George Orwell’s allegorical novel, “Animal Farm” (1945) is a satirical look at the Russian Revolution leading into Stalinist Russia and the Soviet Union. Orwell frames his story on a farm where the animals have taken charge and thrown the humans out. As the story progresses from a revolution to benefit all the animals to a society where the elite once again prosper from the work of the ordinary, we see more clearly Orwell’s view of the world that shaped the Cold War. Of particular note is that, in the beginning, the new animal society is governed by seven commandments that seem to be for the benefit of all. Over time these are revised until the society is finally ruled by this maxim: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” In this morning’s gospel story we find laborers in the vineyard who may recognize their fellow workers as social equals, while believing that some workers are more equal than others.
As we continue our study of Matthew’s Gospel we come to a story that challenges our understanding of equality and fairness. More often than not, I think we end up being cast in the role of those first workers hired early in the day. It’s easy for us to see their perspective. Those guys worked hard all day long and got the same pay as the guys who only worked a couple hours. That just isn’t fair is it? Generally, that is the starting point for our discussion of this particular parable and we end up getting lost in the struggle of trying to be too literal about how we interpret what Jesus is talking about.
This story is not about fair wages or equality in work. This story is about the Kingdom of God. This parable has been interpreted in a variety of different ways by people with different points of view. Ancient theologians thought of the workers as representing the different generations of the Chosen People…Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and finally the Gentiles. Others saw the first disciples as those hired early and the later converts as those hired later in the day. Good, hard-working people have always asked: “What kind of God would offer the same reward to those who have earned it and those who have not?” Thus we find the perennial struggle between religious people who see themselves as doing the lion’s share of the work and those who just don’t seem to be carrying their own weight. We were raised in the church; we’ve been doing God’s work all our lives; this is “our church” and, by golly, we deserve to be treated better than those newcomers who came after us. That sounds a lot like works-based righteousness to me. “I deserve more because I did more!” This is where we get the idea that equality is relative. We are treated equally relative to who we serve, not who we are or what we do.
There is danger in thinking like those workers who got hired first…that perspective takes you down the road of thinking that we have the potential to earn merit. And that simply is not the case. The Kingdom of God is a place where God shows no partiality; all are equally deserving – or undeserving – of the opportunity to work in the vineyard. Therefore, the reward for all the workers is equal. Reward comes not from each worker’s individual merit, not from the quantity or even the quality of their work – rather, the reward comes from the gracious covenant offered by the one doing the hiring. Now, I know this flies in the face of our free-market-economy mindset…We live in a world that teaches: the harder you work, the more you get, and the better off you are. Of course, in practice, that is often not true for all. It seems that even in our culture of equal opportunity, some are indeed more equal than others. Even if it did work that way in the real world, it would not change the fact that the Kingdom of God is not like this world.
It may seem this story shows earthly inequality in terms of who has “earned” the greater reward – Jews/Gentiles, long-time workers/late comers. What Jesus is telling us in this story is that there is radical inequality before God. And that’s a good thing! The workers in this story want the landowner to treat them fairly – that is, “fairly” by their standard. It is unfair of the landowner to treat the workers equally. God does not treat us fairly either – thank God! If God treated us fairly by rewarding us according to what we earned or deserved, I’m afraid that most of us would be very disappointed.
What we learn from this story is that God’s people – ideally – are those who work in God’s vineyard simply because it is the good thing to do, not because they hope to win a greater reward. There is a clear call to humility in this story. The grumbling workers see themselves as better; they see their work as more. They are jealous that the ones who came late in the day are rewarded for doing so much less; or worse, they may be thought of more highly. Their criticism grows out of their envy and insecurity more than any real sense of fairness. All the workers began in the same place: unemployment. How soon they forget where they started…together. Do we ever find ourselves envious of another person’s gifts? Do we see their talents, abilities, social-standing, and so forth as something we celebrate for them or want to take from them? We must ask how often we find ourselves envious of the good fortune of another. We must realize how this leads us to diminish the value of our own gifts and talents as we covet the other. God is the giver of all good gifts, whether the gift is ours or belongs to someone else.
I think that this parable is ultimately about God’s generosity, not about equality of distribution. We make this about us when we only see the unfairness of how the workers are paid. We make it about God when we see that this is a story about gracious gifts that are undeserved, but given nonetheless. That is why this is a hard story for us – God’s generosity often goes against our sense of fairness. God does not always work within our definition of what is right and what is wrong. God does not generally think in terms of how things would be if “I” ruled the world – and that is a good thing!
Are we possibly unable to celebrate another’s good fortune because we have not truly celebrated our own? How often are we ungrateful for God’s mercy and undeserved forgiveness? When we deny God’s mercy in our own life, how can we celebrate it in the life of another? Jesus leaves us with a question: can we learn to see through God’s eyes? Our ideas of “right or wrong” and “fair or unfair” are not necessarily God’s ideas. When we look for equity, in God we find generosity. This parable invites us to look at ourselves through God’s eyes and be happy that God is a lousy score keeper. Instead of begrudging those “latecomers” their generous Gift from God, we should be joy-filled that everybody got the same great gift.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Get over it!” There is great wisdom in this concept of working through the things that bother us and moving on with what is really important in life. We need to get past our misguided sense of “fairness” and live into God’s sense of equality that is relative to our relationship with him. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.