Jonah 3:10-11; Matthew 20:1-15
Rev. Tom Herbek
March 19, 2017
It is amazing that this parable in Matthew’s gospel ever got included in the New Testament. It was considered to be just as naïvely radical in Jesus’ time and Matthew’s time as it is today. Everyone knows that the world does not- and should not- work this way. In the Jewish thinking of Jesus’ day, the poor were poor because they were lazy and because they had offended God in some way. In the “blessed are” statements of Jesus found in what we call “The Beatitudes,” we can see a gradual movement away from acceptance of the poor. In Luke’s rendering of the first of the Beatitudes, the writer says: “Blessed are you poor.” But Matthew changed it to “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” a much more acceptable concept to Matthew’s Jewish audience.
For these reasons, it is even more amazing that this parable is found in Matthew’s gospel. This parable insults our sense of what is right and wrong, something we learned as children: if you are good, you will be rewarded and if you are bad, you will be punished. We have been taught that good, hard-working people should be paid more, rewarded more, than people who don’t work as long or as hard. This parable is about something that is as foreign to our American way of thinking as it was to those who heard it in Jesus’ time. It is a very strange concept called grace.
As Richard Rohr writes:
Grace cannot be understood by any ledger of merits and demerits. It cannot be held to any patterns of buying, losing, earning, achieving or manipulating, which is where, unfortunately, most of us live our lives. Grace is, quite literally, “for the taking.” It is God eternally giving away God- for nothing, except the giving itself.
– Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality
If Jesus is right and there is no need to earn God’s love, then why work hard at all? If there is no reward, then what’s the use of trying? For 2,000 years, we have adjusted Jesus’ radicalism to fit into our view of how things work. The alternative, this radical concept of grace for everyone, is just too unthinkable to imagine. As Rohr writes:
We kept the basic storyline of all human history in place and simply laid the gospel on top of it, frosting on top of a non-cake, as it were. Jesus offered us a whole new cake- which by itself is its own frosting. It is the old, tired win/lose scenario which seems to be in our hard drive, whereas the scenario of grace is much more imaginative and installs totally new programs, which most of the world has yet to recognize!
We have largely mirrored culture instead of transforming it. Reward/punishment is the plot line of almost all novels, plays, operas, movies and the wars that define cultures. Yet as Einstein was reported to have said, “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it in the first place.”
Parables aim to subvert our old consciousness and offer us a way through by utterly reframing our worldview. But often the biblical text is not a transformative document and does not bring about a “new creation,” because we pull it inside of our own security systems and what we call “common sense.” At that point, no divine breakthrough is possible. Frankly speaking, much of Scripture, then, has become largely harmless and forgettable.
No wonder we still have trouble with this parable. It is so radically different from what we have experienced and what we have learned about life. It presents to us a God who is not fair. It shows a God who loves everyone, and who rewards everyone the same. It means that “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity; Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God” (Rohr).
I am glad if we are disturbed by this strange parable, because it means we are beginning to understand how utterly different it is. It challenges everything we think about God, about hard work, about reward and punishment, about what people deserve.
If we don’t have to deserve God’s love, then what is our life about? This parable calls us to stop trying to earn God’s love. It means that our life is about living freely as children of God with all of humanity, all of God’s other children, and finding a way to love as God loves us.
It means that once we realize, deep down, that God really does love us, then we can begin to act out of that love. It changes us so much that we think differently, understand differently, act differently. It destroys all the boundaries, negates all the rules, eliminates all of the comparisons between people.
And then we begin to respond to and move toward our true calling in life: to be compassionate as God is compassionate. And that is when we begin to become all that we have been created to be.
In Jesus’ day, wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and poverty was a sign of God’s curse. Jesus spent a lot of effort and energy to help the people of his day to understand that neither of these was true. In fact, Jesus made sure we hear that it is not how we get to God, or even when we get to God, that matters. In the kingdom of God, everyone is equal, because we have all received God’s love. In the kingdom of God every person receives God’s love, regardless of the work we do or who we are. In the kingdom of God, we are all equal – rich and poor, religious and non-religious, powerful and powerless.
The parable shows two deep-seated views of human existence, two worlds. They are the world of merit and the world of grace.
Unfortunately, much of what we believe about our worth is based on our income. Sometimes naively, we believe that if you work hard, you will earn more than someone who does not work hard. We identify with the workers who started work at dawn in Jesus’ parable. It is not fair that people who started work at five PM should be paid the same as these people who worked the whole day.
A reasonable day’s pay in Jesus’ time was a denarius. A field worker expected to receive this amount, but only if he worked the whole day. The people of Jesus’ day were shocked by the landowner’s decision to pay everyone a denarius. They believed that you had to earn what you got. So, in their eyes, the owner’s graciousness becomes injustice. They see the landowner as unfair. And so do we.
Most Americans believe we should get paid according to how hard we work, according to what we contribute. That’s why we get mad that a ballplayer gets paid more in a season, or a movie star gets paid more in one movie, than most of us earn in a whole lifetime. It’s not fair.
And we believe God should be fair. We identify with Jonah. After the Ninevites have acted the way they have, we are disappointed that they had a chance to repent. God should have wiped them out anyway! Their repentance is too little, too late.
After all, Jonah has worked hard for God all his life. Why should these latecomers be spared their punishment? We believe that you earn what you get!
These two stories set a dangerous precedent. The problem is: why should anyone work that hard if God will take us in at any time? Instead of trying to be good, why not do whatever we want, and then step in at the last minute, like someone cutting in line. It’s just not fair!
Life should be fair. God should be fair. You should get what you earn, nothing more, nothing less. We have been taught that life is based on merit, that fairness lies in working hard, and then – and only then – will you get what you have actually earned.
In his book Santa Biblia: The Bible through Hispanic Eyes, Justo Gonzales notes that this parable elicits surprisingly different reactions when read to typical non-Hispanic audiences in America compared to typical Hispanic audiences. Most non-Hispanic audiences are perplexed that someone who had worked for only an hour should be paid the same as someone who has worked for eight hours. It seems patently unfair. The logic is so clear, typical non-Hispanic audiences cannot understand on what grounds one could argue the fairness of Jesus’ approach.
When the story is read or studied by a Hispanic audience, however, the reaction is quite different. These are people, Gonzales says, who identify with the problems of the field workers. They understand the laborer who travels in his pickup truck trying to find work with little success, or, even if he finds work, he is standing around waiting until the boss shows up before he starts to earn any pay.
At the end of the parable when the landowner pays the wages, the Hispanic congregation applauds when the laborers who worked for only one hour get paid a full day’s pay. They are not confused by this, but understand that the people looking for work and who have been waiting for work need a day’s pay to survive. They rejoice, then, at the grace that is not contrary to justice, but that flows with justice. The workers are paid what they need and deserve, rather than the wages they might have been paid had society’s concept of justice prevailed.
But many people have trouble with people being rewarded based on what they need, not what they deserve. Yet, sometimes our concept of what is justice and what is fair is not so hard-nosed. Sometimes we begin to understand God’s love in a whole new way.
Rachel Remen tells the following story:
Many years ago, I was invited to hear a well-known rabbi speak about forgiveness at a Yom Kippur service. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when Jews everywhere reflect on the year just past, repent their shortcomings and unkindness, and hope for the forgiveness of God. But the rabbi did not speak about God’s forgiveness.
Instead, he walked out into the congregation, took his infant daughter from his wife, and, carrying her in his arms, stepped up to the bimah or podium. The little girl was perhaps a year old and she was adorable. From her father’s arms she smiled at the congregation. Every heart melted. Turning toward her daddy, she patted him on the cheek with her tiny hands. He smiled fondly at her and with his customary dignity began a rather traditional Yom Kippur sermon, talking about the meaning of the holiday.
The baby girl, feeling his attention shift away from her, reached forward and grabbed his nose. Gently he freed himself and continued the sermon.
After a few minutes, she took his tie and put it in her mouth. The entire congregation chuckled. The rabbi rescued his tie and smiled at his child. She put her tiny arms around his neck.
Looking at us over the top of her head, he said, “Think about it. Is there anything she can do that you could not forgive her for?” Throughout the room people began to nod in recognition, thinking perhaps of their own children and grandchildren. Just then, she reached up and grabbed his eyeglasses. Everyone laughed out loud.
Retrieving his eyeglasses and settling them on his nose, the rabbi laughed as well. Still smiling, he waited for silence. When it came, he asked, “And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?”
Back then, God’s forgiveness was something easily understandable to me, but personally I found forgiveness difficult. I had thought of it as a lowering of standards rather than a family relationship.
-My Grandfather’s Blessings
Our relationship with God is a family relationship. And when we understand and believe that, then we can believe it about other people as well. Sometimes it is not easy. Sometimes we have to work really hard to be able to accept some people, to be able to see anything good about them.
Jonah could not understand why God would care about the Ninevites. They had not earned God’s love. Jesus’ audience could not understand why God would give everyone the same acceptance, why God would love the late-comers as much as those who had been there all of their lives.
After all, we really believe that we have to earn anything good that comes our way, including God’s love. This idea of rewarding everyone the same is just not fair!
But what if the justice of God is based on what we need, not what we deserve? What if we really are family- all of us?
What if God loves us- not because of the fact that we have already become who God has created to be- but instead, God loves us as children of God, knowing that once we understand and accept that love, it will then enable us to become who God has created us to be?
What if the ultimate justice is God’s grace? We all get from God, not what we deserve, but what we need. God’s justice is based on forgiveness, acceptance, a loving family relationship. God is love, and God’s love enables us to become all that we have been created to be.
What if this concept that Jesus presented 2000 years ago were the one that we understand as what God’s justice is all about? How would that change our life, our community, and our world?
It is worth considering!