“GOD’S MERIT SYSTEM”
-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 9-30-2018 Pardeeville
The Bible contains some great stories…how God created the world…Noah’s ark…the exodus…the birth of Jesus…the resurrection to name a few. What I want to know is how did this story get into the Bible…and in a Gospel no less? I suppose it starts out okay but read to the end and you will likely conclude that this parable is plain unfair! You have the vineyard owner who goes not once but five times to the town square to find workers. That part is all well and good but look at the injustice that takes place when it comes time to pay all these laborers. Those who only worked one hour received one silver coin. When it’s time to pay the workers who spent the whole day working for this vineyard owner, they are shocked to receive the same wage…one silver coin. Wouldn’t you be upset if you worked eleven hours for nothing? Unfair doesn’t begin to describe the labor practices in this story! You know that, if these workers had been in a union, there would have been grievances filed. The vineyard owner would have been forced to pay anyone who worked longer hours more money. And, when this story hit the newspaper and we found out about the punitive damages that the courts added on, we would all agree that the vineyard owner got precisely what he deserved for trying to cheat those workers who put in a full day. It would be a triumph for justice and it would serve as a lesson for every other business owner that they had better treat workers fairly.
To our way of thinking, and by everything we understand as fair in treating employees, we would agree that what the vineyard owner did was unfair and we’d be right. But this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. We have learned from other such parables Jesus told about the kingdom of heaven, that there are differences in the way we look at things and the way things are in the kingdom of heaven. Let’s take another look at the story.
The vineyard owner needs workers for some reason. Maybe a lot of workers called in sick that day. Maybe the harvest is unusually bountiful and more workers are needed to get the grapes in before they spoil. For whatever reason, there just aren’t enough people working that day. The vineyard owner goes to the town square because that’s where he is likely to find people seeking work for the day. The town square was the place where all the able-bodied folks gathered…hoping to find a day’s work. These people were not necessarily lazy people. They simply did not have regular jobs. And they needed to find ways to support their families. So they gathered at the town square in hopes that someone would hire them, at least for one day. They were forced to rely on others to be able to earn some money.
Some of these people are at the town square very early in the day. When the vineyard owner comes there at 6 am, those he hires are promised a silver coin at the end of the workday. This was, in fact, the going rate for a day’s work at the time. This was what it took to support the average family for a day. This was what those who gathered at the town square hoped to receive so they could take care of themselves and their families.
Things begin to get complicated for us when the owner returns to the town square four more times throughout the day. Each time he hires more laborers for his vineyard. And each time he promises the workers a fair wage for their day’s work. Six o’clock comes. The workday is over and it is time for everyone to be paid. Those who have only worked one hour are paid first. They receive a silver coin. Had those hired at six in the morning been paid first, there may have been no complaining at all. The problem develops because those hired first get to see how the others are paid. They expect to receive more and are more than a little disappointed when they receive the same thing, one silver coin. Disappointed and angry really. There is a lot of grumbling going on. The workers demand to speak to the vineyard owner. They want to know how he thinks can he pay everyone the same wage when some worked longer than others did. The owner reminds them of their original agreement, a day’s work for a silver coin. That’s how long they worked and that’s what they received. And the vineyard owner asks them, “Are you jealous because I am generous?” I’m thinking that, in the minds of the workers who feel they got shortchanged, the answer may be “Yes!”
Maybe it’s generosity that separates our world from the kingdom of heaven. Not to imply there isn’t a fair amount of generosity in our world. But it’s our reaction to generosity that makes the difference. The feelings of jealousy or anger or power that a person’s generosity forms in others. And that’s the key to this parable…God’s generosity.
Divine generosity begins with creation. We have all been given life as a gift. We haven’t deserved anything; it is all God’s generous gift. It continues throughout our lives as it did in the parable we heard this morning. In that parable, we see God as the vineyard owner. Notice that the workers did not seek out the vineyard owner. It was the other way around. In the same way, God seeks us out. God comes to the town square where we are gathered. God does not come only once. God comes often, looking for us, wishing to offer us a job in the kingdom of heaven. The vineyard in the parable is the place where God’s work is done. By offering us this work, God is providing everything we need for that day…does “give us this day our daily bread” sound familiar?—another generous gift. God is willing to give us what we need to sustain us for one day. So we go to work in the kingdom of heaven. In the parable, some start early. Some start at noon. Some begin very late in the day. In our own lives, some of us start our work when we’re young, some in mid-life, and others at an older age. God’s generous reward for this work is eternal life. Even though we work for different lengths of time, we each receive the same reward. In the kingdom of heaven, that doesn’t make us jealous. In the kingdom of heaven, that makes us grateful.
Our gratitude reminds us of a key feature of the kingdom of heaven. We don’t make the rules. We don’t decide who gets what after working in the kingdom of heaven. In fact, none of today’s labor practices can possibly prepare us for the way that wages are paid in the kingdom of heaven. That’s one of the points Jesus is trying to make by telling this parable. Any wages we would pay would fall well short of God’s wages.
God’s merit system is pretty straightforward. God has come down to the town square and asked us to work in the kingdom of heaven. We may have responded to that invitation early in the day, at noon, or very late in the day. But God takes the initiative. God continues to look for workers. We are hired at different times. Our part of the arrangement is to understand the work that God is asking us to do and to respond faithfully. Our payment? Eternal life. So it really doesn’t matter when we are hired or how long we work in the kingdom of heaven. What we earn is eternal life. How can you have a greater reward than eternal life? How can anyone be more worthy of eternal life than anyone else?
We just have to remember who we are and whose we are. God has given us the gift of life. God, as the vineyard owner, has come to seek us out, several times if necessary. God has offered us work in the kingdom of heaven. God offers us a generous salary for that work. We must remember we don’t make the rules. Nor should we compare ourselves to anyone else. We are not to judge the importance of our jobs. They are all important. Our response to God’s invitation to work is guided by our faith.
If you spend your time complaining about what others have, you will always be miserable. We were not created to envy what others have. We were created to be thankful for everything we have received. That’s a critical distinction in the way we look at things. Those who cannot make that distinction are bound to come to the conclusion that life is not fair.
If you give thanks to God for everything you have received, beginning with the gift of life, you’ll realize that life may not be fair by this world’s standards. But life in the kingdom of heaven, life that is rooted in grace, is a pretty good deal. Thanks be to God!