What’s “Fair” or What’s “Enough”?

March 17, 2019

What’s “Fair” or What’s “Enough”?

Psalm 145:1-8

I will extol you, my God and King,
    and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
    and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
    his greatness is unsearchable.

One generation shall laud your works to another,
    and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
    and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
    and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
    and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Matthew 20:1-15

“The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers to pay them a denarius – a day’s wage - he sent them into his vineyard.

“Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing in the marketplace, without work. He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is just.’ And they went.

“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing.  Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing there, and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day without work?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they replied.

“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

“When evening came, the lord of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on to the first.’  When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarius, the daily wage. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarius.  When they received it, they grumbled against the householder, ‘These ones hired last worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no injustice. Didn’t you agree with me for the usual daily denarius? Take what is yours and go. I wish to give to this one, this last one, even as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’”

* * * * *

I’m sure you’ve heard by now about the scandal involving college admissions. How some very wealthy, well-connected parents managed to manipulate the admissions system to get their darlings into the colleges of their choice – ‘their’ meaning the parents, the ‘choice’ being directly related to the prestige they were seeking for their children, and presumably, themselves. The scandal involved bribes, having stand-ins take the SAT or ACT for the students, even photo-shopping pictures of kids playing sports they did not actually play. The general response has been outrage, though some have shrugged and said, “So, what else is new?”

There is no question there is unfairness in the world. Some would say the problem is that the system is rigged so the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Others say the problem is that some people are lazy and feel entitled, and they should earn their keep. 

What’s galling to both sides is the perception of blatant unfairness. That’s one thing everyone can agree on: unfairness makes our blood boil. 

Which is, in part, what our parable today is all about. Are some people getting more than they deserve? And aren’t others right to feel outraged? What does God want from us, anyway? 

One of the resources I found especially helpful this week comes from the work of a New Testament professor named Amy-Jill Levine; in fact, the translation we’re using this morning borrows from her work. Levine is Jewish, and she brings a different lens to the text than most New Testament scholars, in part by understanding Jesus as part of the Rabbinic tradition of the time. Her view is that we tend to domesticate Jesus’ parables to make them more palatable, more like morality tales, rather than the disturbing, thought-provoking, challenging stories they really are.[i]

Let’s see what she does with the text:

First, who are these people the householder hires throughout the day?  Is it, as the NRSV reads, people who are “standing idle in the marketplace…”?

Or, as the New Living Translation says, “people standing around”?

Or, with the Common English Bible, “just standing around here doing nothing all day long?”

Levine translates it, “standing here all day without work” – because that is literally what the Greek word agroi means. Without work. [ii]

Which feels very, very different, doesn’t it?

Not idle.

Not standing around.

Not doing nothing.

Without work.

The parable says nothing about whether all the laborers were there at dawn, waiting, or if they came to the marketplace later, and if that was the case, why. There is nothing to say that those hired at the beginning are in any way different from those hired along the way, or at the end.  We don’t even know why the householder kept coming back to the marketplace, or whether he even needed more workers.

All of that is pure speculation.

What we do know is this: some of them had work, and some of them didn’t. But all of them came to that place because they were looking for work. [iii]

That’s one of the points Levine makes. But what about the issue of fairness? Isn’t it still unfair that they’re all paid the same wage? Don’t the first-hired have every right to grumble? 

Well, apparently the workers hired first have a very different set of priorities than the lord of the vineyard. I suspect that we have a pretty different set of priorities, too. As Levine points out, other rabbinic writings show clearly that “what God wants is not necessarily what ‘we’ think is appropriate.” As she puts it, in Matthew’s parable, “the workers seek what they perceive to be ‘fair’; the householder teaches them a lesson by showing them what is ‘right.’”[iv]

Levine believes strongly that it only makes sense to understand this parable – for that matter, all of Jesus’ parables - in the context of Jesus’ teachings and debates. Just think about it. As Levine says,

Jesus is concerned about economics: about giving to those who beg, about the blessings that will come to the poor, about mutual dependence rather than top-down brokerage, about what can be summarized as ‘kingdom economics.’...  His focus is on laying up treasure in heaven, not on accumulating bank accounts on earth. The parables, with their attention to wealth management, debts, daily wages, land ownership, and lost coins, speak to the same concerns.[v]  

At the beginning of the parable, the workers are focused on receiving their just wages, which the lord of the vineyard promises. At the end of the parable, their focus is on what the others receive, which they perceive as injustice. As Levine writes, “Now they are distressed because the last hired ‘have been made equal’ to them…. The first hired do not want to be treated equally to the last; they want to be treated better.”

That’s the heart of it, isn’t it? They don’t want to be treated equally; they want to be treated better. Because they think they are better.

But the lord of the vineyard is concerned about something else entirely. The lord of the vineyard is concerned that everyone has enough. The only complaint that the first workers can have is that he was generous. As Levine writes,

The point is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough.’ One does the work – in the labor force, in the kingdom – not for more reward, but for the benefit of all.[vi]

God’s justice does not equal what the world thinks is fair. God’s justice is that everyone has enough.

So what does this have to do with us? What are we to make of this? Because, of course, at the end of the day, the parable is about us, and the difference it makes where our focus lies. Whether we are measuring ourselves against each other, or making sure we all have enough. One road leads to resentment – ‘the evil eye’ – the other, to compassion, justice, and gratitude.

When I read Levine’s commentary, I found myself thinking about a family from a church I served in Des Moines. The Millers[vii] owned a manufacturing business in the city. They were extremely generous people, active in philanthropy and leadership in the city. In 1993 the Des Moines River overflowed its banks. Even the water treatment plant was flooded, and the city was without water for two weeks. Their plant was flooded, and couldn’t be reopened for months.  

What I learned later is that the Millers kept all their employees on payroll. Every single one. For months, until the plant opened again. It was extraordinary. But their first priority wasn’t their own welfare, it was to make sure the laborers had their needs filled.

As Amy-Jill Levine observes,

Jesus is neither a Marxist nor a capitalist. Rather, he is both an idealist and a pragmatist. [In the kingdom,] the righteousness of one person or group benefits not only that group, but others as well. [viii] 

In the end, all have enough to eat, and the rich recognize their responsibility to those who are less well off, a responsibility that includes not simply giving a handout, but hiring ‘workers’ who can thus preserve their dignity. [ix] 

In this parable, at least, the issue is not about who is getting more than they deserve. It is not about comparisons at all – who is better than whom, who is more deserving than anyone else, who is more ‘worthy.’ If our focus is there, it will only lead to resentment and bitterness.

The issue, in this parable at least, is whether everybody has enough – because the kingdom rests on God’s generosity, which is a model for us all.

May it be so, on earth, as it is in heaven.

[i] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, [New York: HarperCollins, 2014], 3-4.

[ii] Levine, 208.

[iii] Levine, 209-210.

[iv] Levine, 213.

[v] Levine, 11.

[vi] Levine, 218.

[vii] I’ve changed the name to protect their privacy.

[viii] Levine, 218.

[ix] Levine, 219.