16 Pentecost, Proper 20 – September 24, 2017
Matthew 20:1-16

Be honest. When you heard our gospel reading just now, did your heart leap for joy? Were you excited when you heard that the workers who’d toiled and slaved all day long in the hot sun were going to get the same day’s wages as those who’d worked only one hour? Probably not, huh?

This is not a favorite parable. It goes against one of our most cherished values, that of just reward for hard work. The more you work and the more productive you are, the more you ought to get paid. I don’t know many who would disagree with that. And this is the complaint of those who worked all day: “You have made them equal to us.”

The parable provokes one of the most primitive cries of childhood, when one sibling gets a better shake than another, the one who feels cheated screams: “But that’s not fair!” And so it goes: Some seem to get more than they deserve while others get less. It’s just not right. It’s just not fair.  So what is this parable trying to tell us? What is the lesson here?

Listen to the parable once more: A landowner hired workers early in the morning and promised to pay them what amounted to minimum wage – one denarius. This was considered the basic subsistence for a man to feed his family for one day. The landowner then went back at nine o’clock, at noon, at three o’clock and at five o’clock and hired more workers. He told them simply that he’d pay them what was right. So far, so good. In our minds, we’ve already got it figured out – they’re going to get a pro rata share of one denarius. According to our standards, that would be fair. At the end of the day the landowner had all the workers line up starting with those who came at five o’clock. Lo and behold, he paid them a denarius, a full day’s wage.  Still, no problem. If he paid one denarius for one hour’s work, then he must be going to pay one denarius per hour. That’d be generous, but fair. This is where the parable takes an unexpected turn, for as the workers filed by to receive their wages, he paid them all the same – one denarius each, no matter how long they worked.
“Hey, that’s not fair!” they complained. The landowner was not playing by their rules. Never mind that they got precisely what they were promised; the fact that the others got the same was a pill too big to swallow. The landowner replied, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous? Take your pay and go home.”

So, what was it about those workers who’d worked all day that made them so angry when the others got paid the same? Perhaps they were working for the pay and not out of a sense of purpose or pleasure. And this is a good question we’d do well to ask: “What is it that motivates you to do what you do?” Whether you’re employed full-time or serve as a volunteer, whether you work in the community or around the house, what motivates you to do what you do? If it’s money or recognition or the praise of others, be careful! Most jobs don’t pay enough to satisfy a healthy ego. If what you’re doing isn’t self-satisfying and self-fulfilling, you’re likely to harbor resentment and anger about doing it, and when someone comes along doing the same job and gets paid more, we’re likely to feel as resentful as the workers in the parable. Only as you truly enjoy what you’re doing will you be able not to look over your shoulder and compare your situation with others.
Have you ever noticed that? Rather than be content with what you have or who you are or what you’ve accomplished, we so regularly look to those around us to decide whether it is enough based on what others have, or are, or have accomplished.
I suspect this is part of being human – being animated by a deep-seated insecurity. And so we enjoy the car we drive…until we see a neighbor with a nicer or newer one. We are content in our relationship but wonder if the couple just down the street is happier. We love our kids but wish they could be better-rounded or more accomplished, like our best friend’s kids appear to be. We feel good about our grades until we hear about the kid who is acing all his or her classes. Or from the reverse direction, we look with a bit of derision at the unhappiness of a friend and sadly conclude it’s really his own fault and are glad we make better choices. The list could go on, but you probably get the point. No joy comes from comparisons. Only envy and resentment and bitterness or, occasionally, a shallow and superficial pride because you’ve chosen to make yourself feel better by looking down on someone else. And not only do we not bring joy, but we unintentionally denigrate the actual present reality with which we have been blessed.

There is an implicit choice posed by this parable that is available to us regularly: do we take stock of what we think we deserve or of all the things we’ve been blessed by that we don’t deserve? Do we look for places in our lives characterized by lack and scarcity or do we name and give thanks for places of abundance. Do we reflect on what others have and we don’t, or do we delight in the wonder of all that we have been given to which we had no guarantee or right to expect? Do we, in short, choose comparisons or do we choose joy?

It should be easy: no joy comes from comparisons, yet we make comparisons all the time out of insecurity. So what do we do? Some practical suggestions:
Count your blessings. Simple but powerful. Start each morning in prayer by naming two things for which you are grateful. Start your day by anchoring yourself in generosity for the actual reality you have been given rather than comparing it to some idea or possibility or mirage.
How about taking a social media Sabbath at least once a week and turn our devices off an hour before bedtime. Social media is driven by inviting you to keep in touch with – and, ultimately, always check in with and on – how everyone else you know is doing. Connectivity turns so quickly into comparisons, and we forget that the pictures and profiles offered are often somewhat artificial, as we all try to compose a “self” that will impress others. One day a week away from social media can help clear and refresh your mind and spirit and turning off the device at night helps ensure you don’t go to sleep with these comparisons on your mind.
And practice vulnerability. So much of our culture invites us only to show what is strong and successful and put together (again, amplified by social media). Yet each of us has broken places; each of us has experienced loss and disappointment; each has moments of fear as well as hope. We seem to live at a time – and perhaps it’s always been this way – that we are afraid of showing those parts that while they are broken or messy, are also real. (Sometimes I think our broken places are the most real, the most human.) But if we can stop pretending and offer our true selves – that is, be vulnerably honest – we might find others willing to do the same. And it’s hard to set up denigrating comparisons when you’re being real with each other.

In the parable, God’s justice is that everyone got to work, and everyone was given the essential earnings to feed his family. The inequity of their varying hours of work was offset by the inequity of their varying strengths and abilities. And this is God’s justice, not that we get what we deserve, but that we get what we need.

I suppose when it’s all said and done, we’ll always feel a little squeamish about the inequities of life – the unfairness of it all – and perhaps we’ll continue to harbor a little resentment toward those who seem to get a free ride. Let’s just say it’s because we’re human, not God. Even so, let’s trust God to be just in spite of our humanness, so that when the day comes when we’re caught short, as one day it surely will, there’ll be grace for us as well.

Perhaps, what’s going on in this parable is a battle between human justice and God’s justice – a battle between our will and God’s will – and that, even though we say we just want to get what we deserve, what we most want and need is something far greater. When the love of God reigns in our hearts, we’re brought into community with each other, and we experience the fullness of life, not as compensation, but as a gift of grace.

The story is told of a man who died and went to heaven. St. Peter met him at the pearly gates and asked to examine his qualifications. “We have a point system,” St. Peter said, “and only those with enough points are allowed to enter.”
“Points?” the man asked, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
St. Peter explained, “It’s simple. We determine how many points you have by the life you’ve led. We require a hundred points to get in. Tell me about your life, and I’ll add up your points.”
The man thought for a moment and said, “Well, let’s see. I was a faithful member of my church for over forty-seven years. I served as a deacon and an elder, and I taught Sunday School.”
St. Peter said, “Very good. You get one point.”
The man said to himself, “Oh, my! Well, let’s see, I was a good husband and a good father. I gave a tithe to the church, and I contributed to all sorts of charities. I helped with various civic projects, and I served on several committees. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
St. Peter said, “Indeed it does. You get another point.”
The man’s face sank, and he said, “I can see now, I’ll never make it. The only way I’d ever get into this place is by the grace of God.”
St. Peter smiled and said, “And that, my friend, is worth ninety-eight points. Welcome!” Amen.