This morning Jesus tells a story that I believe ranks right up there with a “Dilbert” cartoon- the comic strip that pokes fun at incompetency that is often found in the workplace.
I remember this one where the CEO is introducing Dilbert to his new boss, some mid-level manager named Mr. Snow, who reaches out to shake Dilbert’s hand. Insisting a more casual relationship the new boss says, “Neal, please.” In the final frame, Dilbert on his knees bowing before his new boss who says, “Um…no, that’s my name…Neal.”
On a more serious note, if we took Jesus’ parable literally it would most likely raise the hackles of any business-minded person. As the Donald might say, “We need to renegotiate this deal.” And in his book What's So Amazing About Grace,Phillip Yancey writes, “The bosses action contradicts everything we know about employee motivation and fair compensation… After all, who in their right mind would offer the same reward to those who have earned it and to those who have not?”
A few days ago I asked Sean to help me with the yard work. Of course, he refused my invitation. I told him, “I bet you we could get it done quickly if we did it together.” To which he replied, “I bet you a trip to Target we couldn’t.” Knowing a bad deal when I see one, I said, “Not fair. You’ll just work slow so you’ll win the bet.” And with all seriousness he rolled his eyes at me and said, “Dad, you know life isn’t fair.”
At first glance, this parable seems to uphold this notion. Life is not fair. Here we have a landowner who hires some workers. Some clock in at sunrise, some at the morning coffee break, and then at lunchtime; others come in the afternoon, and still some close to quitting time. Everyone seems content with the work they are offered, that is until payroll. When those who put in a full day’s work in the hot blazing sun learn that they will receive the same pay as those who barely had time to break a sweat. The first hired naturally grumble.
It’s easy for us to sympathize with their complaints, isn’t it? More than just basic mathematics, or incompetent bookkeeping, something in our gut says this is wrong. We know in our heart that things ought to be fair. But when it comes to money, or something we believe we’ve earned, things get a little more personal.
Cuban born theologian Justo Gonzalez says the parable is clearly about two kinds of people: the very rich landowner and those barely scratching by. Most people who read or hear the parable, however, are neither rich nor poor. We are somewhere in the middle. We know what it’s like to eke out a living. And we truly believe that if we work harder, then we’ll get ahead and receive more for our efforts. The spoils go to those who earn it. But like I’ve been saying, Jesus turns our way of thinking upside down; teaching us to see the world through God’s eyes and not our own.
Gonzalez invites us to look at this story through the lens of an immigrant worker. They may not understand what it’s like to be a rich landowner, but they truly understand the plight of those who must go early in the morning to stand at a place where someone might come and hire them for the day. They might be lucky to get a full day’s work. And they have learned not to lose hope if they only get a couple of hours. Just as we might sympathize with the landowner who accuses them of “standing around and being idle all day,” the laborer knows exactly what it feels like to answer, “Because no one has hired us.”
Let’s stand in their shoes. It’s five o’clock, and a truck finally pulls up and offers you work. Because it’s late in the day, you don’t know if you’ll earn enough to afford a ride back. And there’s always the chance you won’t get paid at all. Your only choice is to get in the truck trusting all will work out in the end. Or you refuse the job.
By looking through a different lens, Jesus shows us a world that is not fair. But he also assures us that we need not worry, because God is faithful and generous. The landowner is not breaking his agreement with his employees, but upholding it honestly and fairly. By paying everyone a full day’s wage we realize that God isn’t concerned about what we deserve; God gives us what we need.
When we make this story about fairness or money, then we are blind to the point Jesus is making: “God dispenses gifts, not wages.”
Whether you’ve been faithful to God your whole life, or you’re new to the party, God loves you and welcomes you just the same. The last worker is first in this story because not only is he in immediate need of this gift, but he is also able to receive it with joy and gratitude… instead of with envy or pettiness like the first who have forgotten God is a generous employer.
As Jesus points out, our divine boss has every right to do whatever he wants to do with his grace and love, “even if it means paying some people twelve times more than what they deserved.” Grace can never be calculated like a timesheet. God’s love is not a bonus reward based on merit, or the quality or quantity of one’s labor. It’s a gift, freely given to all who want to go into the vineyard.
This is the good news since none of us really earned what we deserved. No different than the cartoon about Dilbert and his co-workers, our incompetence does not stop God from loving us any more or any less. Like meteorologist, we can get it wrong most of the time and still keep our job. We don’t need to renegotiate this deal. It will never get better than this.
Let’s just joyfully accept the truth that God is a lousy bookkeeper. When I told that to my friend he joked, “God’s a lousy bookkeeper because he adds infinity to every check he cuts.”
Imagine that: Infinite grace. Infinite love. Infinite forgiveness; healing; empowerment; joy. Infinite life; both now and in the Kingdom to come. No matter how many times God gives and gives and gives to us, his account continues to overflow. And his checks never bounce.
Jesus’ death and resurrection remind us that God’s generosity is beyond our human capacity and logic. His mercy and grace is immeasurable. Like I said two weeks ago, it doesn’t add up. And we are the ones who benefit…because God is a lousy bookkeeper!
Five times the landowner goes out to gather people. I imagine if he went out a sixth or a seventh time, the end of the story wouldn't change. So let’s not worry about who gets what or when, because Christ died for all. And we all benefit because of it.
Instead of protesting or dividing sides, let us gather together with joy in our hearts to celebrate...because God is calling us into the vineyard where there is still work to be done.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 92-97.
Gonzalez, Justo. Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes. (Nashville: Abington, 1996) pp. 62-63.
Yancy, Phillip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) pp. 61-63.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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