Beyond Justice

Philippians 2:1-5, Matthew 20:1-16

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth UCC, 9/21/14


It's not right. It isn't fair. I did all the work and he got the credit. I come to every worship service and I just get a nod and a handshake. He saunters in having not bothered to attend for months and you'd think it was the second coming of Christ! I give three times what the average person does but I don't get any more credit than anyone else. And unlike voting shares at the stockholder meeting, I only get one vote, just like they do. What is fair about that?

It is easy to take offense. When it comes to feeling snubbed, most of us never move much past junior high!

I hope you are not so familiar with this parable that it has lost its punch. I hope you feel the shock and offense that many of the original hearers did. Jesus is a good story teller. He draws us in, which is the point of a parable - to get to us, to invite us into a new reality. That reality is the very reign of God. (Though we have to admit, that is an invitation we sometimes don't want to accept when it looks like this!)

Jesus sets us up in the telling of the story. We are not told what those hired at the beginning of the day will get, only, "What is right." So when the workers are being paid, the first are those who were hired at the end of the day and only worked in the vineyard an hour. When those who worked all day see what the owner paid them, they must think, along with us, "Wow, what a generous guy; we will be getting twice or three times more than we agreed." But their feelings about the owner's generosity turn to feeling that the owner is unjust, when they are not the recipients of his largesse.

Maybe no other words attributed to Jesus cause as much offense to ethical calculations as his Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Remember, all parables are about the reign of God. That is, the way things are when God sets the standards. For some, it appears that the reign of God is one in which hardworking, reliable people get wronged. Or do they?

The full-day workers are understandably resentful. We aren't told how the one-hour shifters respond. Maybe they hustled back to their homes thinking the landowner might have a change of heart. Meanwhile, dismayed accountants back in the vineyard start updating their resumes. This is no way to do business. The action of the landowner is absurd. It makes no sense, at least from our economic perspective. Yet that's the point. Jesus' parables often include what, from our value system, seems absurd behavior. Jesus hopes we will ask the question, "Which really is absurd; our way or God's?"

In one sense, this is a parable about God's graciousness. So excessive is God's propensity to give and care that it violates our instincts about fairness. I must admit that what I resent most about this parable is that it makes me look mighty miserly. Such justice, then, looks like injustice.

But, then again, the landowner does give the complaining workers exactly what he promised them. This is a story about justice that looks different than our kind of justice. We talk about the God of justice, but we need to understand that Biblical justice is not limited to our understanding of justice. Our understanding of justice is more like everyone getting what they deserve, given what they have done or not done. From our standard of justice, those who came at the beginning of the day were treated unjustly because they did not get proportionately more than those who worked less. But God's justice is corrective. It supplies the means for a just society, one where all are valued and all have enough. It is a realm where the cycle of wronging and violence, poverty and privilege is interrupted, so that true peace may be obtained.

In ancient Israel, the judge was not simply the one who adjudicated in a court room, but also the one who sought out the wronged, the struggling, in order to set things right. In God's realm, in God's Church, in the world Christ's Church seeks to help bring about, our kind of justice is not enough. Mercy, generosity, welcome, equality are the watchwords of this new creation, for that is God's justice. This is a justice much more like that in South Africa after the end of Apartheid under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There, justice did not mean doing unto those how perpetuated the atrocities as they had done. Rather, it meant, while holding them accountable, offering mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation in order that a new way of being together, a just way, might be built.

Some spiritualize this parable, but that is a mistake. It is about the reign of God. And that reign is not just in our spiritual lives, but in all of life. After all, this parable draws all its force and illustrative potential from the dynamics of economic life. In other words, where we live! This is about how we treat each other in the world; how we structure society.

Whom, then, should we think the landowner encounters when he's looking for workers late in the afternoon? What kind of people are the last to find jobs? Nothing suggests that those characters in the parable are irresponsible or lazy. They wanted work. They waited all day. What is clear is that they are unwanted. Who spends the whole day waiting to be hired but doesn't find success until the end of the day? In Jesus' time, they would be the weak, the infirm, the disabled, the widow, and other targets of discrimination such as criminals or anyone with a bad reputation. Who are they today? It is the same list, but we can add to that list, young black men, immigrants, those who have served time in prison, single mothers without job experience or a degree.

In God's economy, that is, in God's realm, to such is shown special care, special generosity, that they can participate fully in community. They are shown care that corrects the disparity.

If we think we have arrived, we need to think again. We have our work cut out for us, for what does our society do? We put up more roadblocks to getting assistance, we cut food stamps, we enact more severe limits on unemployment, and many oppose paying a living wage.

Obviously, your feelings about the vineyard owner depend upon with whom you identify in the story. I expect that most of us identify with those who came first. Even if we are not, we want to think of ourselves as responsible, hardworking - those who are judged, like the first to be hired, as worthy. Ah, but if you have been on the struggling end, if you have lost a job, if you've been on public assistance, if you've been looked down upon because of your color, or sexual orientation or expression, or because you're poor or your parents were poor, or if you were always the last kid to be chosen when you picked sides for a game in gym class, this parable brings tears to your eyes. It does feel like what you hope God's reign will be like.

When I was in high school, a good friend from church and I decided to put this parable into practice in our gym class at school. We were often captains on opposing teams, so we got to choose our team. I would like to say that we did this out of saintly or spiritual motives. We did not. It was simply a lark. We wanted to see the faces of our friends (who were the good athletes, of course) when they weren't the first chosen. But something we didn't expect happened.

We became quite moved, after the first gasps, when I picked the absolute worst kid and then my friend picked the next worst. Other than the frowns from the teacher, it wasn't the faces of our good athlete friends we noticed, but the surprise and delight in the face of those who had never been chosen first before. But the other unexpected outcome was that the game changed. The bad kids tried harder and were better. (They were still terrible, but not as terrible.) The game, however, was more of game. It wasn't just about winning. Unintentionally, by picking the worst kids first, we must have sent the message that it wasn't all about how badly you could beat the other team. The teacher saw to it that this way of choosing teams never happened again. But neither did the other way! From then on we numbered off when choosing teams.

There is one more key element in this parable that most clearly defines the reign of God. You may remember from my sermon last week (of course you do!) that equality was to define the community of Christ's followers: neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor gentile, but all are equally valued by God, and therefore by Christ's community. So notice what is the biggest offense taken by those workers who were chosen at the beginning of the day and paid what they were promised, but no more than those who were not deemed worthy to be chosen until the end of the day. Jesus' parable says, those who came first thought they would receive more, but when each of them also received the usual daily wage, they grumbled against the landowner saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us..."

In the end it is not about not getting paid enough or being wronged. It's not the generosity or the extravagance of the landowner that makes them most angry. Rather, the issue is this: by dealing generously with a group of people that no other manager in town considered worth the trouble of hiring, the landowner has made a clear declaration about their value, their worth. The landowner's undue kindness thus denies the full-day laborers the bonus they think they can claim: a sense of privilege or superiority.

There is nothing easy about being a Christian. It challenges our values, our propensity to make divisions and hierarchy of value among us. But, you see, not only does Jesus not do that, he seeks to correct the disparity by showing fellowship and demonstration of the equal value to those undervalued in society.

It is clear that as long as we see ourselves as simply consumers of the faith, competing for God's goodies, we will always retain our junior high school jealousies. But Jesus calls us to be disciples. That means to be partners with Christ and one another in building the reign of God. It is thus not about what we get, but that all get - that a just system is built.

I remember coming home fuming one day from school because at a Student Council meeting another kid brought up an idea, as if it were his, that I had brought up several weeks before. Nobody took notice when I brought it up, but when this kid did, they thought it was a wonderful idea. I told my mother I wasn't going to support it; they were all stupid and could just do it themselves. She asked if I thought it was a good idea that would really make a difference when I brought it up. "Well, of course it was a good idea, that's why I brought it up." "Well then," she asked, "Wasn't it still a good idea, one that would still make a difference though someone else brought it up? Was it helping make things better or getting credit that was more important?" (I hated when she said things like that!)

But maybe that is what it means to mature in the faith, to have the same mind in us that was in Jesus Christ - to seek to live in, and to build the reign of God, where all are valued as God values us. And where all is done to rectify the difference in how people are valued.

Then, we will be one with those who have been on the struggling end, who have lost a job, who have been on public assistance, who have been looked down upon because of their color, or sexual orientation or expression, or because they're poor or their parents were poor, or they were always the last kid to be chosen. Then this parable will bring tears to our eyes. And it will feel like what we hope and pray God's reign will be like. And may it be soon.