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“No Bargain At All”

Matthew 20:1-16

Daniel J. Ott

We’re all looking for a bargain, aren’t we?  My father-in-law and I are big internet shoppers.  We often compare notes when we get together.  “I found a universal remote for twenty bucks that lists for $89.99.”  “I got some new speakers for my computer – 70% off.”  We’re all looking to pay less and get more, right?

Maybe we’re even looking for a bargain when it comes to work.  Sure we say that all we want is a fair wage for a fair day’s work, but working a little less and earning a little more wouldn’t hurt.  You have to haggle a little when you take a new job.  You have to ask for a raise now and again.

The first group of workers in our story knows this.  They may be a little down on their luck.  They’re trying to scrape things together as day laborers, but they’re far from stupid.  The landowner comes around and they know that they should agree on a price ahead of time.  They’re about to work a twelve hour day and they want to make sure that they get what’s coming to them… or maybe a little more.  So they bargain a little, but I guess the landowner was better at the bargaining game, because they settle for the usual day’s wage.  Can’t blame them for trying, though.  Give less – get more.  That’s our motto.

I have the impression that some people live by that motto even when it comes to religion.  Their religion starts with one simple prayer that earns them a spot in heaven.  They like churches where not much is required:  Just go hear the band, a sermon that’s easy to understand, and slip out the back.  They like to hear the preacher talk about forgiveness and grace, not so much holiness or service.  Religion for them is a private matter, a personal affair.  Just a little talk with Jesus now and again and everything will be alright.  Give less – get more.  Who can blame them?  We’re all looking for a bargain.

But if we can’t get a bargain, then I guess we’ll settle for what’s fair.  That’s what the next sets of workers do.  The landowner keeps going back to the marketplace every three hours to get more workers.  I guess the harvest was plentiful that year.  And unemployment must have been up, too, for all those workers to be standing around.  Perhaps that’s why they don’t bargain.  The landowner simply tells them that he will pay them what’s fair and they go quietly to get to work.

That’s a good Midwest mindset, right?  We like a person who just keeps her head down and does her job.  We all just kind of expect that if you work hard, things will work out in the end.  Just do your job and take care of your business and everything will be alright.

And this mindset can bleed over into religion too.  He says, “I’ll be alright.  I never drank much or gambled.  I’ve always put food on the table for my family.  I went to church when I could.  I’m sure the Lord will be alright with me.”  She says, “I’ve always tried to be nice to people.  I’ve helped out when I could.  I took care of Mom when she got old.  Surely, God will see that I’m basically a good person.”  It’s just what’s fair, right?  We live a pretty good life and God should give us what’s coming to us in the end.  There’s no reason to bargain or haggle.  Just give us what’s fair, God.

Well, amazingly, the landowner goes back to the marketplace one last time, just an hour before quitting time.  And wouldn’t you know it, there are still some poor schlepps standing around.  He asks, “Why are you standing here all day.”  They state the painfully obvious, “Because no one hired us.”  And he sends them out to work in the field.  These must really be some desperate folk.  Maybe they figured the landowner might at least feed them supper for doing a little clean-up work.  I guess when you can’t get what’s fair, you’ll take what you can get.  Maybe they’ll at least get a scrap or two.  An hour’s work is better than nothing.

During my time teaching at St. Andrews in North Carolina the make-up of my classes became pretty predictable.  I would always have pretty similar sets of students.  I would have the religious studies majors and the students planning to go to seminary.  I would have a handful of zealots, who were often new to their faith and wanted to learn more about religion.  Of course, there were always some who just needed to fill in a space in their schedule and thought that a religion course might be interesting or easy, or both.  But for a couple of years I had another group that were following me around that left everybody wondering, including me.  I called them my motley crew.

They weren’t bad students, but not the cream of the crop either.  It was well known that several in the group probably smoked a little too much weed.  None of them had any interest in majoring or minoring in religion.  They were far from churchy or even religious, really.  At first, I thought it was just that they enjoyed a little banter about God and my conversational teaching style.  Then I began to learn their stories.  One of the young women had lost her brother at a very young age.  Another was in the process of coming out of the closet and dealing with a family that wasn’t very accepting of her sexuality.  One of the young men had a very difficult relationship with his father.  They all had big questions and lots of them.

Thinking about them through the lens of this parable, I think they were just looking for a few scraps.  The church was offering way too much and not nearly enough all at the same time.  They weren’t looking for any churchy bargain.  Some of them also probably thought that they weren’t worthy of a fair deal.  So they took a few religion courses.   Slowly they started asking their questions and wrestling with them.  They spent their hour in the field and were happy to do so.

Back in our story, when the last hour was up, the pay was doled out.  They lined up last to first: the one-hour laborers in front looking for scraps, next were the the three, the six and the nine, looking for a fair shake, and last the twelve-hour laborers ready to get what they bargained for.  Everybody looked on as the drama unfolded.  The one-hour laborers were given a full day’s wage!  Can you imagine the surge of energy in the room?  The motley crew must have been bowled over.  I’m sure they sheepishly collected their pay and disappeared as fast as possible, before anyone had any opportunity to change their mind.  The other workers must have been a buzz too.  “If these schlepps got a full day’s wage, what’s in store for us?”

Well, we soon find out.  The three-hour laborers come forward and receive a full day’s wage, too.  The six-hour laborers – a full day’s wage and the three-hours received the same.  We’re not told what, if anything, these laborers had to say, but I’m sure they went away murmuring something.  You certainly cannot call this ‘fair.’  But which way does ‘fair’ cut here?  That those who worked nine hours received the same as those who worked three is certainly an injustice.  But can you complain if you receive twelve hour’s pay for nine hours work?  Isn’t that a bargain?  Those promised fairness were left to wonder just what fair is.

Finally, the first laborers come forward and they probably could imagine where this was headed.   True to form they received what they bargained for – one full day’s wage for one full day’s work.  But they were indignant.  “This, decidedly, is not fair!  These last schlepps worked only an hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  They’d forgotten about what they bargained for and now they were all about what’s fair.  And we can’t blame them, can we?  Obviously this is bad business.  You can’t pay people the same who don’t work the same.

And it’s bad religion, too.  Does this imply that the old drunk who makes a confession in the eleventh hour will be rewarded just the same as us?  Does that mean what we do in this life doesn’t matter?  Maybe we should live it up.  Why labor in the field and make sacrifices and work so damned hard at being faithful and living a decent life if this is how it comes down in the end?  Wouldn’t we be ticked, too, if this is how it worked?

Well, what comes next in the story is probably the most startling part.  The landowner fights back.  “I’ve done you no wrong.  I gave you what you bargained for.  Take what belongs to you and go.”  In effect, the landowner says, “If you don’t like it, get out.”

Now throughout the sermon we’ve been making the analogy explicit in its application to religion, so it wouldn’t be fair to stop short here.  Imagine it:  We get ticked and start wagging our fingers at God about the fairness of this whole exchange.  “This is no bargain, God, no bargain at all.  We labor all day and the one who comes in the eleventh hour gets the same reward.  It’s just not fair.”  And God responds simply, “If you don’t like it get out.  I do what I want with what’s mine.  Go on.  Get out!”

I thought about ending the sermon there.  That’s where the parable ends.  But I’m convinced that it’s not where the message ends.  You see, it really is no bargain at all.  In the end all of this talk of transactions and fair wages falls on its head when what we’re trying to talk about is grace.  Grace is no bargain at all.  There’s no hiring and haggling, no bartering and bargaining.  Grace is a gift, it’s not a wage.  Grace isn’t measured in more or less or when or under what conditions.  Grace is immeasurable.  Whether we’re looking for a bargain, or a fair shake, or just a few scraps, when grace comes we get much more than we bargained for.  Grace is the air we breathe and the life we live.  It’s the love we share and the forgiveness we’ve been given.  Grace is a precious, precious gift – no bargain at all.

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