Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
If you have any kind of a sense of fairness, you probably don’t like today’s Gospel lesson.
For, as we heard, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who needed workers for his vineyard. So, he goes to the marketplace and hires who he can, and agrees with them for what a day’s wages are. Seeing that he needs more, he returns to the marketplace and hires more workers. He does this three more times, each time hours later than the previous. Then, as time would have it, the work day ended, and the landowner calls the workers for their pay, beginning with the latest hired, working his way back to those hired at the beginning of the day.
Those who worked only an hour receive their pay—a full-day’s wages. So do those who worked only a quarter of the day, and a half-day, and three-quarters of the day. All four of these groups of workers received a full-day’s pay for the partial day of work. Then, it comes time for those who put in a full-day’s work to be paid—they expect to receive more since they worked more than any of the rest of the workers.
Now, let’s pause right there. First, as was mentioned, there was the agreed-upon wage for the day’s work. These workers hired first agreed with the landowner for the wage. Second, each of the four groups paid before those hired first received the same pay, regardless of when they were hired or how long they worked. Is there anything that would lead those hired first, who worked the longest, to believe that they would be paid more? In a word: fairness (though we could mix a little greed into that). This sense of greed-filled fairness says that either those who work more deserve more, or that those who worked less should receive less than the agree-upon wage—prorated.
If you have any kind of a sense of fairness, you probably don’t like today’s Gospel lesson.
There’s an old saying, “Life isn’t fair.” Fess up, parents, you know you have said as much to your children. You know you’ve heard it from your parents. “Life isn’t fair.” This sin-filled world is dog-eat-dog, every man for himself, look out for number one because hardly anyone else is. Fairness hardly ever factors into life, except in complaints when one receives the short end of the stick or perceives that they have.
So it is with the hired workers. Those hired first and paid last feel slighted for having been paid the same wages as those hired last and paid first. “It’s not fair,” the complaints rise from those workers. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?” the landowner inquires. No, it’s not fair, as this world defines fairness. But, no one can deny that it is equal. The landowner chooses to treat each of his workers equally. He continues,
Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?
This, Jesus says, is how it is like with the kingdom of heaven. “Life isn’t fair,” the saying goes; it can be amended to say likewise that eternal life isn’t fair. The consequence and outcome of true faith is the same for everyone, regardless of when they were given faith, much as the workers were given the same wage regardless of when they were hired.
Now, this parable is often interpreted with respect to time, and with good reason. As the landowner states, “I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.” Those who were hired last get the same compensation as those who were hired first. Likewise, in the kingdom of heaven, those who were given faith late in life receive the same reward as those who were given faith as infants. The same goes for everyone in between.
If we look upon those young in the faith compared to those who have lived in their Baptisms just about all their lives with an eye to fairness, it would follow that there should be a higher level of eternal life for those who have been life-long believers than for those who die in the faith a few years, months, days, even hours after receiving faith. However, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who pays his workers equally regardless of when they are hired.
The consequence of this greed-filled fairness is that those who have believed longer tend to look with contempt upon those who are yet babies in the faith, relative to actual age, of course. Lifers will feel it their duty to point out to those who are new to the faith that they know better, they know more, they are more favored, etc. Often, this is subtle, but there have been times and there will be again that these things and others are overtly stated. This is not to say that these things often go unsaid, but they are heartfelt convictions nonetheless, among the lifers as much as among the newborns in the faith.
This is perhaps more pronounced when we start breaking things down into denominations and local congregations. We can easily develop a sense of self-righteousness and importance if we have been Lutherans longer than another, or even members of this congregation longer than another.
The foolishness of such thought is brought to light when we bring it into a related topic: parenting. We are commended to call upon God as “Our Father who art in heaven,” therefore, as Luther taught, we are His true children. From this we learn that the love that God has for us is the type of love a father is supposed to have for his children, as we heard in last week’s antiphon verse. That is to say that parents are supposed to treat each of their children equally, love them equally, regardless of when they came to be their children. Each child, regardless of age, gets from their parents what they need, and each is loved as much as the next...in a perfect world.
Yes, in this world, there are and will be times when it is easier to show favoritism to one child, such as when that child behaves and another does not. And, throughout recorded history, in many cultures, the oldest child tends to be the one that is shown more favor, especially in matters of estate. This sentiment, in fact, still exists in our more civilized, equality-driven culture. Nevertheless, we are taught that each child is supposed to be loved and treated equally, even go so far as to tell our children that we do love them each the same.
Such is how the parable is interpreted with respect to time, but it can also be interpreted with respect to work. It goes without saying that those hired first, who had the most time to work, did more work than those hired last, assuming they did not take an eleven-hour break. So, it can also go without saying that those who were given faith earlier in life have labored more in the church militant than those who received faith later in life. There are also believers who do more, participate more, give more of their time, talents, and treasures to their local congregations than others.
Well and good; do the work and rejoice that you have been given the work to do! However, this can be problematic when one starts to keep score. As was mentioned last week, bookkeeping is the way of the law. When we start to thump our chest and point how much more work we have done, how much more money we give, how much more time we are involved than the next member, we do so in order to prove to ourselves, our fellow members, and to God how much better we are than others. By this, we hope to gain greater favor, greater reward, more pay than those who merely show up on Sunday, receive the same forgiveness of sins, and are hardly heard from again the rest of the week. (That’s not to say that devoting only one hour per week to one’s Baptismal life is the mark of a well-fed faith, but that’s a matter for another sermon.)
This holier-than-thou attitude is no better than that of the Pharisee who sought to set himself apart from the publican, thanking God that he was not like other men, including that publican. (cf. Luke 18:11) And this is exactly why St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
No, chest thumping and pointing out one’s works is the way of the law. It removes the focus from Jesus and places it square on you. Yes, you have been given good works to do, but those works do nothing for your salvation—they are meant to serve your neighbor. If you wish to wear your works as a merit badge, then you are removing Jesus from the picture, and placing the means to your salvation squarely on your shoulders. The prophet Isaiah was given something to write about this: “But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.” (Isaiah 64:6) No, the number of works or greatness of the works that a believer is given to do do not matter in the grand scheme of salvation.
Again, this topic translates well to parenting. A child that misbehaves and is a habitual liar is to be loved by his parents just as much as a child who behaves and tells the truth. A child who struggles to get C’s in school is to be loved by his parents and teachers just as much as the child who eases to A’s. In fact, a child is to be loved and cared for just as much when he or she listens or ignores his or her parents, when he or she excels in math and fails in science—no matter how good or bad he or she is in any one moment.
That’s grace and mercy talk, and that is exactly how our Heavenly Father deals with each of us, His dear children. For He treats none of us as we deserve, but with the love a father is to have for a son, for the sake of His only-begotten Son. For it was His only-begotten Son who took upon Himself that which we deserved for our filthy rags—the favoritism, the chest-thumping, the gloating, the complaining, the whining: His death upon the cross. But, more than that, He gives us what we don’t deserve as a result—the right of sons of the Father, co-heirs with His Son of eternal blessings.
As it has been written by a Lutheran teacher: “God’s grace seems just too easy. I didn’t do anything to deserve it. That’s right! Now you’ve got it! You don’t deserve it, but God gives it to you for Jesus’ sake.”
Life isn’t fair, nor is eternal life. And we rejoice in that—while it is unfair, it is nonetheless equal. Because, no matter how long or short you’ve lived in your Baptismal life, no matter how many or few, how grand or unimpressive the works you have been given to do, no matter if you are first or last, God’s gift to you is the same: for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.