Based on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard – Matthew 20:1-16
About a decade ago, there was an article in the newspaper about First Nations students from reserves attending university. The gist of the article was that some reserves were having a hard time paying the cost of their students to attend university.
While I forget the specifics of the article, I don’t forget the specifics of the conversation I had about the article. One person’s response was, “Good. I’m glad they’re not getting free tuition anymore.”
I looked at them and asked “Why?”
“Because my kids don’t get free tuition, so why should theirs?”
Now, quick aside – Not every First Nation student gets their post-secondary tuition covered. Some do, and some don’t. There is federal money available, but not every student is funded because demand outstrips supply. And if you don’t have a treaty number, you’re out of luck too.
But back to the conversation – “If my kids don’t get free tuition, nobody should get free tuition. It’s not fair.”
What’s not fair about this? It’s part of the treaties signed years ago. It’s part of the deal. Indigenous people gave settlers access to this land in exchange for some things, and one of them was education. So if you look around at all the farms and houses and businesses and churches that we’ve built here, we have to remember that the land wasn’t empty before we got here. Paying tuition is part of the deal, and, I don’t think that we got the raw end of the deal either.
I asked one more question – “If your kids got free tuition, would that make it better?”
The response was an unequivocal “Yes.”
Ahhh… Now I see. You’ve been working in the vineyard since sunrise.
Many of us just really hate the idea of someone else getting something that we’re not. We especially hate the idea when we believe that we’ve worked harder than the other person, and they get the same reward.
I remember working for a landscaping company one summer while I was in university. As the summer went on I discovered how evil the company was, specifically because they charged more money to clients who weren’t white (Welcome to the world of white privilege). I quit the day my foreman came to work drunk and still spent the morning driving the bobcat, dropping twenty yards of river stone in my wheelbarrow. But, that aside, I remember how one day I was ticked at my boss. I said to myself, “This is dumb. I’m spending all day hauling rocks around for ten bucks an hour, and my boss drives around in his air conditioned truck all day talking on his cell and getting paid triple what I am. I’m doing all the work here, and he’s getting rich of my labour. I deserve more.”
I was certain that I had been working in the vineyard since sunrise… I thought I knew so much when I was 20 years old.
If we work hard, we just want it to be fair, don’t we? We just want what we think we’ve earned. We don’t want to wish ill-will on others, do we?
Sometimes, I’m not so sure.
Last January, I preach a delightful sermon series on hell. If you want to read, just Google “3 weeks in hell with Kyle”, and you’ll find them on my blog.
And in preparation for my sermons, I read a lot of books on hell. And I had a lot of conversations about hell too.
One of them sticks out. I was talking to someone who had been a Christian their entire life and was deeply involved in their church for as long as they could remember.
I told them that I was preparing a sermon series on hell, and one of the questions I was exploring was if it exists or not, and if it did, what it was like.
And the response was, “Well, of course there’s a hell. There has to be.”
Now, I had committed to preaching three sermons, and if the first sermon started with, “There has to be a hell”, I don’t know what I would have preached about for two more Sundays, so I probed a little bit further.
“I’m curious. Tell me why you think there has to be a hell.”
“Well, because the Bible says so. And people who don’t believe in Jesus go there.”
Once again, this would have been a pretty short sermon series, so I asked another question.
“Why is this so important to you? If you’re going to heaven, and you’ll be completely content there, why does it matter who God lets in and God doesn’t?”
“Well, you’re right. It doesn’t matter who God lets in and who God doesn’t. But the Bible still talks about hell being real.”
Ohhhhh… Now I see. You’ve been working in the vineyard since sunrise. You have sacrificed for the kingdom. You’ve sacrificed for the church. You woke up early every Sunday. You wore a tie every Sunday. You gave a lot of money. You sat on a lot of committees, spending hours taking minutes. You gave your life to the cause. And if your reward is the same as someone who made far less sacrifices, your reward seems a little less like a reward, doesn’t it.
And if you get the same as someone whom you think is less deserving, is that fair?
This parable about workers in the vineyard is probably one of the harder parables of Jesus, isn’t it? It messes with our sense of justice and fairness. That the first shall be last and the last shall be first doesn’t quite sit right with most of us.
I asked one of you this week about how this parable made you feel, and you offered perhaps one of the greatest pieces of insight into understanding this. You said, “Well, I guess how I feel all depends on who I think I am. If I’m the first guy, then of course I’d grumble. But if I’m the last guy, the guy who got paid a day’s wage for one hours work, then I think this story is awesome.”
If we view ourselves as the person having their tuition paid for, if we see ourselves as the racist boss getting to drive around in the nice air conditioned truck all summer, if we see ourselves as the person getting to heaven with, as some people call it, a deathbed conversion, then that changes our perspective, doesn’t it?
If we see ourselves as the last workers, we then become the glad recipients of God’s grace, knowing full well that we don’t deserve it. Because really, if I kept score, I know there’s be some of you far less deserving than me, and some of you far more deserving than me. It’s a good thing we’re not keeping score so you don’t have to try to figure out that one.
So maybe, then, this parable is less about who’s who in the story, and who gets what, and what those rewards are. Maybe it’s not about how faithful one has been, or when someone made a decision in their lives, or what that decision was. Maybe this parable it’s not about who comes to church the most or who gives the most money or who’s the most holy.
Maybe, this parable is about our reaction to the process of God’s grace.
The vineyard owner himself says, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The process is God giving the gift of grace to many people who are undeserving. The process is God not treating us how we deserve. The process is God constantly welcoming everyone back with open arms. How are we going to respond to that gift?
Well, it seems to me that we can either be bitter and envious, that we can complain loudly, that we can think we deserve more, or that we can even end up sending some people to hell.
Or, we can open ourselves to the places where grace reigns, where we receive God’s love as a gift, where we consider it pure joy to love God and love our neighbours with all of our hearts and souls and mind and strength.
That is the challenge, isn’t it? To stop calculating who’s more holy, who sins less, who’s the better person, who actually read the book of Matthew this month, who’s the most loving, who prays the most. To stop calculating is the answer, because calculating leads us look at others with envy and jealousy, and then we get ticked that they get God’s gifts too, and then God moves from being a kind and generous God to a God that we think is unfair and possibly malicious.
When we stop keeping score, we can start to live our lives in gratitude. When we see everything as a gift, every day becomes like Christmas morning. We get excited about what God is doing in our lives, in our church, and in our world.
Here at Grace, Ashley and I get excited that our kids get to have a dozen or more grandparents at church. Some of you get excited to have dozens of grand children. We get excited to meet new people on Sundays, to be part of a church that works towards kids being hunger free in school, about a church that’s in a partnership with a First Nations community, to serve and eat waffles that ends up supporting prison visitation programs, to come to a place on Sunday where we can sit in silence or sing songs or share food with both friends and strangers, or come to a place where we get to give coins to children and it sounds like we won big at a VLT. Isn’t it amazing that we get to belong to an organization that exists for the benefit of others? These are all great things, but only if we look at them all as gifts.
As soon as we start to think that we earn any of this, that we deserve these things and others don’t, then we start to look at everyone with envy, and then we’re in trouble.
Last week I wrote in the bulletin a question for you to ponder: “Is God fair?” Well, maybe a better question is: “How do we relate to God’s grace?”
How do we relate to God’s grace?
This lent, may we continue to be reminded that everything before us is a gift. May we remember that God is turning things upside down and inside out, that God is messing with our sense of justice and fairness, that the first will be last and the last will be first, and the fact that God is doing this is okay. May we respond with open arms to the gift of God’s love and grace, both for us and for others.