September 20, 2020

Devotional: Justice Generosity is not “Fair”

When my father-in-law immigrated to this country he was originally sponsored by a Baptist church in rural Manitoba. While he had apprenticed as a cabinet maker in Germany most of his life experience was rather urban, having grown up in Ulm and Berlin. He knew very little about being a farmhand. So, when he showed up in Manitoba and was placed on a farm he timidly tried his best. However,  after a few incidents including when he accidentally drove the tractor through the barn, it became clear to both his billets and himself that farming was not for him. When Herb would tell these stories about his months on the farm he would be so animated and laugh at how his life had had so many twists and turns. He also commented on how calm the farmer remained through it all, likely stemming from his good baptist roots. In fact on that fateful day when the tractor drove through the barn walls the farmer replied, calmly, something like, “you should probably be a bit more careful”. I’ve talked before about how my own idyllic ideas about farming are often squashed the moment I spend a bit of time on a farm. It’s hard work and not all of us are cut out for it. So, this morning, as we look at this parable about labourers in the vineyard  I can have sympathy for the labourers who worked in the scorching sun all day and received the same pay as those who had only worked an hour.

I wonder if this parable makes you as uncomfortable as it makes me, that seems to be the name of the game these last few Sundays. But perhaps that’s part of the point of the parable, to rest in this uncomfortable place and examine why it makes us uncomfortable. I bet the disciples felt the same when they first heard it. A couple chapters earlier the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” So we already know that the disciples are struggling to understand who belongs in heaven.  Jesus’ reply is to say that one must become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. The thing is, in my limited experience, children tend to have a real understanding of what is fair and they focus on what is fair often to a fault and this parable is not fair. And thank heavens God isn’t fair at least not in our usual understanding of justice and fairness.

I want to point out that there is no question that God cares about justice. Throughout the prophets, particularly Amos, God constantly reminds the people to care for the poor, hungry, oppressed, orphaned, widowed and immigrant. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he spent time with the outcast and marginalized. This is perhaps one of the reasons why this parable makes us uncomfortable because it seems contrary to more familiar Biblical teachings. However, the point is that God’s justice does not function according to our understanding of fairness. I suspect this is another reason why we find this parable uncomfortable-most of us see ourselves as the labourers who have worked all day- and so we understand their grumbling, their offence, their outrage at being treated as equals to those who only worked an hour. But this parable isn’t really about fairness but about justice generosity.

In one commentary about this parable the author points out that clearly there is a labour oversupply or possibly recession going on because every time the the landowner goes out he finds more labourers hoping to get hired for the day. If there are that many people looking for work then there is seriously something wrong with the economy and so already things are not fair in this parable. He first goes out at 6am- which is when most landowners would have gone out, their one and only time. What makes this landowner unique and generous is that he keeps going to the market throughout the day, at 9am, noon, 3pm and 5pm. Either this landowner has a huge harvest and constantly needs more workers or he cannot bear to see so many people unemployed, or perhaps its both. Remember, Jesus has used this image of a plentiful harvest before, back in Matthew 9, when he states, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” Notice how all of the workers, whether they started at 6am or at 5pm are dependent upon the landowner. All of them went to the market unemployed- which means they owe everything to the landowner.

Something else that is rather interesting in this parable is that it offers no judgment on those who are looking for work. It does not imply that those who were hired later in the day might be lazier than the others. It does not imply that the reason they weren’t hired by other people is because they had a disability or didn’t have what it takes to work hard labour. It simply states that people have not yet been hired even by the end of day- which continues to imply that there is a surplus of unemployed people. And thus, the landowner is very generous when he pays everyone the same amount. God is generous- not only to those who have worked hard all their lives but with those whom we might deem as undeserving.

When a labourer grumbles the landowner responds by calling him friend. This is key because most landowners would not see labourers as their equal and certainly not their friends. But he says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” Then he goes on to ask, “are you envious because I am generous?” Here I find another reason why this parable makes me uncomfortable- particularly in today’s climate, there seems to be a great sense of entitlement. I’m entitled to the rewards given to me because I have worked hard for them over the years. I’m a tax payer. I deserve this recognition. But this parable blows apart our understanding of “deserving”. Justice generosity is about the lavish grace and mercy that God has given to all of us even though none of us deserves it.

God absolutely cares about social injustice and wants us to work for justice so that all can receive their daily bread, a livelihood that is liveable, but God’s justice generosity goes even further than that. It is not something we have to earn rather it is something that God spends freely. We owe everything to God- our very purpose and breath. Jesus is telling this parable as the disciples approach Jerusalem where he will be crucified, certainly he did not deserve to die. Yet, God’s justice generosity is poured out upon us- whether we’ve been at it a long time or are just starting out-farming isn’t for everyone- but we are all labourers in this field and it’s not fair and thank God for that. Amen