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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Landowner, The Vineyard, The Workers, and the Cupcake Wars

2013-09-01 The Landowner, The Vineyard, The Workers, and the Cupcake Wars

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Matthew 20:1-16

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Laborers in the Vineyard

20 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard.3 When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9 When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, '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.' 13 But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?[d] 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?'[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last."[f]

"Are you envious because I am generous?"

The landowner in the parable is totally ignorant. He knows nothing of fair labor practices. He is totally unfair in his payment of wages to his workers. His understanding of human nature is lacking. Some of his employees worked all day; some part of it; some barely at all - and yet the landowner pays all of the workers the same amount. And then, he's surprised that the all-day workers are grumbling? All-day workers? More like all-day suckers. If they'd been smart, they could have showed up at 5 and gotten a full-day's pay. If they'd only known.

If we apply standards of fairness to this parable, we'll be just as confused and maybe just as angry as the all-day workers. After all, a day's work is worth a day's wage. It's a simple concept. If you show up at the end of the day, if you have to take personal leave time, if you spend the day shopping on the Internet, you don't deserve the same pay as the ones who sacrificed their whole day on the job. You haven't worked to earn the right of receiving your pay; therefore, you will be paid only what's fair, and no more. When someone receives more than what's fair, it's confusing and sometimes it's downright angering.

From our earliest years, one of our strongest guides is a sense of fairness. Some researchers theorize that our sense of fairness is instinctive, that this sense of what's fair and what's not is part of our evolutionary design, hard-earned and hardwired into our DNA. From a religious point of view, we might say that a sense of fairness is God-given. The ability to just "know" what's fair and what's not is part of what connects us to our Creator and to the divine.

If you have children, it's hard not to agree. Who teaches kids to measure how much juice is in each cup? Who teaches us that if brother gets two toys and I only get one, the cosmic order of the universe itself is threatened? Definitely not the parents, who try to explain their way out of the problem. "But your toy cost twice as much as your brother's." Not only does this hash-tag "fail" it also makes the brother angry that he got two cut-rate pieces of junk.

Another thing we learn very early on is the difference between actual fairness and the appearance of fairness. That's another thing the researchers hypothesize. They say it may be that in truth we're not so much interested in pure fairness as we are, what they call, "selfish realism." They say, "It is always possible that people are less predisposed toward genuine fairness than they are to the appearance of fairness, all the while secretly hoping to obtain an unfair share for themselves."

In other words, if brother feels superior because he got two crappy toys when you got an iPhone, shut up about it. If he thinks it's fair, then it's fair enough. From a religious standpoint, we might call "selfish realism" just plain-old sin, what the church historically has named, greed, pride, gluttony, or, perhaps, just simply being a jerk.


Now, it's one thing to hear the parable of the laborers in the vineyard - in church - and get all intellectual and theological about it. It's something else to see it worked out in real life, in the real world.

If you work for minimum wage and you show up for work on time and play by the rules, and if some salary-level idiot shows up late and spends all day smoking by the dumpster and gets benefits, your instinctive, God-given sense of fairness is going to go nuclear.

If you study for days and hours for your college admission exams, if you apply for twenty scholarships to piece together enough money to pay - actually pay - for school, and if some rich-kid legacy who can't complete a sentence but whose daddy gave money for a fine arts building waltzes into the best dorm room, the best parties, and the best dates, well, you might think that's unfair.

So you might think, "Let's just save the high and mighty parables for church. In the real world that stuff just stinks."

To which Jesus might reply, "You're absolutely right. It does stink. You should be going ballistic." (That is, if Jesus knew words like, "ballistic.") Jesus the religious teacher told a lot of parables that sounded completely irreligious, totally unfair, and downright wrong. Jesus told these mixed-up stories where wrong is right, where low is high, where least is best, and he told them precisely because they hit us in the primal gut. He wanted his stories to make us say, "That's just not right. That's crazy. That's not fair." Why? Because Jesus knew that until we acknowledge our instincts, until we accept our humanity in all its goodness and in all its ugly, primitive selfishness, we'll never be able to see a different way.

What part of your own heart clings to "selfish realism"? What part of your own heart prefers silent self-interest in the appearance of fairness?

"Are you envious because I am generous?"

Yes. Yes we are. Because we don't see it as generosity. We see it as unfairness. That's how we see things.

From our earliest years, fairness - or its appearance - is like a pair of poorly ground glasses. No matter how hard we squint, no matter how many headaches we get, we keep wearing the glasses and hoping things will get better. The selfish lenses always distort what we see as fair.

When we take off the broken glasses, when we finally shut off the alarm bells of unfairness, then, and only then, do we get what Jesus is saying. And, as it turns out, Jesus isn't talking about fairness at all.


Last week, at sixth-grade parent orientation, they had us sitting in the auditorium, which in itself brings back a slew of memories for every parent, grandparent and guardian in attendance. The principal, whose name is - I kid you not - Mrs. Best (nothing intimidating about that), presented a warm welcome and then, The Rules. If it has been a while since you were involved with sixth grade, let me tell you, there are a lot of rules. And that's good. Because sixth-graders need to know two things: (1) Who's in charge, and (2) what are the rules. Once you get those things in place, everything works much better.

So, near the end of the rules, the principal talks about lunchroom behavior. Of particular note is the rule in large, bold print on the PowerPoint slide: NO CUPCAKE WARS.

Now, to some of you, "No cupcake wars," may be self-evident. It's a very good rule. It goes like this:

Once a year, every sixth-grader has a birthday. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, the adult associated with the child wants to help the sixth-grader celebrate by sending a box full of cupcakes for everyone in the class to share. Sounds jolly and innocent enough, right?

Except that almost without fail, someone in the class gets left out. It could be that there are only enough cupcakes for the sixth-grader's closest friends, so there arises a cupcake clique. The Haves with the cupcakes and the Have-nots with the generic fruit rollups that taste like cardboard. Or, the adult miscounts the number of kids in the class. Or a child wrestling with impulse control takes more than one. Or a child with poor motor skills drops one. So, despite the best intentions, there's always one child excluded and cupcake-less. And, if you're familiar with these things, you know, it's always the one child you don't want to go without a cupcake. It's going to turn into a permanent psychological scar.

(Principle Best didn't say all this, but I can read between the lines.)

So, for the good of all the children, we have the rule: No Cupcake Wars. Why? Because we live in an imperfect and fallen world. Cupcakes are just another gateway drug to humanity's inescapable addiction to primeval sin.

If everybody can't have a cupcake, nobody gets a cupcake. That's fair.

No. Cupcake. Wars.

Which got me thinking. What if Jesus had ended his parable like this?

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard called all the workers to his house. Decorated with streamers and signs, the house was ready for a huge party. There were tables filled with the finest foods. And the landowner said, "I know you've been working, some of you all day, and you're tired. I have a surprise for you. You didn't know it, but today's my birthday. And I want you all to celebrate with me. Get a drink. Find a seat. Enjoy this gift from me to you."

"And no matter who you are or how much you've worked, each and every one of you... gets a cupcake."

And then, the landowner asks the workers his critical question: "Are you envious because I am generous?"

No. No we're not. Because this isn't payment; this is a gift. We're not envious; we're grateful. Thank you for including us in this surprise of a party.

Jesus often said, "Let anyone with ears, listen." Listen, because Jesus isn't talking about payment. Jesus is talking about a gift. The kingdom of heaven is like a great banquet, a surprise banquet, where the landowner, the Lord of the land, is allowed to do as he chooses with what belongs to him.

The landowner might be ignorant of fair labor practices, but he's a really good host. Surprise. That's all he ever was.

The love of God is not fair; it's a gift. It's not given to a clique. It's not awarded to the best-friends, best students, or best workers. It's not given badly, so that someone with problems gets left out. The love of God is a gift. It is a surprise. It is boundless generosity.

And there are no cupcake wars.