Having worked in the non-profit sector for almost seven years before going off to seminary, I learned that even when people are trying to be at their best, sometimes ugliness slips in and makes the waters murky. At Habitat for Humanity, as part of the homeowner application process, each applicant received a home visit before being selected to be in the program. The home visit enabled us to get to know the homeowners better, to ask clarifying questions, and to get a real sense of how desperate their current housing situation was. Since volunteers usually did these visits, we had to do a great deal of training – not just on the logistics of a visit, but really on how to be thoughtful visitors. For example, many of our volunteers would come back to our staff and complain about the applicants. “They would be a lot better off if they hadn’t bought that big TV and weren’t paying for cable,” some would argue. Or another complaint often was, “If they weren’t giving so much of their income to church, they might be able to make ends meet.”
Both arguments were true – but they did not capture the full truth. Yes, that big TV purchase and that cable bill might seem like an extravagance to one of our volunteers. But if you can never afford going to the movies, eating dinner out, or going to a play or concert, the TV is the only thing that makes you feel connected to the world, offers release from stress, and gives some modicum of entertainment to your children. Likewise, yes, that weekly donation to their church probably would be better used to pay down credit card debt. But their relationship with God is probably the only thing that has helped them survive this long. That contribution gives them a sense of grounding, of priorities, and a feeling like they too are contributing something to the world. Even though the Habitat volunteers were generously giving of their time, and were generally kind-hearted people, sometimes their judgments got in the way of their good works.
The same can be true about our relationship with God. We often give lip service to how much we appreciate that our God is a generous, gracious God who is full of love and compassion. We have experienced that abundance many times in our lives and we strive to incorporate a sense of gratitude in our lives. But our sense of gratitude often battles with our sense of justice – in a way that brings out the ugliest versions of ourselves. Jesus knew this reality all too well. Jesus captures that tension in the parable he tells today. The parable is familiar. A landowner goes out to the market five times in one day, hiring additional laborers each time. The first group, hired at 6:00 a.m. is promised the usual daily wage. Each subsequent group is promised “whatever is right” as a wage. But when the time comes to pay the laborers, the landowner pays the group who only worked one hour a full day’s wage. The group who started twelve hours earlier sees the landowner’s generosity and assumes they may be getting more than the landowner promised. But when their turn comes, they only get the usual daily wage. The workers do not like this, and immediately hoist up the “that’s not fair” flag.
The truth is that the twelve-hour workers are right. The landowner is not fair. I imagine any of us who saw a glimpse of the pay distribution at our jobs would be pretty miffed if the newest employees were making as much as the employees who had been there many years longer. Many people have been advocating lately for legislation that helps to equalize pay for women. And many activists have challenged the ways in which our justice system has a bias towards the wealthy. We are a people who are passionate about fairness and justice. Even when someone pushes back with the classic line, “well, life’s not fair,” we still will fight for fairness as much as we can.
The problem in our gospel lesson is that the kingdom of God does not value fairness over all other ethics. The kingdom of God holds other values before fairness: the value of love, the value of graciousness, the value of care. Most of us can admit that when we hear of the landowner’s generous giving to the last round of workers, our immediate thought is how lovely the landowner’s generosity is. We all love generosity until we see that some are getting more generosity than we are. Then something awful happens. The “evil eye” creeps in and starts to distort our view. This is the very accusation the landowner makes. The landowner’s response is simple, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Other translations translate the phrase for “being envious” as “having an evil eye.” In other words, insidious jealousy, envy, and greed immediately prevent any sense of celebration and goodwill among the workers. Instead of a pat on the shoulder, or an acknowledgment of the incredible blessing the late workers receive, the early workers start grumbling about fairness and equality. They forget that they got what they agreed to: a day’s wage for a day’s work.
What the parable is trying to communicate, albeit a bit harshly, is that the fact that God is so generous is a benefit to all of us at some point in our lives. For those of us who have ever been at the bottom, we know how blessed we can feel when God reaches out a generous hand to us. But I think what makes today’s lesson so difficult for many of us is that although we know that God’s preference for generosity can help us when we are down, we do not ever want to actually be down. We want to be earning our keep, striving for success, and achieving our way to the top. We do not like the feeling of not being able to achieve our way through life.
I read an article this past summer about a woman who had been firmly ensconced in her middle-class life, making a reasonable amount of money. She and her husband were pregnant with twins when two things happened in rapid succession. First, they bought a house at the top of the housing bubble, right before the bubble popped, making their home depreciate in value by about $90,000. Then, her husband lost his job. The twins were born premature, necessitating very expensive formula. The article goes on to explain how this middle-class, successful couple went from comfortable living to trying to make ends meet with assistance from Medicaid, food stamps, and the WIC program. She describes the judgmental comments and gestures people made, from blaming her for her problems, to criticizing the food she was buying for her family. She writes, “What I learned…will never leave me. We didn’t deserve to be poor, any more than we deserved to be rich. Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment. I still have to remind myself sometimes that I was my harshest critic. That the judgment of the disadvantaged comes not just from conservative politicians and Internet trolls. It came from me, even as I was living it.”[i]
The invitation for the laborers in the field, and the invitation for with each of us is to remember the words from that offertory prayer, “All things come of thee, O Lord…”[ii] When our hearts are set on gratitude for all that we have, instead of wrapped up in our manmade notions of entitlement, then celebrating with the one-hour workers is a lot easier. Because we know, like that middle-class woman, that we could at any moment be one of those waiting all day for an hour’s worth of work. As one scholar says, “This parable reminds us that God is a lousy bookkeeper and invites us to transform our pride, envy, and hardness into joy by admiring and celebrating God’s astounding generosity. The parable calls us to look at ourselves honestly and lovingly, as God looks at us. [The parable] invites us to turn from holding grudges because things did not go our way, to let go of the stuff of our lives that keeps us from being joy-filled and grateful people.”[iii] When we accept that invitation, and turn ourselves toward gratitude, we catch a glimpse of the joyous party that is waiting with the landowner in the kingdom of heaven. Amen.
[i] Darlena Cunha, “This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps,” Washington Post, July 8, 2014 found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/07/08/this-is-what-happened-when-i-drove-my-mercedes-to-pick-up-food-stamps/.
[ii] 1 Chronicles 29.14.
[iii] Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 96.