A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20/09/20): The Kingdom of Heaven is not Fair

The Kingdom of Heaven is not Fair!
Matthew 20:1-16

The kingdom of heaven is not fair!

“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 

The complaint of the labourers who have worked all day is that it is not fair! How is it fair that those who have worked for 12 long hours receive the same wages as those who have worked for just an hour?This seems to breech one of the principles that they and we have hard baked into our ideas about the way the world should be: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”

It stands to reason: If one hours work is worth one denarius. Then 12 hours work must be worth 12 denarii. In Jesus’ telling of his parable of the workers in the vineyard, he has set up the final scene precisely to raise this objection. The landowner instructs his manager to pay the workers in reverse order of the time that they had worked. He was to start with those who had worked for an hour and work back to those who had worked longest. But he was to pay each of them one denarius, the usual daily wage. His decision to have things done this way looks like an act of provocation. Those who had worked longest seeing those who had worked an hour get a full days pay, would have an expectation raised. An expectation that was dashed when they too received one denarius for their work. No wonder they grumbled.Their sense of fairness had been offended

The landowner could have spared himself the aggravation if he had paid the workers in the opposite order. If he had started with those who had worked all day they would have left satisfied that they had received what they had bargained for, the amount that they had agreed was fair for the days worked. This would have been followed by growing delight, and gratitude toward the landowner, as each group of workers who had spent less and less time in the vineyard received the same amount, the one denarius which they and their family need to survive until tomorrow. Not only is the kingdom of heaven not fair, it also seems like a deliberate provocation.

Our ideas about work are completely dominated by wage labour. When we think or talk about work we almost always mean working to earn a wage. Work is for most is not the point, or certainly not the only point. Work is not an end in itself. It is a means to another end, earning a living. Almost everyone, like the workers in the vineyard, has to work in order to survive. It is difficult for most people to imagine why you would work if you weren’t going to be paid. And coupled to this is our sense of fairness. That the rewards of work should be proportionate to the effort made. The harder or longer you work, the more you get paid. And also the acceptance that some work is deemed more valuable than others. Our thoughts about work are dominated by merit and reward, about earning and deserving the wages which are received. So, “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.”

Of course Jesus’ story isn’t about work, or at least it’s not just about work. It is a metaphor. A metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, the relationship between God and his people. The vineyard and the work done in it are a metaphor for the world and our lives in it. It is about how we live in relation to God’s intention for us. Here too our thinking is dominated by the same pattern of merit and reward, about earning and deserving our good standing with God and our place in God’s kingdom. Are we the right kind of people? Have we done what is right? Do we deserve to be considered good people, worthy to be in relationship with God? A good life lived, for heaven’s reward.

Jesus’ parable is about what happens when his offer of grace collides with our notions of fairness. The offer which Jesus makes is that a relationship with God is freely available to everyone. And remains fully available to anyone, at whatever point they choose to receive it. At first sight we might wonder who could object to such a generous offer. Except! Those who have spent a life of virtue, loving their neighbours and glorifying God, are accepted on the same terms and with the same reward as the death bed conversions of notorious sinners! How is that fair! It’s the same visceral reaction one might have to the idea that everyone should receive what they need to live. The objection that finds voice in complaints about benefits scroungers.

The problem is our captivity to the idea of wage labour. We can’t see that there might be another reason to work. For almost all of us, living in the world as it now is, the connection between what we do and who we are is arbitrary. The point of our working, even if we enjoy what we do, is largely to earn the wages we need in order to survive. Why would anyone work if they weren’t being paid? Why would anyone work harder if they weren’t being paid more? And why would anyone work if they were going to be paid anyway?

The same sort of thinking infects our moral lives. Why would anyone be good if they weren’t going to be rewarded Or more to the point, why would anyone refrain from being bad if they weren’t going to be punished. Our sense of self-worth is profoundly linked to this sense of merit and reward, or earning and deserving. Jesus’ offer of free grace undermines our sense of purpose and our self-righteousness! And this in part is what gets him killed.

But Jesus’ offer is an offer to transform our minds and our self understanding. The kingdom of heaven is offer of a different way of being. The purpose of work in God’s intention is not to earn a living. Work is not simply a means to an end. Work is a way in which we share God’s image. Like God we are creative and productive. In the kingdom of heaven – the world restored to God’s intention – work becomes an expression of our likeness to God. And likewise virtue is not a way to avoid punishment, or even to feel good about ourselves. It too is the way in which we express our likeness with God and reflect his glory. The kingdom of heaven is not fair because it is gracious and just. It restores the world and us in it to God’s original intention for our lives.


Creative Commons Licence
The Kingdom of Heaven is not Fair! by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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