Lesson: Matthew 20:1-16
Back in the mid-1960’s, the Smothers Brothers became comedy sensations with a routine focused around a complaint that struck a chord with many, many people: “Mom always liked you best.” Brother Tommy complained that his brother Dick got a dog, while he only had a crummy chicken, and then in the middle of the routine, Tommy remembered he never had a bicycle. Dick had a bicycle, but Tommy just had a wagon. It resonated with people because it raised the kind of questions that come up in nearly every family and just about every other kind of relationship as well, including Jesus’ relationship with his disciples: Who is the favorite? Is everyone being treated fairly; is everyone getting what he deserves?
The disciples have followed Jesus up and down Galilee for three years. They walked away from their families and jobs – they took a risk, and they’ve made sacrifices. Now Jesus is about to head to Jerusalem, and it looks as though bigger risks, even bigger sacrifices are in store. And over these three years, they’ve watched Jesus cultivate the company of people who as far as they could tell had not sacrificed anything. He dined with tax collectors who worked for the Romans, and prostitutes, of all people. And so finally, Peter said what they all were thinking: “Surely, Jesus, you don’t think as much of them as you think of us. Surely you don’t love them as much as you love us. Surely they are not worth as much to you as we are after all we’ve done for you. Where’s the fairness in that?”
Jesus says that the disciples – in fact everybody who follows him, who has sacrificed for him, will be rewarded beyond their imagination. But, he adds, the last will be first and the first will be last. And then he tells this story to explain what that means. A landowner goes to his town’s equivalent of Marin County’s Andersen Drive, where day laborers line the streets and wait, hoping to be hired. He hires one group at sunrise. He returns to the labor pool at 9:00, noon and 3:00 p.m., and hires three more groups. And at 5:00, not long before sunset, he hires a fifth group to help finish the job.
Laborers are paid daily at sunset and the owner begins with the last group hired. To their absolute delight, they receive a full day’s pay. All the other laborers are delighted, too, because if these people who worked just an hour or so received a full wage, they, who’ve worked since dawn through the blazing heat and did most of the work, surely they’ve hit the jackpot. But they receive the same amount, the amount they negotiated at the beginning of the day but no more. They complain: “You’ve made them equal to us. We worked all day. They worked one hour. That’s just not fair.” And the owner responds – gently – “Take what you have and go,” and then he delivers the punch line: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
When we looked at this passage in a Bible study a few years ago, someone pointed out that you can see managers out in the vineyards testing for sugar content everyday this time of year, and when it’s time to harvest it is time to harvest now. Those 5:00 hires may have saved the landowner from a big loss. Still, they worked one hour. The other pickers worked all day; their contribution to the landowner’s success had to be much greater. This is no way to run a business. A company that tried to operate on the basis of equal pay for unequal work would soon be hard pressed to find anyone foolish enough to work all day.
Of course, the parable isn’t about business. Jesus begins the parable, “The kingdom of God is like this.” Jesus is saying the kingdom of God – the world as it would be if we followed God’s ways instead of human ways – the kingdom of God uses a different economy when it comes to rewards and when it comes to who is chosen: There’s no advantage in being called first or working longer or harder and God is free to be as generous as God chooses. Yes, the sacrifices of the apostles will be honored by God, but the reward will so far outstrip the sacrifice that it all must be seen as sheer grace.
Now, even when we know this parable is about grace, not about the labor market, it still hits people as unfair. Brené Brown calls it the un-American parable. People sometimes find themselves thinking, “Hey, I’m all in favor of grace but let’s not get carried away. This is too much grace.” Grace is the word we use to describe the way God freely and unconditionally loves us, accepts us, forgives us, embraces us and welcomes us. The thing is, when you start thinking in terms of more grace or less grace, too much or not enough grace, you’re no longer thinking about grace. Grace comes in one size – one shape. It is abundant, and undeserved. Always, by definition, undeserved. You cannot earn it. As soon as you say, “Yes, but…,” “Yes, but I worked longer;” “Yes, but I’ve been a church member my whole life;” “Yes, but I’m a fine upstanding citizen.” “Yes, but I believe all the right things;” “Yes, but don’t you think, Jesus, that I deserve just a little more grace than that other guy?” it stops being grace. There is no, “yes, but …” when it comes to God’s love. God’s love is not about fairness. It’s about God’s generosity.
That isn’t easy to understand. We expect to receive what we believe we deserve. And we expect others to receive what we believe they deserve, especially when we think we deserve more. So the first-hired laborers grumble. Why work so hard all day in the hot sun if you don’t get paid more? Looking at it from a grace perspective, we might grumble, then why try to be good? Why go to church? Why “believe” anything? Doesn’t the whole idea of grace undermine any reason for trying to do the right thing? Does that mean God doesn’t care what we do; that anything goes with God?
That isn’t what Jesus is saying here. The purpose of grace is not to say anything goes. Just like a mother who loves both her dependable child and her wayward child, God’s heart is broken when we mess up, hurt each other, misuse God’s gifts. However, the purpose of grace is not to allow us to accept the past, but to give us a future.
Fiorello LaGuardia was the mayor of New York City during the worst of the Great Depression and all of World War II. New Yorkers called him, “the Little Flower,” because he was only 5 foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character. He’d go along on raids of speakeasies. He took entire orphanages to baseball games.
One bitterly cold night in January 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward in the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took the bench himself. A tattered, elderly woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a bad neighborhood, Your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach people around here a lesson.”
LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. That is only fair. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars, or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced the sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a bill and tossed it into his hat, saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
So the following day, the New York newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount having been contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations and New York City police officers, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
The story reminds us that every person standing in front of a judge or jury has a tale of woe, and LaGuardia’s generosity and grace gave the woman a future, but let’s linger a bit over that red-faced grocery store owner. He’s akin to the grumbling workers. They got everything they bargained for; no one got more than they did; and they still weren’t happy. They wanted others to get less. “Are you envious because I am generous?” This points to one of the most important aspects of God’s grace. As Frederick Buechner writes, “Like any gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.” Something about taking it, something about trusting that God’s love is a free gift for absolutely everybody, something about that transforms us. We are changed, our hearts are opened wide, by being OK with the idea that if God loves everybody, it doesn’t somehow devalue the truth that God loves me. When we accept that we belong to God not because of anything we’ve done, but because of who God is, then we’re more likely to accept that others belong to God, too, regardless of what they have or haven’t done. As Anne Lamott puts it on your bulletin covers, “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” With this parable, Jesus is inviting the disciples to this transformation. He invites us as well.
How would we treat each other if we believed not only that “Jesus loves me, this I know,” but if we believed Jesus loves everybody else, too – no ifs, no ands, no buts? How would we act if we knew that in our bones?
At the Presbytery meeting in Arcata last Friday, when the new moderator was installed, the worship leader spoke some standard words from an installation service: “The grace bestowed on you in baptism is sufficient because it is God’s grace.” Presbyterians don’t believe that baptism accomplishes something magic, that baptism somehow “saves” us. We believe baptism is a symbol, a powerful enactment of the truth that we are not our own, that we belong to God, that God claims us, unconditionally, as God’s own, not because of who we are or what we have done but because of who God is.
These words about baptism and God’s sufficient grace reminded me of a story a pastor friend of mine told me a couple of weeks ago. Jeff Gaines was my supervisor when I was an intern, and he described a recent baptism at his congregation, Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church. He baptized an entire family: a mom and dad, a big brother, age 5, and a little brother, age 2. He met with the family, including the children, to explain what was going to happen. He told them he’d use quite a lot of water; that he would put a handful of water on their heads three times and they’d get pretty wet. He told them that this is the way we welcome people into the church family.
On the Sunday of the baptisms, he baptized the parents first, so the kids could see what would happen and feel OK about going through it themselves. Then he baptized the five-year-old, Luke. Jeff knelt down so that he was eye-level with the boy. He scooped the first handful of water and poured it onto Luke’s head, and said, “Luke, I baptize you in the name of God the Creator, who loves you more than you could ever imagine.” And Luke nodded, and said very quietly, “I know.” Then Jeff scooped a second handful of water and said, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus, the Christ, who will companion you every day of your life.” And again, the boy looked him in the eye and said quietly, “I know.” When Jeff poured the third handful of water on the Luke’s head, he said, “I baptize you in the name of the Holy Spirit, who will give you strength to accomplish whatever it is that God has placed upon your heart. Luke, know that God’s promises are for you!” And Luke nodded again, more seriously, and whispered, “I know.”
That, my friends, is transforming, liberating grace. For Luke, for Jeff, for those who were present and heard it and now for us, for all whom Jesus invites to say, “I know.” To say, “I know” to the truth that God does indeed have favorites and God’s favorite is every single one of us. The first hired, the last hired, the Sunday school teacher and the scoundrel, you and I when we deserve love and when we don’t deserve love; you and I when we are good and honest and faithful and productive, and you and I when we’re not so good and not so honest, faithful and productive. Every creature God has made. Every single one, the apple of God’s eye.
God claims you. Today. That is grace. Reach out and accept the gift. May it be so for you and for me.
© Joanne Whitt 2014 all rights reserved.
 John M. Buchanan, “Too Much Grace,” November 14, 1999, http://www.fourthchurch.org/SermonArchive/1999/111499sermon.html.
 As told by Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1993).
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1973), p. 39.