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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 09/18/2011

OK, I get it.  This parable of the laborers in the vineyard is about God’s grace; it’s about the fact that the rules in God’s kingdom are different,  you don’t earn God’s grace, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.  I get it; but I still don’t like it. 

Jesus’ parables are meant to challenge our assumptions, but for a lot of us, this one is especially difficult because it is so contrary to what we believe to be right and good and fair about work.  Work is good.  Hard work is better and we admire those who work hard.  The assumption is that those who work hard are rewarded for their efforts.  So even though we understand that this parable isn’t about hard work, it’s about grace, it’s still troublesome that some who haven’t worked as hard receive the same compensation as those who have and it doesn’t matter that they all got what they signed on for; it still doesn’t seem fair, and it’s just hard to get past that.  You work twelve hours you expect to get paid more than someone who works one hour doing the same thing.

It’s funny though that other inequities don’t bother us so much like how different kinds of jobs pay much more than others.  We accept that as just being the way it is.  It’s the equal pay for unequal amounts of time worked doing that same thing that is bothersome.  Like the all day workers in the parable, our sense of fairness is offended. 

Part of Jesus’ intention in telling his parables, was to get the attention of his audience, to surprise them somehow and make them question assumptions that they never thought about questioning.    It’s harder for him to surprise us because we’ve heard the parables so many times and we’ve heard them explained so many times.  This one though, does get our attention when we hear it, as we immediately identify with the all day laborers. 

The challenge though, is to get beyond that, to get past the fairness issue, which is what gets our attention; but rather than dwell on “it isn’t fair,” to fully understand what Jesus is talking about here, we need to move on and pay attention to the questions of the landowner at the end of the parable.  They’re really good questions.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Are you envious because I am generous?”  They’re questions that move us beyond the unfairness and make us confront the reasons we’re so upset. 

The parable is about God’s grace.  Where Jesus is very clever here though, is in having the grace fall on the characters we don’t identify with causing us to question the “fairness” of the grace and Jesus wants us to think about that; hence the landowner’s questions.  They get at why we talk about  unlimited grace and right away want to place limits on it. 

The challenge that Jesus is forever putting before us is to overcome our basic, me first instincts.  As fallen, sinful creatures we have those instincts, but by the grace of God, if we can identify the things about us that bring out our “me first” selfishness, we can begin to be the people he would have us be; we can glimpse the kingdom Jesus talked about.  It’s a kingdom in which the rules are different because the well being of the kingdom community is more important than the well being of me, but I don’t always like that.  The landowner’s questions though, make me look in the mirror and realize that the well being of the community depends on me and you and all of us; it depends on how we treat each other.   

Jesus knew that everyone who heard this parable would identify with those hired early in the morning.  He knew that everyone would want to make it about fairness, that everyone would want to claim the high moral ground.  But the way Jesus tells it makes it about more than what’s fair.   It makes it about a desire to compare, a desire to feel like you’re better than someone else and maybe most disturbing, it’s about an inability to celebrate someone else’s moment of grace without feeling like they’re getting away with something and that you’ve been cheated.

“Are you envious because I’m generous?” the landowner asks, and of course our quick, self-defense response would be, “No, I’m not envious, I just want things to be fair.”  But envy sneaks in there doesn’t it?  Our call for fairness isn’t quite as loud when we’re on the receiving end of the owner’s generosity.  Again though, that’s why Jesus was clever in having the grace in this parable fall on those we don’t identify with.

The need to compare doesn’t serve the Kingdom of God very well; it’s not very attractive, but…we have this need to judge ourselves better than someone else.  We don’t have to be better than everyone else, but we want to be better than someone.  With his gift of grace though, Jesus provides for everyone, so the need to compare is gone, but we do it anyway, again proclaiming unlimited grace out of one side of our mouth and placing limits on it out of the other side.

That gets back to the landowners first question, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”  It’s a way of saying, “You know, this is something you really don’t have to worry about.  You’ve received what you need.  Why does it bother you that someone else has received what they need?”  What it comes down to is that we don’t really believe in grace, or we only believe in it as long as it’s fair which of course means it’s not grace anymore.

So we pass judgment and we compare all of which keeps us from the abundant life that Jesus’ promises; it keeps us from exercising the care and compassion we are capable of, care and compassion that was a defining characteristic of Jesus’ ministry and of the kingdom he proclaimed. 

When I served in L’Anse I had a member there who had addiction issues.  Things went on for awhile but then she spent some time in the psych unit at Marquette General; she was involved in some counseling with Jon Magnuson but with all that she still kept lapsing back into the same old self-destructive patterns.  I remember talking to Jon about her though, and as I was talking I was kind of getting mad, saying she was just taking advantage of the help that was offered but wasn’t doing anything to help herself.  I didn’t know Jon all that well at that time, but if you know him, you can picture this.  He very calmly looked at me and said, “Why are you angry?  She’s sick.  If she had cancer would you be angry with her?”  

I’ve never forgotten that, but you see, my sense of fairness was being violated.  I thought, you’ve got all these other people trying to help her, but she’s not trying to help herself.  That’s not fair.  I was angry and I thought it was justified.  But what Jon could see, was that as long as I was angry I couldn’t help this person; I couldn’t show her compassion because I was mad at her.

The laborers who worked all day in the vineyard were angry and our first reaction is that their anger was justified.  Justified or not though, in anger they couldn’t be who Jesus would have them be.  They couldn’t show compassion because they were mad and I think that’s the real caution in this parable.  Jesus was trying to make us aware of those things that keep us from being helpful to others and also to make us aware of things that keep us from just enjoying life.

When Jesus talked about abundant life, he was talking about generosity and compassion, but he was also talking about really enjoying life and all it has to offer.  He was trying to keep us away from things that suck the joy out of life and some of the things that do that are playing judge, making comparisons, worrying about the fact that someone is getting away with something.  You ever notice how unhappy the people are who are always trying to keep someone else out of the party, someone they deem unworthy?  Even when they’re successful they’re miserable, busy watching and worrying about the next unworthy person or group trying to get in.  They wind up missing the party themselves.

That’s what’s happening to the all day laborers in this parable; worried that those others are getting away with something, they’re missing out on life.  With the landowners questions maybe Jesus is saying, “Stop worrying about what isn’t your problem.  I’ve given you what you need and  I’ve given you an opportunity.  So get out there; get out there and live.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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