It’s Not Fair
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, SEPTEMBER 20th, 2020
Reaching the end of a job interview, the Human Resources Manager asked a young accountant who was fresh out of school, “What starting salary were you thinking of?” The rookie replied, “In the region of 200,000 a year, depending on the benefits package.” The interviewer responded, “Well, what would you say to a package of 5 weeks’ vacation, full medical and dental, Retirement Fund of 50% of salary, Share Option Scheme, Profit Related bonuses and a company car leased – say, a Tesla?” The accountant sat up straight and said, “Wow! Are you kidding?” The interviewer replied, “Yes, but you started it.”
I dread job interviews. Don’t we all? Actually, if you don’t despise job interviews there’s probably something wrong with you and you need to get it checked out. I remember many years ago, anxiously preparing to go to a job interview and someone telling me, “Just be yourself.” That’s terrible advice, I replied. It’s being myself for 40 years that has got me into this situation.
I guess it’s the fear of being examined, interrogated, having your soul laid bare, your life stripped of all its defenses and pretenses – the dread of being seen for who you really are. And then the terror of that not being good enough. ‘Thanks for exposing your true self, but you’re just not what we’re looking for.’
Job interviews were altogether simpler in Jesus’ time. If you did not have skills that set you up for a career, your only option was being a day-laborer. So, up you rise this beautiful day, quickly wash, dress, and hurry. Got to be there by 6am to get to the front of the huddle. This is the place where day laborers would congregate each morning, hoping and praying that a farmer or builder or anyone needing an extra pair of hands, would come and hire the fittest-looking, strongest-looking, most conscientious-looking men assembled there. Your interview consists of the farm-owner, land-owner, project-manager, looking you up and down and making a judgment on your physical appearance. So you do your best to appear as strong as Samson, as wise as Solomon, and as honest as Lincoln, hoping to stand out from the crowd of competitors.
It was as insecure a life as we can imagine. If you were blessed to be hired, it was only for a day. And all you received in pay was a penny (a denarius). Enough to live on, but not enough to make any savings for the day when you were not picked.
Today we stand with those hopeful men flexing their biceps, standing tall, smiling charmingly, hoping to impress their potential boss as he looks them up and down. We feel their anxiety. Will I be picked? Will I eat tonight? We experience the joy of the man who is selected and we hear his sigh of relief and his mumbled prayer of thanksgiving. And we stand with the rejected as the wave of disappointment knocks them onto their heels. We hear them curse their bad luck, their bad knees or their bad backs.
Today there’s this one farmer – a grape-grower. It’s harvest-time in the vineyard, and he needs pickers. He surveys the workforce. “You, you, you, you, and you. On the cart, let’s go.” But the task that day is bigger than he’d thought. He needs more workers. There are grapes everywhere and they need to be picked today. So at 9am he returns to the gathering place, where there is still a gaggle of willing workers hoping to be selected. He calls out some more, and they go. But this must be a bumper harvest and the vineyard-owner returns again at 12 noon and yet again at 5pm to hire more hands. Imagine being at the gathering place from 6 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon waiting in vain to be chosen. And then at 5pm, with just one hour left in the working day, it happens. Most of your competitors have wandered off by this time, concluding that this just wasn’t their day. You, though, are glad you stayed and never lost hope, because now you will work – for just one hour. But its something. You won’t get paid a whole penny, but you will get one twelfth of that.
It’s now it’s 6 o’clock, the end of the working day – time for the wages to be paid. The vineyard owner calls the workers and begins by paying those who had worked for just one hour. And lo and behold, he pays them one denarius. A day’s wages for one hour of work – and, that hour was in the cool of the late afternoon. And you, the one-hour worker are stunned. Your heart leaps. A full day’s wage for a single hour’s work? Are you kidding? You almost want to hug the employer, but you don’t want to cross any boundaries, and you want to work for him again, so you respectfully bow and thank him. He looks at you and smiles, clearly enjoying his own generosity. Because it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Now, you hear a shocked but excited buzz from the other laborers. ‘Wait a minute, did you see that? He’s given them a whole denarius. For one hour’s work. So, If he’s given them one denarius for one hour’s work and I’ve done 12 hours, then that means he should pay me twelve denarii.
And so they eagerly stand with their hands out and they’re given … one sad, lonely, solitary denarius. ‘What is this? There’s some mistake here. You paid them one denarius. We should get 12. ‘
And the boss smiles, ‘Friend, I’ve done you no wrong. We agreed a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. You’ve worked well; I’m pleased with your effort. I’ll hire you again tomorrow if you’re up for it. But if I want to be generous to these others, what is that to you? Can’t I do what I want with my own money?’
The parable of the Eccentric Employer. The businessman who would not thrive in the modern market economy. Not the sort of practice that would go down too well with your shareholders and not the best strategy for industrial relations either. This parable is frowned on by the Galilee Better Business Bureau, and by the Allied Union of Grape-pickers. The men hired early in the morning were rightly upset. It just isn’t fair.
What a good job this teaching is by Rabbi Jesus and not Professor Jesus MBA. Jesus was not an economist and this parable is not about supply and demand in the labor markets. Rather, he is spinning a yarn about an eccentric employer, some grateful workers and some bitter workers, in order to teach something far more important than business: what God is like, and how God loves. Here’s what we learn: Fairness has very little to do with the Kingdom of Heaven. Fairness bows to love.
Now the big question that this parable poses is this – who do you think you are? Which of the day laborers am I, and which are you? The one hired early in the morning, who has put in twelve hours of back breaking, arm-straining, bicep-busting, work? One who has picked and cut and sliced, and has filled vats full of grapes – in the heat of the day? And if you are this harvester, do you share the attitude of the early workers in the story? Do you feel deserving, entitled, proud, resentful of those who have worked less than you but seem to be receiving the same reward? Or are you bucking the trend of the early workers, holding onto your accomplishments lightly, welcoming the newcomer, honoring the youngster, embracing new people, new ways, and new ideas? Don’t begrudge another person’s blessing.
Maybe you are one of the laborers who was hired late in the day. You haven’t been doing this church thing for very long. Are you moved by wonder at God’s love for you? Are you full of gratitude for all that God has done for you, taking you from where you were and bringing you to a new place where your life is more peaceful, content, humble?
And now we’re getting to the point. The shears of the grape harvesters are turned on us. We’re cut by the sharp edge of this story. We see, once again, in rich crimson, that God’s Word pierces us before it heals us. We are equal. We are one. Great truths. We believe them. We love them. But acting on them, well, that can hurt. There’s no room in God’s kingdom for a superiority complex, a judgmental heart, or a sense of entitlement. We are all here in God’s family by God’s choice. We didn’t get here on our own strength. We were picked out, selected, and brought here by the God who is crazy about you and wants you to share his huge parental heart of love. The person who has been a faithful member St Paul’s for 80 years, who has attended 3,000 services, listened to 3,000 sermons, (sheesh), sat through 725 vestry meetings – God bless you and thank you. Without you and your unselfish gifts we would not be what we are. Your blood, sweat, and tears have formed us into the parish we love. But that person is no more important or needed as the person who has somehow stumbled upon our YouTube channel during the spring or summer, and has made an effort to take part in streaming services, even if that has not been live, but recorded. And for you, St Paul’s is new. You are the 5pm hire. You may not have even set foot inside this building yet, but you know that God is drawing you here to be a part of this community of love, faith and action. You will shape us and change us in the coming years, and we will be the better for it.
Because according to Jesus, it doesn’t matter when you were called to the vineyard, our reward is the same and so is our value. Those who have been in the church for many years provide stability, maturity, wisdom, perspective, an example of faithful perseverance which his crucial in any church. Those dear ones are the guardians of our story and the gatekeepers of our community. But, equally, the enthusiasm, the freshness, the healthy questions, the new perspective of the late hires is vital if we are to be a truly healthy parish church.
Oh, by the way, God told me let you know that you passed the interview. You’ve got the job, you’re in, you’re part of us. We need you. Let’s get harvesting.