Whenever dollars and cents are involved, people become exceedingly concerned about what’s fair. Because money is our cultural measure of value, we want to see people receive as much of it as they’re worth. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s why we’re miffed when a professional football player, who can barely put two sentences together and is known for his immoral lifestyle, is paid millions of dollars, and an elementary school teacher with years of education, who is responsible for the future of our nation, makes $35,000 a year. It doesn’t seem quite fair.
We have such a sense of what’s fair and what isn’t that when people are compensated in a way that seems out of line, we can become quite indignant about it. When the CEO of a large company does a lousy job and gets fired and then walks away with a severance package that turns out to be more than most of us will make in a lifetime, it pisses us off!
What’s fair is that the most money goes to those who work hardest and longest and are most productive. Imagine what it would be like to work for a company where everyone receives the same pay, no matter what they do. The one who works a full day every day, plus overtime, receives the same salary as the one who only works part-time. How would you feel in such a situation? No doubt, if you were the part-time worker, you’d be thrilled. But if you were the one working your butt off, you’d be hoppin’ mad.
Well, that’s exactly what’s going on in a parable Jesus tells in the 20th chapter of Matthew. There’s this landowner who needs to have some work done in his vineyard. So he goes out into the marketplace where there are day laborers standing around waiting to be hired and he takes them on for a standard daily wage. Then he goes out a few hours later and hires some more workers. About noon, he hires others, and at three, does the same thing. Finally, at about 5:00 he goes back to the marketplace and sees some guys standing around with nothing to do. So he hires them, too. When the evening comes and it’s time for them all to be paid, the landowner tells his manager to have them line up for their money, with those hired last first in line. And then comes the kicker. They all receive the same pay. Whether they were hired in the early hours of the morning or only a couple hours before quittin’ time, they all receive exactly one day’s wage.
Now, remember these are day laborers, so a daily wage is as much as they need to make it until the next day. Without a full day’s wage, they won’t have enough to feed their families. Knowing this, the owner gives them each what they need. He isn’t intentionally being unfair. He is intentionally being compassionate. When those who think they deserve more because they've worked longer complain, he says to them: “Didn’t you agree on the daily wage? Take your money and be on your way. What’s it to you that I choose to give the same to everyone? Isn’t it my money? Can’t I give it however I want to? Are you envious because I’m generous?” Well, of course they are. Because they’re thinking like humans think.
In this parable, Jesus is challenging us to think in a new way. He wants us to think as people who are part of the Kingdom of God, as people who pray that God’s "will be done on earth as in heaven." In the Kingdom of God the last shall be first. It’s all about grace -- giving people not what they deserve, but what they need. Fairness isn’t the goal. Compassion is the goal. It’s hard for us to grasp this because it’s a complete reversal of what we’ve grown to expect in the world around us. It’s a whole new way of dealing with other people. And it’s outrageous. By that I mean that when God pours out his lavish grace upon us, we’re all for it. But when God pours out his lavish grace on those who don’t deserve it, we’re outraged.
We hear a lot of talk these days about entitlement programs. Often, the word entitlement is uttered with a sneer, which implies the irony of the very word, as the people who are so entitled are clearly anything but entitled. Popular opinion would say that the elderly and the poor aren’t in any way worthy of the money our government hands them. Why should hard-working Americans give their money to people who haven’t done anything to deserve it? It’s not fair. Whenever we talk about cutting the federal budget, the entitlement programs go right to the chopping block. And isn’t it interesting that many of those who are most vocal about the unfairness of entitlement programs claim to be followers of Jesus? I wonder if they’ve ever read the 20th chapter of Matthew. I suspect that if they have they might be less inclined to call them entitlement programs and more inclined to call them grace programs. (And they wouldn't push to cut them; they would do all they can to increase them.)
We know that Jesus had a passion for the "undeserving", the untouchables of his day: people with dreaded diseases, the poor, the immoral, the outsiders. Of course, the good people, the “deserving ones”, had (and still have) a major problem with that. But those who choose to follow Jesus share his same passion. They are people of grace, extending the love of God to all people and making an extra effort to include those who might feel the most excluded from God’s kingdom of grace, so that the last and the first are all loved the same.
No, by our human standards, it’s not fair. And that’s exactly the point.