("The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard," by Rembrandt, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 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?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.'
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.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.' 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? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
The parable in this coming Sunday's Gospel is one that always punches my "not fair" button. There's a part of me that chafes that one group worked like a dog all day, and another group did hardly anything and got the same amount of money. I totally get the anger and jealousy of the group in the parable who worked all day.
The story, though, is not really about the workers, in my mind. It's about the owner. It was the owner's prerogative to be as generous as he chose to be. The first group agreed to the stated wage. They didn't dicker or argue before hand. They and the owner entered into a covenant together. The workers agreed to work all day, and the owner agreed to pay them X amount of money. Their covenant has no effect on any future ones. The next one is between the owner and the next group.
What's interesting is the grumbling group didn't take it out on the nine a.m. group of workers; only the 5 p.m. group. So really, their grumbling was selective. Perhaps they were willing to ignore the very same "slight" in the 9 a.m. group in the hopes of gaining allies to the 5 p.m. group.
This past weekend, I was reminded of a variant of this story, but a bit in reverse.
For our church work day at Trinity-Kirksville, we needed mulch. Another person and I went to buy 20 bags of mulch at the place it was on sale, for $2.27 a bag. The guy inside did not know they were out of the $2.27 mulch. When I got out to load my truck, the workers outside told me that they were out of the $2.27 mulch--the next cheapest one was $2.77. So I trudged back in and waited in line to deal with the register about it.
Now, I'll admit...I was hoping the guy at the register would say, "Oh, gee, that was our mistake, you can have the $2.77 mulch for $2.27." Nope. No such luck. I had to make an exchange, and re-run my credit card, and pay the $10.89 difference after sales tax. Granted, it was only $10.89. But I won't lie, I was irritated I had to pay extra. But I also didn't want to run around town mulch shopping on a day I had done enough.
As I drove back to church, I thought to myself, "Well, you know, the guy inside simply didn't know they were out of the cheap mulch...and really, I agreed to buy the $2.27 mulch--not the $2.77 mulch. The mistake was pointed out to me prior to loading the truck. They did exactly as they were capable of doing--selling me the mulch on hand. I guess I should not be irritated because I didn't get the deal I wanted, and I got the deal that was there. Yeah, I think it would have been good business sense for them to eat the $10.89, but it is not in my control because I did not get a special deal."
Here's a pair of facts: We don't always get what we want. We do, however, get what's there.
Or as my late grandmother used to say, "It ain't what you want that makes you fat--it's what you get--and sometimes that don't make you fat. But it always makes you fatter than what you want and don't get."
What God promises is to always be with us. We did not enter a contract that it would always be good, or be easy, or always seem fair. But we won't be abandoned.
The other thing I thought about, in the whole "last shall be first and first shall be last" business is that God's love is limitless, and how that limitless-ness plays out is God's choice, not ours. Now, those people in the parable who showed up at 5 p.m., it wasn't like they were sitting around outside saying, "Hey, let's go work late in the day because we know we'll get paid a whole day's wages." They admitted they were looking for work. Had they gotten their way, they would have been hired by someone early in the day. Their ending up on the short end of the job-hunting stick was not of their making nor by their control. They were most likely not expecting to be paid a day's wages. What they got was grace. We don't control grace, and we don't control the jealousy of others if grace is doled our way but not theirs.
When we find ourselves jealous, we need to remember we don't always know the other person's situation. We shoud, instead, invite ourselves to a place where we accept that the recipient of grace has a need for it, rejoice in it for their sake, and trust that our needs are simultaneously being fulfilled--because we never know when we might end up on the short end of the stick, ourselves. We are one paycheck away, one freak of nature away, one loss away from being the 5 p.m. laborers ourselves.