One of the greatest myths in our society is that if you work hard enough, you can be/have/do whatever you want. Of course most of us have realized, somewhere along the way, that while there is great value in earning what one wants, sometimes no matter how hard we work, things still don’t go our way. A level playing field seldom, if ever, exists. Some people are born into comfortable and safe circumstances, while some are born into poverty and violence, and have to strive much harder only to arrive behind those not facing such challenges.
Still, this myth persists in our politics, our pop culture, and sometimes even in our churches. It’s like we’ve forgotten what people across the ages have known: Life is not fair.
Or is it?
In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a story about what the Kingdom of God is like. The parable of the eleventh hour describes a vineyard owner who hires a worker who is waiting for work in the market square early in the morning, who agrees to be paid a denarius (a day’s wages) for the day’s work. Then the vineyard owner hires more workers mid-morning, more in the early afternoon, and then even hires some who are still waiting in the late afternoon (the eleventh hour). Then at the end of the day, they are all given the same pay of one denarius. The guy who started working early in the morning is pretty pissed, thinking that he deserves more then the eleventh hour guys who only worked an hour. But the vineyard owner says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first and the first will be last.”
I’m no theologian; I don’t speak Greek, Hebrew, or anything aside from English and my own mangled version of Spanish. But as far as I can tell, this parable is about the grace of God. It’s about what God in his mercy chooses to give, regardless of what we do to try to earn God’s favor.
It offends our sense of fairness that the worker who worked the longest should not get the greatest reward. But that is the offensive thing about grace – it’s free. We’re not deserving of it and we can’t earn it.
I’m reminded of when I gave birth to my daughter and brought her home for the first time. My son was just two, and he didn’t really like her. When my dad held the baby for the first time, my son burst into tears. And I get it. It offended his little sense of justice, and that was mainly because he felt that he had ownership of Poppop’s attention and love, and was entitled to it – all of it.
Just like the worker who started early in the morning felt entitled to a greater portion of his employer’s money. Just like we think we are entitled to God’s blessings, that we are more deserving of them because we have them.
If my son had been older, more mature, he would have understood the importance of his sister’s needs being met. He would have understood that there is no limit to the love of a parent (or grandparent) for their children, that there’s plenty to go around, that through his sweetest moments, and his most trying moments, he is still utterly loved, just because he is our child. And so is she. And his most natural response would be to give that love back.
That is the best way I am able to understand God’s mercy. We are so often like the older sibling or the early morning worker saying, “That’s not fair! These blessings are mine! I earned them! The new baby is not worthy! The eleventh hour workers are not worthy!”
We are right to value justice, but we are wrong to believe that God is unjust for offering life and grace or blessings to those who we do not deem worthy. Mercy triumphs over judgment and we all deserve judgment. But God offers us a denarius, a living wage, a purpose, life, which we cannot earn on our own, waiting in the market square.
And if others receive this grace, if others receive blessings, the correct response is not to view it as unfairness but to rejoice in the generosity of the vineyard owner, and to pass on the mercy so freely given.
As recipients of grace we should be eager to show grace to others, whether it be through understanding, compassion, forgiveness or generosity in sharing our blessings (sometimes in the form of actual concrete blessings like food, shelter, medical care, etc.).
Let’s not let our assumptions about earning the good things in life get in the way of us remembering that grace (both the gift of God for eternal life and many of the good things in this life) is unearned and offered by a vineyard owner who is vastly more loving and generous than we have imagined.