I was born in 1978. Now, before some of you roll your eyes and call me a kid, I am very well aware of how old or young I am, depending on how you look at it. I am 39. I grew up before there were 200 channels. I knew life before the internet. I still know how to use a card catalogue. I loved Scholastic Book Order day. I spent way too many hours playing a game called “Oregon Trail” where I almost always died of dysentery. But, I am still trying to figure out if it was my generation that ruined trophies for everyone. Is it my generation that demanded trophies for everyone or is it the generation after mine? Trust me, I am sure my generation has been blamed for this at least once. I hear it often after the phrase “you know what’s wrong with people your age…”
But I argue that this idea of giving everyone a trophy started long before my generation. Our Gospel today is a version of the idea that everyone gets a trophy. Maybe you never thought of it like that. And here’s what’s really maddening about this reading today. It’s the way it starts out “…the kingdom of heaven is like…” Wait! What? The kingdom of heaven is like everyone getting a trophy?!? That hardly seems fair. The kingdom of heaven is like everyone getting paid the same amount even though some worked for 12 hours and some worked for 30 minutes. Everyone gets the same reward. Well….that should be enough to make ya mad.
We don’t work like that, right? Even the idea of the “American dream” runs counter-intuitive to that idea. We work hard, we earn money, we are able to achieve all of our dreams. It would be maddening to spend a lifetime working hard, paying taxes, saving, and working our way up the corporate ladder in order to buy the house of our dreams just to move in next door to someone who said “oh my house? It was just given to me.” That kind of thing could lead to anger. Human justice is certainly not the same as God’s justice. And human definition of fairness certainly isn’t the same as God’s definition of fairness.
As much as we want to talk about other generations being or feeling entitled, if we’re really honest, we all can be a little entitled every once in awhile. We prefer justice that benefits us, our families, or our friends. We only claim that things are unfair when we are the victims of the unfair actions or words. We desire to be the beneficiaries of fairness and justice, but everyone else is just out of luck. It is possible that we even, at times, believe that fairness and justice is our right. We deserve justice and fairness. We demand justice and fairness. It’s as if we, at times, believe that justice and fairness are the same as oxygen or water. It’s just given to us, on demand, at all times. But while we’re busy drinking and breathing, people around us are dying of thirst and can’t breathe. Do we notice?
The workers that the landowner hired all wanted to work. They all showed up to work. They all had the ability to work. It’s not like the workers who showed up at the end of the day had spent the majority of the day in bed or avoiding work. It is very likely that the people left to be hired at the end of the day were the people who needed it the most: the disabled, the poor, women, those who wouldn’t be as strong, the blind, and the lame. And the landowner paid them the same as he paid those whom he hired first thing in the morning. His excuse? It’s my money. I’ll do with it as I will. I’ll be honest, if I were one of those workers that had been laboring in the vineyard since before sunrise, I would be angry. I would be whatever it is when someone is more than angry. And then, the landowner has the audacity to ask the workers if they are envious because he is so generous. Envy wasn’t quite the word we were looking for there, Chief.
The kingdom of heaven is like getting what you don’t deserve. The kingdom of heaven is also like watching those you know don’t deserve anything get the same reward as you. My beloved, this is so maddening, isn’t it? Human justice makes sense to us. It is a construct that we have invented. God’s justice makes no sense to us. In a weird way, this is good news. Yes, justice and living in a just world or just kingdom can lead to anger. But anger isn’t the same as mistrust. Just because we may be angry with God does not mean that we don’t trust God. At the same time, justice and living in a just world or just kingdom can also be a relief.
If it is God’s justice and justification that makes us right, then it is not on us to be perfect. It is not on us to attempt to even clean up the mess we made from our own sins. God justifies us. What this means is that it is God who makes us right and whole. Nothing we can do will ever be able to achieve that. God’s justice saves us. When the owner hired the laborers, he agreed to pay them “the usual daily wage.” In that time, a daily wage was enough for one person to buy some bread. It was enough to literally buy daily bread. And isn’t this what we pray every time we pray the Lord’s prayer? God’s justice provides us with daily bread, and nothing more and nothing less. God’s justice also guarantees that we will be equal in God’s kingdom.
Today, we will get a small glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like. There are few places on this earth where we are all equal. But, when we come to the waters of baptism, whether we come as a baby, like Hawk, or we come as adults, we are surrendering to the idea that we will be at the mercy of God’s justice and grace. We are washed clean and reminded that there is nothing we can do to earn our way out of this world. And in death, the other time we are all equal, God’s mercy comes full circle. God’s kingdom is like being claimed by God in the waters of baptism: no matter what your name is, no matter who your parents are, no matter what your bank account says, no matter your skin color, no matter your gender, all get the same name in those waters: justified child of God. God’s kingdom is like a communion table: no matter who you are, when you hold your hands out, you are fed a feast of forgiveness and love. God’s kingdom is like the foot of the cross where everyone is humbled and equal because all are on their knees.
The unfortunate and maddening news today, beloved, is that we don’t get a say in God’s mercy and justice, we just get to be active participants. And the good news and redemptive news today, beloved, is that we don’t get a say in God’s mercy and justice, we just get to be active participants.