We’re coming to the end of this special season of Creation, timed to fall during the harvest season and wind up with the feast of St Francis, who’s become sort of the patron saint of creation. We’re offering prayers that bring the climate and creation to mind, offering our confession for how we have wasted it and not cared for it as God’s stewards. Last week a few of us joined the Climate March; out at our cemetery we’re installing solar panels; here at church we’re constantly looking for ways to make our buildings more energy efficient; we’re looking at a possible small group program that digs further into issues of creation and the climate crisis. Lots of different ways to bring home the point that seems like it should be so obvious, that we are called to be better stewards of creation. But it’s a point we all too often don’t think much about – until we have to, which the extremes of weather and drought and disaster are finally forcing us to do. We avoid it partly because it has seemed so vast to get our heads around; but I think we also avoid it because it’s something that requires a huge change of mindset for us. Our behaviors and structures have to change in ways that don’t feel fair. And we really don’t like it when things don’t feel fair.
When my kids were younger, one of my last steps in preparing dinner was to get out two plastic cups and the gallon of milk, pour the milk into both cups, and then crouch down so my eye was at the level of the cups, to check and be sure the level of milk was exactly the same. I knew this was ridiculous. But I also knew that if I didn’t check, somebody else would. Two somebody elses, to be accurate. It had to be even. If you have kids, or you remember being a kid, you know exactly what this is about. If one kid gets something, the other has to get it, and the amounts have to be the same, exactly the same. It has to be fair.
Whether kids or not, this sense of fairness runs deep in us. I had a conversation about this yesterday with guests waiting on line in the rain at our Saturday Kitchen – lots of upset when it seemed like someone had jumped the queue and wasn’t waiting for their turn. We don’t like it when someone seems to be getting something more than us or ahead of us, when there’s inequality in the system. This fairness is what we usually mean when we talk about justice. Think of the statue of Justice with her scales, weighing things out – justice measures and calculates to be sure it’s even, that everyone receives their share. That’s why we try to make laws and arrange systems so that there is equal opportunity, equal compensation, equal rights. When justice is lacking, the measure is out of balance, someone is not getting their due. When that injustice is too great, it can lead to rebellion, revolution, even war. Seeking justice matters, for everyone – for the common good.
But often the justice we’re interested in is not for the common good. It’s really just justice for me. Did I get the same amount of milk as he did? Even better, did I get more? We clamor like Sally in ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’: ‘All I want is my fair share! All I want is what I got coming to me!’ A lot of our laws and our systems are really to this end – that I, and my people, get what’s coming to us. Never mind about you.
Today we’re confronted with a parable of Jesus where this idea of justice is thrown out the window. Or, to be more accurate, where our sense of justice is expanded into something more: generosity and grace, radical, reckless free gift. It’s so wonderful, it’s hard to take in. But for most of us, our first reaction to this story is not to exclaim over the generosity; it’s to think, it’s not fair.
For all the times that parables can be obscure and confusing, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard seems to have a pretty obvious point. There’s a lot of work to be done in the vineyard, and so throughout the course of the day, the owner of the vineyard goes out and hires more workers, in several shifts. The last ones are hired so late that they work only one hour of the whole day. But in the end, all the workers, the one hour shift and the ten hour shift, receive the same wage. The ones who worked all day complain, and so do we: It’s not fair. Which is Jesus’ point. God does what God likes with the abundance on offer; God’s generosity is greater than our sense of justice: Everyone gets enough.
Nearly 200 years ago, the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville made a study of the French and American revolutions. Both revolutions resulted in greater freedom for the people, individual liberty instead of living under tyranny. But he noted, the revolutions resulted in individuals who were less connected to one another. And, he wrote, in a community in which the ties of family, …of class, of …fraternities no longer exist people are far too much disposed to think exclusively of their own interests, to become self-seekers practicing a narrow individualism and caring nothing for the public good. Sound familiar? And then he goes on: Since in such communities nothing is stable, each…is haunted by a fear of sinking to a lower social level…feverishly intent on making money or…on keeping his wealth intact. I read this in my politics classes in undergrad in the early 1990s, and it stuck with me. It says quite succinctly what we’re up against as we deal with the climate crisis, or immigration, or the economy. No one is willing to let go of today’s profits for tomorrow’s children. Let alone welcome the immigrants and refugees to our country. Let alone change our consumption patterns so we can produce, and waste, less stuff. Self-seekers practicing a narrow individualism and caring nothing for the public good…feverishly holding onto their wealth. Sounds about where things stand.
Those are words of a political theorist. As Christians, we have a name for this propensity – sin. Something in the instability of the system makes people grab for what is theirs; something in our powerlessness makes us turn against one another. We don’t trust the abundance, and so we ourselves create the scarcity. There isn’t enough, and some of us are oppressed, because we’ve opted not to care for the common good. We see it on every level, from UN meetings to how we treat each other on the street. Me and mine – not you.
So justice – fairness – is essential in human dealings. We balance and measure and calculate to prevent injustice, to prevent people from being taken advantage of and exploited. In our fallen, distrustful state, we can’t sit back and say, it will just all work out. We have to work at it, to set limits on our consumption so that some of us won’t gobble it all up; to rein in corporations and curb our own worst impulses so we won’t sink into lawlessness. We can’t really run our vineyards like the one in the parable.
But God’s generosity goes beyond this. It doesn’t stop to add it up; it’s a reckless generosity, rooted in abundance. Jesus is telling this parable, I think, to remind people of where our lives come from. You are provided for, he’s saying, the owner of the vineyard is generous and will make sure you have enough. Remember the manna in the wilderness so long ago? The Israelites didn’t have to do anything to earn it – that mysterious ‘bread of angels’ just came, every day, in enough quantity that they could eat and be satisfied. They didn’t have to measure it to see if their neighbor got more than them. They just ate what they needed, and it was enough. Kind of like it was in the garden at the very beginning. We don’t have to be so anxious about this.
The owner of the vineyard says, am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? He gives enough so that each one can go home and feed their family that night, regardless of how much labor they did. He chooses to give to each one, caring for each of them and all of them together. Rain falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matt. 5:45). It’s not a fair way of dealing. It refuses to calculate and balance. Instead, the owner gives his money like we have been commanded to give our love – freely, to all of our neighbors, caring for all of us. Trusting that there’s enough to go around.
It’s not fair. But it’s the generosity God is calling us all to grow into – with our money, with our selves, with our planet’s resources. It’s a care for the common good that prompts us to say no to our narrow selves in favor of the greater whole, to give extra grace to others we meet, to assume good intentions and act as if there really is enough to go around. To do this in our everyday lives, and in our voting, and in our giving. It’s a generosity that doesn’t make economic sense. But it makes all the sense in God’s world – which, in the end, this is.