’t come to him. He goes out and finds them.
When they get in line to be paid at the end of the day, everyone is surprised when the workers at the front of the line, the one’s who had been working only an hour, receive a denarius, the usual wage for a full day. It doesn’t say, but we can imagine they were pretty happy on getting such a windfall. Or maybe they were just glad that they would be able to feed their families—after all, they had been ready to work all day, they just hadn’t been hired.
But the folks farther back in line were having different thoughts. The ones who had been working for two or three hours were probably still pretty happy to get a full day’s wage, even if they had been working longer than the ones farther ahead. But the ones at the very back of the line, the ones who had been working all day, knew how much longer they had worked than everyone else. They knew how much more they had gotten done. They knew how much more tired they were, they knew how much more they had sweat, and they knew that they deserved to be compensated for what they had done. It was only fair that they get more; they had worked harder and longer.
Jesus uses a very special phrase to describe the way that they felt. In the version we read today, the landowner says, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Some other translations say they were jealous. The Greek actually says, “Is your eye evil because I am generous?” The people in the back of the line have the evil eye.
That detail isn’t included in English translations of the Bible because most English speakers aren’t very familiar with the evil eye. But in the Ancient Middle East, and still today in many parts of the world, the evil eye is a very serious matter. While beliefs about the evil eye vary, the basic idea is that if someone looks at you enviously, it can cause you physical harm. The envy inside the person comes out of their eyes in rays, and enters your eye, causing disease, illness, or general bad luck. And that’s what’s happening with those workers at the end of the line. The envy that they are feeling toward those ahead of them is becoming dangerously powerful and could cause physical harm to the landowner. The only reason he is not harmed is because of his inherent goodness.
There are a lot of Christians who really don’t like this parable. Not only does it offend our economic sensibilities, it offends our religious sensibilities as well. After all, it suggests that whether you have been a Christian your whole life and have worked really hard to do everything that God asks, or whether you have lived a life of vice and sin and only accept Jesus on your deathbed, you’ll still receive the same reward. No difference between the holiest saint and the most evil person, as long as they say they’re sorry before they die. It doesn’t seem fair. It seems wrong.
There was an older lady in the church I grew up in. She’s in the top ten of the holiest people I’ve ever met, was involved and active in the church forever. I can hardly think of anyone who would be a better Christian role-model. She took the Bible pretty literally, but this is the one passage that she just couldn’t abide. It’s because she was one of those people at the back of the line, one of those who had been working in the vineyard of the Lord for a very long time, and she simply could not abide that eleventh-hour Christians would have as good a place in heaven as she would.
And that’s a feeling that is common to many Christians. We are resentful of the idea that God would treat a deathbed convert just as well as us. Part of it is that we secretly wish that we could just slack off, live a life of sin, and then convert at the last minute. Wouldn’t that be more fun, after all? What’s the point of giving up all the pleasures of life if we’re not going to get anything for it? Why should we make that sacrifice, when we could get all the benefits without all the work?
And that’s exactly the idea that Jesus is trying to help us avoid. It’s that evil eye, that envy, that causes harm not only to those around us, but also to ourselves. It separates us, one from another, and it separates us from God and from God’s plans for us. If we are so jealous of others living it up in the world, then we will become useless as servants of God.
And it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the life of faith and the Kingdom of God. You see, we think that living a worldly life is more fun, more exciting, more enjoyable than living a godly life. We think that if we choose to live close to God, then we will be missing out on all the pleasures the world has to offer.
When in truth, the opposite is the case. There are many things in our world that promise pleasure and fulfillment, but apart from God, they are all just illusions. They may offer a diversion, or a temporary fix, but in the end, they amount to nothing. They can never fulfill that deep longing in our hearts that can only be filled by God.
But nothing could be more fulfilling than living your life for God. Nothing could be more rewarding or pleasurable than staying close to God and knowing God’s deep love. It may not be the same instant gratification, but it has much deeper power. If you need proof, just think back to the happiest times in your life, those times when you felt most at peace, most whole and complete. Were they times when you were far away from God? Or were they times when you were close to God?
Living a faithful life, working in God’s vineyard, should not be simply a chore. It is not a way of earning a reward or gaining salvation. The Protestant Reformers were terribly clear about that. Salvation by faith and not by works. And yet it is so easy for us to forget that living a faithful life is not something we do in order to get paid with divine blessings. It is a privilege, and a joyful response to the love we have found in God through Jesus Christ, who doesn’t wait for us to apply, but seeks us out while we are standing idle. We don’t live the way God asks us because it’s some kind of duty or burden, or because we are afraid to offend God. We live God’s way because it is the most fulfilling, most rewarding way to live. That’s why God recommends it, not because God is vindictive and generally a party-pooper, but because God is gracious and kind.
Now, that doesn’t always make it easier to make good choices. The lures of this world are many, and there are temptations all around us. Advertisers are constantly telling us that this will make us happy or that will bring satisfaction to our lives. Don’t believe it. What it will bring is more money in their pockets. The only thing that brings true and lasting happiness is the love of God. So why do we wish we could wait longer to experience it?
I wonder if part of the reason that we feel jealous when God offers grace to others is because we have a hard time accepting God’s grace ourselves. We feel like we should have to earn God’s blessing and we have a hard time believing that God would love even us without condition.
Martin Luther, in a sermon on this same text, puts it this way. He says, “Hence the substance of this Gospel is that no mortal is so high, nor will ever ascend so high, who will not have occasion to fear that he may become the very lowest. On the other hand, no mortal lies so low or can fall so low, to whom the hope is not extended that he may become the highest; because here all human merit is abolished and God’s goodness alone is praised, and it is decreed as on a festive occasion that the first shall be last and the last first. In that he says, “the first shall be last” he strips you of all your presumption and forbids you to exalt yourself above the lowest outcast, even if you were like Abraham, David, Peter or Paul. However, in that he also says, “the last shall be first,” he checks you against all doubting, and forbids you to humble yourself below any saint, even if you were Pilate, Herod, Sodom and Gomorrah.”
God’s grace demands that we not exalt ourselves over others. And it also demands that we not humiliate ourselves below others. No, it’s not fair. But grace isn’t fair. Grace is by definition unfair, in that God loves us all, regardless of how we might or might not merit it.
So let us celebrate in God’s radical grace. And let us turn away from jealousy and from the delusion that living a life estranged from God is somehow ‘getting away with something’ and to be preferred to living a life in close relationship with God. Let us say yes to God now and open the door to that new and joyous life. And let us not be envious of the ones who come after and receive the same reward. It is not a reward anyway, it is a gift. Instead, let us rejoice with God that they have come home, have come to the joy that is only found in the love of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.