"Justice or Love. What do you want?"

Matthew 20:1-16
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

In the classic “Charlie Brown Christmas Special” Charlie Brown’s sister Sally is writing a letter to Santa Claus and in the process generates an enormous list of toys she wants. At the conclusion of her North Pole-bound missive she writes, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.” When Charlie Brown sees this and despairs over his sister’s greed, Sally indignantly responds, “All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me.”

Take a moment to place yourself in the vineyard of today’s parable. Imagine that you worked all day, showing up early, even, to impress the foreman; and someone else working at the same job for only an hour received the exact same paycheck as yourself. Wouldn’t you be peeved?

We want our fair share—don’t we? And this translates into a perceived injustice when someone who has done less receives the same as ourselves. The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is troublesome because it violates what we have been taught to consider just and fair. It’s outrageous to us—and, trust me here—human nature has not changed—it would have been just as outrageous to the disciples who listened to Jesus tell them this story. Bear in mind that the telling of this tale comes on the heels of the Rich Young Man whom Jesus sent away because he could not let go of his possessions. As the young man with many possessions walks sorrowfully away Peter says (perhaps rather boastingly) “Look, (Lord) we have left everything and followed you. What will we have?” Perhaps Peter’s expecting a pat on the back, a promise of glory, maybe even a penthouse suite in Heaven. Instead, what Jesus hands him is this parable. It’s something of a letdown---don’t you think.

But consider this; today’s parable of the workers in the vineyard is really a parable about generosity far more than it is a parable about justice. This is not a parable about just wages—it is a parable about grace. To put it bluntly, this story raises the question about the nature of what resides in the heart of God. What would you rather have—a God of justice or a God of love?

In this parable, what the workers want is justice. And, really—can we blame them? Wouldn’t we want the same? They feel cheated because they calculated their wages in accord with what the manager paid the latecomers—and in their minds, they have been grievously shorted—no matter that they received precisely what had been promised them from the outset! They are outraged—they see the amount paid and they feel that they should have received more.

If you think about it, this is the nature of justice, isn’t it. Justice counts, it measures and calculates. Justice seeks to ensure that all people receive equal treatment, equal opportunity and equal standing. No wonder it is a value that is important to us.

But the Owner of this vineyard—he doesn’t play by the same rules. He’s generous to the point of absurdity—and so these values: that of justice and those of love, generosity and grace…they clash. David Lose writes: “Because where justice counts, love loses track. Where justice calculates, love lets go. Where justice holds all things in the balance, love and generosity give everything away, upsetting the balances we have so carefully and meticulously arranged.”

To understand this better, take the paycheck out of the equation and think of your relationships instead. What would you rather have: Love or justice? What would it be like to govern your relationships primarily by the law of justice, counting up every slight or injury done you by another so that you could do the same to those who offend? You know the people of whom I speak, they are the one’s sporting bumper stickers and T-shirts that say “I don’t get mad, I get even.” Imagine living with someone like this. A person who keeps track of every time their child, parent, coworker, spouse, friend or fellow churchmember disappoints, injures or offends; an individual who is determined to log every hurt they experience at the hands of those around them so that they can remember, keeping a record of grievances and waiting for reparations?

Can you imagine living your life this way? I think it would be hell on earth. And maybe—perhaps…this is precisely what Jesus is suggesting—that a concept of Heaven (or salvation) based solely upon rewarding some for outstanding effort and paying those who slipped in at the last hour only what they are due—isn’t really a place any of us would want to be. Perhaps what our Lord is suggesting here is that in the end, generosity, love and grace are indeed more important than ensuring that everyone receives exactly what they deserve—because (and here I shudder to think), where would this leave me? Where would it leave you?

Grace is the unmerited (the unearned) love of God. You can’t earn it, you can’t ever pay it back, you can only accept it—and it is showered equally upon us all—the newcomers and the stalwarts who are in their pews week in and week out. Grace is what gets us into Heaven, not niceness, not good deeds or significant charitable donations. Grace. And the only one who gets to hand out the entry tickets to Heaven and Get out of Hell free cards is God Himself. I don’t know about you, but I’m awfully glad that salvation (and this, really is what the parable paycheck is about) is given to all equally—at least, all those who respond to the invitation to come labor in the vineyard of the Lord—that’s key—responding to the invitation—and it’s also another sermon better left for another day. I’m grateful, because, in the end, God’s grace and mercy are available to us all; we simply need to respond to the invitation and come to the field to work for the good of God and His Kingdom. Heaven, in this parable, is a place where love rules, a love which gathers us all into the generous arms of God. What a fine and gracious place to be—no-matter when you choose to arrive. In Jesus’ name. Amen.