Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard is one of those stories that sounds increasingly outrageous the longer we think about it. The manager’s decision to pay the same full-day’s wage whether workers labored a single hour or a full day strikes us as grossly unfair. And Jesus, of course, makes matters worse by stepping in and telling us that this picture of scandalously unfair treatment is in fact what the kingdom of heaven is like.
What are we to make of that? God is unfair? God plays favorites? God violates the norms of justice? What comes leaping out at us from the parable, of course, is that the late hires did not deserve the reward they got. They did not qualify for such compensation. We are quite naturally outraged by this miscarriage of justice, and if this is how God does things, isn’t there something just wrong about that?
Jesus rattles our cages here in order to get us thinking. What if God were fair? What if God were to give to you and me the just reward that we had actually earned by our service to him? Is that really what we want?
Think of the blessings God has given each of us day by day throughout our lives–gifts of life and strength, talents and abilities, friends, loved ones, health, work, shelter, sustenance. How many of those gifts did you and I deserve to be given? Is there anything we carry with us through life that doesn’t ultimately go back to gifts we received undeservingly from our Creator or by other people? It’s not like any of us showed up pink and screaming in that newborn delivery room clutching a bundle of IOU’s!
Or think of what you and I have done with God’s gifts throughout the course of our lives. How many of us can say we have used those gifts as God intended, lived up to our promise and potential fully, become what God in his love meant for us to be? What use have we made of the gifts God has given us? Do you really want a God who is fair, who gives to all of us exactly what we deserve?
When we take that step into the kingdom of God, we move into a place where the familiar rules of fairness and just deserts no longer apply, thank heavens! Like tourists traveling in a foreign land, a step into the kingdom takes us into a strange and unfamiliar country. It is the land of God’s amazing, overflowing generosity towards the deserving and the undeserving alike. It is the place of God’s gracious unfairness directed toward each and every one of us. You and I should give thanks every day that God is not fair!
That unfamiliar country is opened up to us by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. There on Golgotha, Jesus takes all of the darkness and alienation and death on himself that comes with our rejection of God’s light and love and life. Jesus bears to his death the just and fair reward that we have in fact earned for ourselves. Jesus takes care of the fairness angle, and so makes it possible for the kingdom to be that place of God’s amazing generosity to the undeserving.
The church in the world is an outpost of that unfamiliar country. Consequently the church feels like a strange place to us sometimes, one that doesn’t operate by the rules we are accustomed to. One of the reasons God calls us into the church by his Spirit is to get us acclimated to what life is like in this unfamiliar territory, so God’s ways of doing things won’t come as quite so much of a shock to us when the kingdom arrives in final glory. The church reflects God’s way, and that rubs against the grain of our instincts, formed as they are by a world where the expectation of “just deserts” is the norm.
Let us be honest, there are people in church who clearly are not qualified to be here, much less to have a say in what goes on. We encounter people in church who have not paid their dues or earned their place, people who are clearly out of step with the way things are and the way they should be.
Take those stuffy older folks, so mired in all those musty, dusty traditions of how it’s always been done. They want to impose dress codes on the worship services; they think God doesn’t hear church music if it isn’t played on the organ. Or what about that overly casual younger crowd, so heedless of time-honored traditions? They show up in t-shirts and undermine the dignity and solemnity of worship with their guitars and bongos and heaven knows what else.
God is up to mischief with us here, throwing us together with people so different from ourselves, and so obviously less qualified to be here! I believe God does this deliberately, so that in bumping up against them we will be prepared for life in that unfamiliar country, which will be filled with people who obviously don’t deserve to be there. We need these irritatingly different people, you and I, in order to bring our minds and hearts into line with the scope of God’s generosity.
In our life as a denomination, this pattern of God’s generosity and our irritation with it gets played out on a larger stage. Everywhere we turn these days, people are looking around their churches and seeing folks who are obviously wrong about critical issues of the day, undeserving people who are glaringly unqualified to be members of a respectable, Christian denomination. And so with the same kind of self-righteous outrage that we see directed toward the undeserving workers in Jesus’ parable, American Christians make plans to separate themselves off from all those unworthy persons who trouble the lives of our denominations. We make plans to run off into safe little enclaves of like-minded people who are faithful and right and clearly deserving of God’s generosity in just the same way we are.
I worry about these instincts taking hold of us, brothers and sisters. I worry that we will become habituated in our outrage, that we will become set in these patterns of running away from people who are different from ourselves. I worry that when Christ’s kingdom finally dawns, and the worthy and unworthy are all joyously celebrating that glorious day, our response will be shock and outrage at the presence of ALL THOSE UNDESERVING PEOPLE we tried so hard to separate ourselves from in this life! Our gays and lesbians down in front, Bible-thumping fundamentalists off to the side, culturally co-opted liberals up in the balcony, compassionless conservatives taking up the rear … WHO LET THOSE PEOPLE IN? There must be some mistake! The person in charge is clearly incompetent!
And so with the habits of a lifetime to guide us, I fear that our response then may be the same as it is now. I worry we will be so outraged that PEOPLE LIKE THEM have been included in the scope of God’s generosity that we will flee from the unfamiliar country of God’s generosity to seek some other, better ordered place–perhaps a bit warmer– where the people there all deserve to be, where the ordered dictates of obligation and just reward are never challenged by a disruptive divine mercy, and where we won’t be troubled by the unfairness of people receiving rewards they have not earned. “Do you begrudge my generosity?” the householder asked the laborers.
Would God allow us on that final day to begrudge his generosity? Would God permit us to stomp indignantly away from that kingdom where his love toward the undeserving holds sway? Jesus warns us how difficult it will be for some. Those who are first in righteousness and most deserving of the kingdom will be in last place when it comes adjusting their hearts to the scope of God’s generosity. And those who are dead last in terms of what they deserve will be first to joyfully embrace God’s mercy.
Perhaps we should give more thanks than we do for all those irritatingly different people we encounter in this place, and take advantage of the opportunities God gives us to practice loving them before that final day arrives!
God draws us all together in this place to melt our hearts and mold our compassion into the image of Christ’s own generosity toward the undeserving. The Spirit unites us in one body with these less-than-qualified people in order to grind away the rough edges of our own self-righteousness and kindle the fires of our thanksgiving for the generosity we have each received. God is at work in our midst to prepare us for joyful citizenship in that unfamiliar country, where God’s love is poured out on the deserving and undeserving alike.
It is a very unfamiliar country, and one for which our hearts will need to be trained and prepared before it can feel like home.
May the consuming fire of God’s Holy Spirit purge our souls of every ungodly anger and bitterness and resentment, and form our hearts in Christ’s own love and mercy, now while there is still time.
Mark Achtemeier is associate professor of theology and ethics at Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.