Sermon at Breck Episcopal School, Minneapolis, MN

May 15, 2009

When I was in junior and senior high school, we used to joke about how the teachers graded our papers and exams. One story went like this – well, they just stand in the stairwell and throw the papers down the stairs. The ones that land at the bottom get As; and the ones that don’t go very far get Fs; and the curve covers the papers in between. There’s another version that’s just the reverse – the papers that go farthest are lightweights, and get the worst grades.

That probably doesn’t sound very fair – and indeed, I think it got told because some of us didn’t think we were always treated fairly. How would you feel if your teacher said to the class that you were supposed to turn your papers in by Friday, and then she continued to accept papers all through the following week, until the last paper came in ten days after the deadline – and then she didn’t lower anybody’s grade for being late? That’s pretty much the kind of thing Jesus is arguing for – and he may even be saying that everybody gets an A.

All those workers are standing around in the center of town, looking for a day job. The vineyard owner hires some at daybreak, agrees on the day’s wage, and puts them to work. He comes back at and does the same thing – and agrees to the same wage. And he does it again at , and at 3 in the afternoon, and again at 5. And at the end of the day he pays them all the same, beginning with the ones who started last.

Why does that seem so unfair? All of those workers earn enough to eat that day, whether they’ve worked all day or stood around waiting until the last minute to be hired. Their prayer has been answered, “give us this day our daily bread.”

Somehow in our market economy we live with the expectation that working harder should be compensated at a higher rate, or that those who are more diligent should be told they’re better. In the kingdom of heaven things don’t appear to work that way.

It’s something like the sweatshirt I saw in a nursing home a long time ago. It said, “Jesus loves you… but I’m his favorite.” Well, we’re all God’s favorite. And there’s a part of us that wants to be loved more than our neighbors, that wants to be so special that we are recognized as better. Well, we’re all special, we’re all unique, and we’re all loved beyond our imagining.

But Jesus’ story may be meant to prod or provoke our sense of what’s fair. How do you and I make judgments about fairness and justice? We usually start with what we’ve learned – what those teachers have taught us, for one – about fairness. We’ve all heard little ones say, “No fair!” when it appears that somebody else has gotten a bigger serving of ice cream – because we’ve learned a value system that says that everyone should be treated equally – but also, that that treatment should be predictable. We may make allowances for some who have different needs or abilities – like handicapped parking spaces, or affirmative action, or Title IX, which first insisted that girls and boys should have equal access to education in school. It’s been played out in locker rooms and on athletic fields since 1972. Is that fair? Is it just? Does it respect the dignity of all?

Around here, I’m pretty sure that your coaches encourage you to play fair, to play by the rules, and to treat your opponents with courtesy, dignity, and justice, all while encouraging you to play your hearts out and WIN! How do we put up with the tension that says that one person, or one team, wins the competition, while we try to treat the others fairly?

Jesus’ story is meant to put us in that kind of tense place. His story is usually called a parable, a word that comes from roots that mean to throw together, para (together or alongside) and ballo (basketball or ballistics or parabola). Jesus has thrown together an everyday experience of going to work and a hard conversation about payment for that work. And he’s set the story in a vineyard – something that’s supposed to remind us that we were made to live in a garden and care for it, and enjoy the fruits of our labor – at least once you get to the legal drinking age! There’s a subtext here that says we’re meant to enjoy life – and there’s even an old story the rabbis tell about the last judgment: Moses will ask you if you’ve enjoyed everything God gave you to enjoy – and your eternal life depends on the answer.

This parable leaves us with an uncomfortable sense that the vineyard owner has a different understanding of fairness than we do. Why does he pay the guys who only worked an hour a whole day’s wages? Well, maybe out of a sense that they all have to eat, or maybe that they have worked all day long, even if most of it was standing around in the marketplace, waiting to be called.

The more interesting question is why the people who worked all day long were offended. They got what they had agreed to, they were treated fairly, they played by the rules. But they’re ticked off, they think they’ve been cheated, because the others got paid the same amount. They can’t quite stomach the good fortune of their fellow workers.

Where do we find ourselves in this parable? Have we gone to work first thing in the morning, worked hard and followed all the rules? Or have we stood around for ages, waiting to be asked to join the party? Or are we in the awkward place of trying to make sure that everybody gets what she or he most needs to thrive?

What are you learning here about fairness and justice and the way God loves us all? And how can that love be both greater than we can imagine, and equally available to all of God’s children?

In God’s vineyard everybody gets what’s needed, and all are loved and welcomed into abundant life. What about this garden called planet earth?