It’s Not Fair!

September 18, 2011

(Jonah 3,10-4.11; Philippians 1, 21-30; Matthew 20, 1-16)

The parable of the workers in the vineyard: what a very subversive and shocking piece of writing that is. Just imagine it in modern terms. You contract to do some casual work for an employer, perhaps a month’s gardening or decorating, and he takes you on for an agreed wage that you know is the standard rate for the job. He takes on other workers a third of the way through the month, half-way through, towards the end, and even some on the last day. Then, when you open your wage envelopes at the end of the month, you discover you’ve all been paid the same amount, and everyone has the full month’s pay. There’d be riots, wouldn’t there?

The actions of the proprietor don’t fit with any known economic system. It’s certainly not good capitalist practice: any employer who followed this course would be drummed out of the CBI and accused of undermining other businesses. And, of course, giving as much to those who were unemployed for most of the time as to those who worked would definitely be seen as encouraging benefit cheats.

But, of course, no trade union would accept such an arrangement either – it would undermine all the carefully negotiated differentials and hours of work. Any good convener would have the wage force of such an employer out on strike in a jiffy, complaining about thwarting his members’ legitimate aspirations. The unions would be deeply suspicious of the employer’s motivation and probably suspect him of plotting to divide the workforce and destroy the nationally agreed wage rates!

But it wouldn’t accord with a Marxist creed either: ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’, for we have no evidence that the needs of the latecomers were equal to those who had worked longest. The only philosophy it fits seems to be John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, which says we should do what contributes to the greatest happiness of the greatest number; though since the early risers were extremely unhappy about being paid the same as the latecomers, it doesn’t really fit that either.

No, the story of the labourers in the vineyard fits only one system, that of the Kingdom of Heaven, or ‘God’s imperial rule’ as it is known in one American translation. This story is typical of Jesus, and the way he taught about God. It cuts right across the expectations of those who were listening, and made his hearers think again about what God was really like.

Yet, it is not a favourite parable of the church. It is much less well known than, say, the Lost Sheep or the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. Why? Is it perhaps because it makes us feel so uncomfortable? Just as the story shows the employer cutting across the legitimate (so they thought) expectations of his faithful hard working labourers, so the theological message of the parable shows God cutting across the legitimate (so we think) expectations of faithful churchgoers. It undermines our sense of entitlement, our religious confidence, our reliance on our good works.

In short, it’s not fair!

Jonah of course thought the same thing about his experience of being sent by God to tell the people of Ninevah to repent. It wasn’t fair he was chosen for such a difficult task, it wasn’t fair that God sent a storm when he tried to escape, it wasn’t fair that in the end he had to carry out the job God wanted him to do. Then, when he did it, it wasn’t fair that the people of Ninevah repented and God forgave them! What sort of God is it who forgives the wicked instead of sending fire and brimstone to destroy them?

Finally, least fair of all, the plant that grew up to shelter Jonah when he sat sulking in the desert was destroyed by a pest, and Jonah was left to bear the heat of the sun without shelter. Jonah had done God’s work, although reluctantly, and God wasn’t even prepared to allow him shelter from the sun.

It’s not fair!

I don’t suppose it was fair that Paul was in prison for his faith, nor that the Philippian converts to whom he wrote were also being given a hard time by their opponents. But they didn’t complain that it wasn’t fair. They thought of themselves as following the path of Christ: they understood the way the Kingdom of Heaven works.

As Jonah remarked (rather bitterly) the God who Jesus came to reveal to us is characterised by ‘hesed’ – loving kindness. This is love that goes beyond what is deserved, which goes far beyond rewarding the good people and hard work. It is love which is overflowing with mercy, even to the most undeserving in human eyes.

The tale of the labourers in the vineyard tells us that God has no favourites, or rather than every human being is equally God’s favourite. We are all equally recipients of his generosity and he treats us all with equal favour. Those who knew and worshipped him from time immemorial, his ancient people, the Jews; the first apostles; Christians throughout the ages, and modern believers are all put on an equal footing with the person who has led a life of indifference or even hostility to faith, but has a deathbed conversion. All are given the reward of faith, and welcomed into the Kingdom.

We should not be surprised that we find this hard to take. According to the stories in the New Testament, even the disciples found it hard to accept the way God distributes rewards (you remember the story of the sons of Zebedee asking for the place of honour in the Kingdom). And later the church developed a sort of spiritual hierarchy, designating some people as ‘saints’ with the assumption that they are closer to God or in a more favoured position in heaven than ordinary believers. Then, in the mediaeval church, they even developed a sort of spiritual economy, with the chance to buy remission of days in purgatory from the saints, who were assumed to have more than enough good works to ensue their admission to heaven, with some to spare. We may smile at such beliefs, but even today isn’t there a tendency to believe that some Christians – the clergy and monks and nuns – or some sorts of Christian – Catholics or Evangelicals or non-conformists – are more favoured by God and will be first in the queue at the Pearly Gates?

But the parable of the workers in the vineyard reminds us (if we are prepared to listen) that God doesn’t work that way.  It’s not fair!

It’s demoralising, isn’t it! No matter how many sermons you preach, how often you come to church, how much time you spend on your knees, how much money you give to charity, how many housebound people you visit, how many programmes of ‘Songs of Praise’ you watch, you are no more favoured in God’s eyes than the newest convert. The reward for everyone is the same – the everlasting joy of living in God’s presence.

But, on the other hand, the story of the labourers in the vineyard is strangely comforting. We all of us know, in our heart of hearts, deep down in the secret places of our consciences, that we don’t do as much as we could in God’s service. We are all, sometimes, among the idlers, who don’t come out into the market place to look for God’s work until it’s almost too late. (Just as most of us have also been like Jonah, and tried to run away from the task which God has asked us to do). Yet, we are assured that, as long as we do eventually hear God’s call and answer it, we will receive our reward.

We all have different gifts and talents. Some of them seem much more impressive than others, and receive much more recognition in the church and the world. This may lead some to feel their little gifts and talents are not worth offering. This parable tells us God doesn’t see it that way: whatever we can give in time, or material gifts or talents, will be accepted in the same gracious way, as long as we respond when we are called.

For some, the work he calls us to do will be long and hard, like those who laboured in the heat of the day. For some it will be dangerous, like Jonah’s mission to Ninevah. For some it will involve opposition and imprisonment, as Paul and the Philippians found. For others, the effort the work requires will seem very small; perhaps they may be seen as idlers in the world’s eyes. It doesn’t matter whether some great public work is demanded of us, or something slight and short-term – to be, to suffer, to pray faithfully or just to die well; God promises us the same payment whatever is asked of us.

It may not be fair in the eyes of the world, or even in the eyes of many believers. What is really important is how we react to God’s idea of fairness.

Do we react as Jonah did, by running away and sulking? Or do we react as Paul did, with the mind of Christ? Can we get beyond the ‘not fair’ state of mind and rejoice in God’s generosity, even to the undeserving. Can we even imitate it?

If we can, then we can stop worrying about what may happen to other people, and rest secure in the knowledge that when our day’s work is done, we will be paid the full wages and welcomed home: not like Shakespeare’s golden lads and lasses to dust,  but the the welcoming arms of this world’s proprietor, who turns out not to be any old eccentric employer, but our loving heavenly Father.