September 21, 2008 - Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Last Monday evening, I stopped at the donut shop. Joanna and I went in to buy some goodies for dessert and for breakfast in the morning. We asked for a dozen and began to pick out what we wanted: maple bars, bismarcks, frosted crullers, old fashioneds. As the box filled, I asked, as I usually do, “How many to go?” The owner said, “Keep going.” So we added two chocolate frosted and I said, “Now, how many?” and she said, “Keep going.”
I stopped and looked at her. The usual response was “two more,” or “one more,” not “keep going.” She looked back and said, “When you walk out that door, I’m locking it and going home. Just keep going. Take whatever you like. I’m just going to charge you for a dozen.” So we kept going. We walked out smiling, carrying a box heaped with 18 donuts, all for the price of 12. It was a fine father-daughter moment.
We were happy with our extra donuts. I think the shopkeeper had fun giving us the extras that would have gone stale overnight. Yet imagine if we walked out and bumped into the customer who had come right before us. What if he had only gotten the usual 12 for the price of 12? What if he somehow discovered that we received our loaded box for the same price he paid for less? Would he have been happy? Would he have been glad for us? Or would he feel that he had been treated unfairly?
Today’s parable is about that feeling of unfairness when someone else receives a blessing. The workers in the vineyard is a difficult parable. It’s not so difficult to understand. It’s difficult to accept the point that Jesus is making. As it’s been interpreted through the centuries, the point has frequently been shifted, most often toward seeing it as a story of God’s incredible grace. But, as Klyne Snodgrass points out, grace can’t really be what this parable is about.
First of all, the wage initially offered is not all that generous. It’s a denarius for a day’s work, the ancient world’s equivalent of minimum wage. Second, they all worked for what they got. It might not have been very long, but even the latest starters put in an hour or so. Those silver coins handed out at the end of the day were payment for labor, not free gifts. Grace is certainly in the background here, but the focus is elsewhere. This is not so much about the amazing generosity of God as it is about us and our attitudes toward each other.
To really get a good handle on this parable, we need to put it in context with what comes before. In the second half of chapter 19, Jesus talked with a rich young man who came asking what good thing he needed to do to receive eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments. He said he had done that. So Jesus told the fellow to give up all his possessions and come follow Him. Verse 22 says, “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” He could not bring himself to give up everything.
That failure to let go of possessions prompted Peter to come to Jesus with his dumb question of the day. Peter reasoned that while the other guy missed eternal life, he and the other disciples, by comparison, must have earned something very nice. The rich man didn’t give up anything, but, says Peter in verse 27, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” In 28 and 29 Jesus said there will be a lot.
Our text today suggests there is lot for everyone, whether they deserve it or not. Jesus promised the disciples special positions of authority, and anyone who gives up earthly things for His sake will receive back “a hundred times.” But then He added the disclaimer that also appears at the end of today’s parable, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” Our parable here is an explanation of that saying and an answer to Peter about his reward in comparison to others.
There’s a long-standing tradition in the workplace that open discussion of salaries is out of bounds. Now salary secrecy is being challenged by salary transparency. Go to glassdoor.com to see anonymous postings of salaries for specific jobs at specific companies in specific places. Standard reasoning by management is that knowing what other employees are paid creates division and resentment. On the other hand, labor reasons that secrecy about salaries is how management keeps costs down by paying some employees less for the same job. The concern is particularly heightened when a woman is making less than a man doing exactly the same work with exactly the same experience.
So politicians debate “equal pay for equal work.” It’s a question of fairness, non-discrimination and avoidance of sexism. Jesus’ parable turns that slogan on its head and shows God in the business of equal pay for unequal work. Employees doing very different amounts of labor receive exactly the same wage. And they know it. The workers who started early in the morning see those who started late in the afternoon receive the same denarius. They didn’t like it. It wasn’t fair. Verse 10 says they expected to receive more than initially promised. When they didn’t get it, according to verse 11, they started grumbling.
We hear the actual grumbles in verse 12. “They only worked for an hour, in the cool of the evening. We worked all day, in the heat of the afternoon. How can they be made equal to us?” It’s not the inequality, but the equality that bugs them. How can it be fair to treat everybody the same, when not everyone is equally deserving?
At this point, interpreters start trying to make God fair by talking about grace. Despite what the story actually says, they want to see all the laborers in the vineyard as equal, not equally deserving, but equally undeserving. Aren’t we all sinners? Do any of us really deserve salvation and eternal life? Doesn’t God offer a free and unmerited gift of grace? Even if you’ve gave up everything and labored for Jesus all your life on some hard mission field, as a sinner, you’re just as undeserving as a pampered party girl or a spoiled rock star who gave up nothing and spent their wealth on themselves. God is perfectly fair to give everyone the same, because no one deserves His grace.
It’s all true. We are all sinners in the eyes of God. Through the free gift of His own Son’s body and blood on the Cross, He saves everyone who believes, regardless of how much good or bad we’ve done. We are all undeserving. No one is sinless. Not one of us has done enough good. Nobody has worked hard enough to deserve salvation. We all must sing “Amazing grace… that saved a wretch like me.” God’s grace is truly incredible. Yet, as I said, grace is not quite the whole point of this parable. If you walk away from this story just marveling at how generous and gracious God is, that’s good, but you missed something. There’s more here.
This parable is not so much about getting grace as it is about being the kind of people who’ve gotten grace. It’s not as much about receiving the gifts of God as it is about being good recipients of those gifts. It’s not about how we look at God. It’s about how we look at each other.
Listen to what the landowner says to those grumbling hands who worked all day. “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?” No one has to worry about being treated unfairly by God. You don’t need to worry about being left with the short-end of the stick. You will get at least what you deserve and likely a whole lot more. There’s no need to compare yourself to someone else. We are all be treated the same. God’s grace is equal. The problem is, that’s hard to believe.
God’s grace doesn’t feel equal. In the opening of the film “Amadeus,” the composer Antonio Salieri is confined to an insane asylum. A priest comes to hear his confession and Salieri is indifferent. Then the priest wonders whether Antonio ought not confess to the murder of the famous composer Mozart. Salieri ignores him until the priest says, “All men are equal in God’s eyes.” He replies, “Are they?” and launches into a story that fills the rest of the film. It’s a tale of Salieri’s bitter envy as Mozart’s amazing musical talent overshadows his own.
Salieri works constantly at his music, but in comparison to Mozart’s he is merely good. Amadeus doesn’t seem to work at all. He’s rude, vulgar, lazy and as petulant as a child, but almost without trying he produces masterpieces, beautiful music that captures the hearts and minds of everyone around him. Salieri is torn up inside with the unfairness of it. Without any effort, Mozart produces the music and receives all the honors that Salieri believed should have been his. He cannot even look at the young composer without his guts twisting and his heart wrenching. He’s sure God has blessed Mozart more than him, and he cannot stand it.
Like Salieri we can each tell our own stories of those we’ve envied, who we think received as much or more than we did without really working for it. As a white male, I could talk about affirmative action and compare myself to women and minority people. As a baby boomer I compare myself to earlier generations and think about how many more competitors I had than they when looking for recognition and success. As the pastor of a small church, I can think about crowds that flock to some churches where it seems the message is barely the Gospel and worship is merely entertainment.
If you’re college age, you might compare just how much it costs and how competitive it is to get into a good school compared to what it was for my generation. If you’re a woman, you are probably feeling that glass ceiling and that lack of equal pay. If you’re a person of color, you know that the affirmative action that I resent really doesn’t make all that much difference for you. If you own a struggling small business, you may be looking at a trillion dollar bailout of a giant financial firm and wonder why nobody is helping you.
Wherever we stand it feels like we could ask Salieri’s question about people being equal in God’s eyes, “Are they?” Are they really? Isn’t it the case that, just like in the parable, God deals out His blessings with no thought for what’s fair? You get up at 5 a.m. and work like a dog, and some slob that doesn’t get out of bed until noon lives just as well or better. You teach Sunday School faithfully for years, then somebody new shows up and everyone wants to go to her class. Where’s the fairness in that? Where’s the equity?
God’s answer is in verses 14 and 15 of this parable. “I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” It sounds like God’s response to Job, “Who are you to question me?” Can’t God, after all, deal out his blessings as He likes? Who are we, in all our sin and limited knowledge, to cry “Unfair!”?
Yet there’s just a bit more to the owner’s answer. The New International Version translates the last part of verse 15 as, “Or are you envious because I am generous?” The grumblers think this is about the landowner’s integrity. We think it’s about God’s fairness. The end of Jesus’ parable declares that it’s about our attitude, about the condition of our own souls. It’s about the sin of envy.
Literally, the owner’s question about envy reads, “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” He’s accusing the complainers of the “evil eye.” Not the magical gaze of a witch to bring a curse upon someone, but instead the look of ill-humor when someone else is doing well. In German there’s a word for the ugly feeling of being happy at the bad fortune of someone you don’t like. It’s called Schadenfreude. But there’s no word for the equally ugly and probably more common feeling of being sad at another’s good fortune. Gore Vidal captured it in the phrase, “Whenever a friend of mine succeeds, something in me dies.”
Jonah was expecting Schadenfreude as he sat outside Nineveh waiting for God to rain destruction upon the sinners there. He was going to rejoice in their misfortune. Instead, when God pardoned them, he experienced what may be the worse feeling of anger and frustration that they were shown grace.
It’s an ugly feeling, this sorrow at the success of others. That’s why medieval Christians named Envy one of the seven deadly sins. It’s a deadly feeling that, as Vidal said, can kill all the joy in your life. It’s a feeling, says Jesus, that has no place in the kingdom of God. We need to let go of the evil eye that can’t see something good in the blessings others receive. We need to let the way we look at each other change. We need to learn how to, as Paul asks in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” In God’s kingdom we are meant to be as happy with good fortune for someone else as we are when it happens to us. We’re to get rid of the evil eye and to see each other with gracious eyes of love.
This is a hard parable because it’s a hard lesson. Imagine Duck fans suddenly becoming as happy for Boise State’s win yesterday and they would have been if Oregon had won. Dealing with envy is particularly hard when the other’s success is your loss. That’s why this parable makes it clear that in the kingdom of God, no one loses in the end. Everyone who trusts in Jesus is blessed. God delivers His grace equally. When you succeed spiritually, it’s no loss to me. If anything, it makes me that much more blessed as well.
I have no personal qualification to teach this text. My heart is regularly seared with the heat of envy and I find it hard to let go. Why can’t I have been blessed with a little bit more of what made may friend’s church big? Or what got another friend’s books published? Or what bought another friend a new car and a boat and a vacation in New Zealand? My eye is evil when I look on my friends’ blessings and they make me sad.
Yet I know what the feeling is that I’m after, that I’m praying for, that I want to cultivate in myself and that I invite you to cultivate. It’s the feeling I got when I took my little girls fishing.
If any of you have fished with children, you know that on many levels, it’s a pain. You constantly worry about safety, keeping the life vests on and keeping hooks out of their hands. You have to deal with boredom and distractions. Instead of sitting quietly waiting for fish to bite, they want to eat or throw rocks or go swimming. On top of that, there is the constant work of baiting hooks, untangling lines, and helping with a cast that will reach where the fish actually are. When you fish with a child, you don’t get to fish. It’s a pain. But there is a huge reward.
The reward of helping your daughter fish is not anything you’re going to catch, it’s what she catches. It’s sheer joy when her line begins to move and she cries out, “I’ve got one, Daddy!” It feels so good to hold the net as she reels it in close. And the only thing bigger than her smile, as she holds up her fish for a picture, is your smile behind the camera as you take it. That’s the feeling. That’s what we want whenever God blesses someone else.
It’s how God feels about you and me. Whenever we do well, whenever we get to enjoy His gracious gifts, He is so pleased, so happy for us, a heavenly Father whose child finally caught a big one. And He wants you and I to have the same sort of joy all the time, joy in the blessings of our sisters and brothers. He wants to give us the huge joy of knowing that their winning of His love is no loss to us. We are all blessed. It we only see it with good eyes, someone else’s blessing only makes our blessings bigger. May our Lord give you and me that good eye.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj