A Sermon for the 17th Sunday
After the Day of Pentecost/Proper 20A
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 24th, 2023
This parable reminds me almost word for word of a hot August afternoon some years ago. I was standing with the director of the local funeral home in the churchyard at Historic Christ Church near Irvington on the Northern Neck. We were waiting for a family to arrive for a small graveside service. It was hot. We were hot and after greeting each other and catching up a little we lapsed into a comfortable silence. We just stood there side by side in the hot sun listening to a cicada screaming in the nearby woods. After a while he said, “Let me ask you something. I’ve thought about this a lot. Let’s say there’s a really bad person. I mean really bad. And he gets to the end of his life. He’s really sick, let’s say, and knows that he’s not going to make it. So, just as he’s getting ready to die, he decides to give his life to Jesus and accept him as his Lord and Savior. Does he get to go to heaven?” I said, “Of course.” And he said, “You don’t understand. He’s a really bad guy. Been a bad guy his whole life. And just when he’s getting ready to die, he decides to give his life to Jesus. I mean a really bad guy. You’re saying he gets to go to heaven?” I said, “Yes, of course, look at the scriptures.” He said, “Well, what if he’s not sincere; what if he’s just hedging his bets?” I said, “Well, that’s God’s business. How should I know.” “Because he’s a really bad guy,” he said. I said, “Look, if he gives his life to Jesus, isn’t that the point. I mean you’re a good Baptist – isn’t that the point?” We had just been staring off across the churchyard but now he turned to face me and said, “How can that possibly be fair? It’s not. It’s not fair at all and I don’t like it. Do you think it’s fair?” I said, “No, of course not, but that’s not the point.” There was a pause and then he said, “It’s not fair and I don’t think you’re right.”
So, in the world of this parable, my friend the funeral director sounded like the workers who got out into the vineyard at 6 a.m., just as the sun was coming up and worked through the day – 12 hours in the hot sun – and saw these Johnny-come-latelies waltz in to work an hour before quitting time and get paid the same amount as they did. I think most of us are probably in that camp. Because how is that fair?
It’s not. Just ask the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son who refuses to come to the party for his deadbeat little brother. Ask the prophet Jonah who’s mad enough to die because God showed mercy to those awful Ninevites who anyone can tell should obviously all be going to hell, lock, stock and barrel. It’s a theme that runs all through the Bible: God’s mercy and forgiveness for people who don’t deserve it. Which isn’t fair. I mean, how’re we supposed to run a world like that?
Didn’t we learn from infancy that bad behavior is punished, and good behavior is rewarded? It’s pretty important to get clear on these things as we’re growing up. But you know as well as I do that as we get older those simple rules don’t always apply. Sometimes our good deeds are either ignored or badly repaid. Sometimes things we intend for good backfire and make things worse. Like secretly paying your adult child’s rent when they were in a bind but when they find out they accuse you of treating them like a baby and vow never to talk to you again. And often our bad behavior eludes punishment. You get away with something, or it gets ‘overlooked’, or no one knows what you did. So, no harm no foul, right?
Still, fair is fair. Or should be. How’re we supposed to run a world otherwise?
But there are these little clues all through this parable that hint that ‘fair is fair’ is the wrong way to be thinking about it. And that ‘fair is fair’ will only take you so far. And as it ends up, maybe that’s not very far. So, let’s take a second look.
At daybreak, about six in the morning, the owner of a vineyard goes down to the market to hire folks to work in his vineyard. Which is odd because normally the manager of the vineyard would have done that, not the owner. Something unusual is happening. So, the owner himself, the man in charge, the big guy, the one who has the most to lose, comes and hires some folks to come work and they agree on the terms: he’ll give them a day’s pay for a day’s work. Then the owner comes back down to the market three hours later about 9 a.m. and then again at noon and at 3 and hires more workers. They don’t make an agreement about the pay. The owner just says, “I’ll pay you what’s right.” Whatever ‘right’ means, they take him at his word and decide to trust that he’ll do the right thing by them. Then at the end of the day, about 5, he goes one more time to the market for more workers. When he asks them why they’re still there, they say, “No one would have us.” “Well, I will,” the owner says and sends them off to work that last hour with no mention of pay at all. Maybe they’re fine with that because they were just glad that someone would have them.
For whatever reason, the owner wants as many people as he can get working in his vineyard, even the ones no one else wants.
Then, of course, things flip on their head when quitting time comes and we see how the owner values each of them. In one more twist, he lines them up to be paid, from the latecomers first to the working-since-dawn folks last. It’s almost like he wants the folks who worked 12 hours to see how much the others, including the ones no one else wanted, get paid. And one by one they all get paid, and they all get paid a day’s wage. They all get paid what they need to keep life and limb together. They all get what they need for life to continue. Everyone gets that. The guys who’ve worked 12 hours cry foul even though they’ve gotten what they need and what they agreed to. They want to renegotiate so they have more than the other guys. They can’t stomach that the others have as much as they do. And the owner says, “Are you envious because I am generous?” There’s no recorded answer to that question. Which makes me think the ball is in our court to answer. “Are you envious because I am generous?”
I’m afraid nine times out of 10 I’m going to react like the guys who worked from sunup to sundown. Except that this parable is not about fairness and who deserves what. That’s the hook Jesus’s story can catch us on. But it’s a hook he’d rather we not bite on.
A little exchange a few weeks ago with a parishioner, one of the saints of this community, showed me that. Again. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man, and we were just catching up after church. I asked how he was doing, and he said, great, just great, how about you? And I said, great. And then I said, about no one thing in particular, this is way beyond what I deserve. And then because I was sort of poking fun, I said, do you deserve how good this life is. All of it. He got it exactly and laughed and said, oh no are you kidding me! Do I deserve all this? Not all this. Not all of this.
What I mean by this is not that either one of us are rats getting away with something we don’t deserve. That’s not it at all. It’s the simple goodness of God that feels so undeserving. In good times and bad; in the glory of life and in the awfulness of it, too. God’s goodness abides. It’s the grace of it all, God’s grace, the grace of life, all of it – which always feels like getting so much more than you could ever earn or deserve.
It’s not that we’re such rats who’ve gotten away with something; although sometimes that’s true. It’s God’s goodness and grace that makes this feel like the guys who got to the vineyard at 6 o’clock and get way overpaid, far beyond deserving.
Is that fair? Is that any way to run a world? Maybe not. But it is the way our good and generous and God runs his vineyard. Amen.
The Rev. David May