You Get What You Get? Rethinking the parable of the workers in the vineyard
This sermon was preached at Knox Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa on September 24, 17. The scripture text was Matthew 20:1-16.
There’s a handy phrase some teachers and parents use when doing something that might get some grumbling, like, say, handing out popsicles of different flavors…if you can train the kids to expect this phrase, it cuts out some of the complaining. Any teachers (or parents) know what I’m talking about?
How about this? Pretend you’re 5. I’ve got a box of popsicles, and I’m handing them out. Some are red, some are purple, some are orange. You’re in the line. You love red. The kid in front of you gets red. The, next kid gets purple. Then red. Then red. Finally, it’s your turn. You get... orange. Ah, man. You stamp your foot. “That’s not fair! How come she gets red and I get orange?” The teacher says…”You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”
You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.
If you’re the kid, that’s just so annoying to hear that. Looking at it from the teacher’s point of view...you’re having popsicles at school! Why are you complaining?
This phrase “You get what you get and you don’t get upset” popped into my head as I was reading the parable from Matthew for today. This parable is a story Jesus tells in the book of Matthew, as a way of illustrating what the “Kingdom of Heaven” is like.
The “Kingdom of Heaven” is - well, it’s a whole other sermon topic - but, briefly, it’s a time on earth when God sets things right. When we pray the Lord’s prayer - “thy kingdom come” - we are praying for God to set the world right.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard is set in the time of Jesus. It’s a way of life and an economic system that Jesus’ disciples would have understood. Basically, there was a class of people that owned all the land. They were very rich and controlled everything. Then, you had a bunch of subsistence farmers, fisherman, and workers who had to scratch out a living day-to-day. Poor people who needed work had to to gather and wait for someone to come hire them for the day. Just like today, with some of the day laborers, the ones who got there early, seemed prepared with good work ethics, and were probably good workers. The later ones...maybe not so good...to come late, looking for work. It’s in this social structure, where the wealthy few own almost everything, and the majority of people were poor and have no power, that Jesus sets his parable.
Now, to the parable. Sometimes it’s taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner - and the landowner, only. And people say when God comes to set things right, he’ll be just like this guy: the landowner.
But, erase that, you can also read the story as Jesus actually says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the whole situation of the parable. So, we’re going to look at the whole situation and all the people in it...
In the parable, the landowner wants to hire workers to work in his vineyard. He goes at different times throughout the day, early morning, nine o’clock, noon, three o’clock, and five. He goes five times to hire whoever is standing there, to do some work. If you notice, though, he doesn’t tell them a all wage. To some, he just says he’ll pay “whatever is right”.
So, he hires guys to work in his vineyard, some work all day, some half a day, some just started at 5 pm. At the end of the day, he has his vineyard manager line them up, from the men that worked the shortest amount to the men that worked the most. Then the manager pays them all the same, the customary amount for one days work, even if they only worked an hour. The guys who worked the whole day grumble and complain about the wages the landowner has paid them because they think he’s being unfair. They think they should get paid more than the rest because they worked more than the rest.
The landowner responds to one of the complainers, “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.”
“Friend I am doing you no wrong. Take what belongs to you and go” isn’t as rhyme-y as “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset” but the landowner is basically saying just that: “You’re getting paid, don’t complain. You’re getting what I promised you. Take it.”
It’s true, what the landowner says. He isn’t shorting the guy on his pay, is he? Does it matter that he’s paying the late guys the same amount, even though they barely worked?
I don’t know...does it matter? How would you feel if it was you?
We’ve talked before about one of the ways to approach a bible text is to see how it makes you feel. This works well with parables. How does this parable make you feel?
How would you feel if you were the late comer? Pretty awesome, right? You barely did anything, and you got paid for the whole day.
How would you feel if you were the landowner? He basically says, “It’s my money and I can do what I want. Don’t hate me because I’m rich and generous. “ It might be nice to be that rich.
How would you feel if you were the man who worked all day in the sun? And then you got paid last? And you got paid the same as some slacker who showed up in the last hour? That would not feel good. It’s totally unfair. I would probably be very mad, too.
As a listener, does this parable make you want to take sides? If you had to say who’s right, who would you pick? The landowner? Or the worker?
Don’t answer. That question’s a trap. Sorry!
Because everybody is right in this situation, and everybody is wrong, too. They are in an impossible situation.
First, the worker who works all day is right. He shows up early, works all day in the sun, and the landowner promised he would pay “whatever is right”. The two of them never agreed on a specific wage and “whatever is right” is vague. Paying the same for one hour vs. one day of work doesn’t seem like “whatever is right”. But, the worker is wrong, too, because he’s getting the usual daily wage, and he worked a day, so the pay is what he might have expected. He’s mad because he sees what everybody else is getting paid, and he’s comparing himself to them.
Second, the landowner is right. He can do whatever he wants with his money. He’s paying a day’s wage to those who worked a day, so he’s not treating them badly. He acts generously where he can, he hires a lot of workers, and pays them. But, he’s wrong, too. Even though, he’s not a bad guy or a criminal , by some standards, he’s not being fair to some of the group - and he lives in a way that allows him to profit off of the very poor, while he gets richer, off their labor. This situation is not exactly his fault, though. It’s just the way the world is.
We started with popsicles and kindergarten rhymes, because, well, because life’s not fair even in Kindergarten. In the parable, the worker and the landowner are two sides of a situation that is just inherently unfair. Life on earth if you’re a human - well, if you’re an anything - is just unfair.
“Fair” and “unfair” is way humans measure things. We only know if something is unfair, if we have something to compare it to. And our world is like the landowner and the worker - we live in a way where nothing’s ever fair - some people get born with advantages that others don’t have; some people’s homes are in the path of a hurricane. It’s true that life is not fair.
Jesus says the “Kingdom of Heaven” - the time when God sets things right - is like the whole situation of the parable. And, I don’t think “you get what you get and you don’t get upset” or “take your wages and go” is the takeaway from whole situation. That doesn’t feel hopeful. We know Jesus ministered to the poor, to fishermen and day laborers - and they followed him because he spoke words of hope.
At first, when we read the parable, I think we want to pay attention to our reactions to the whole thing, to notice if we feel upset when something doesn’t seem fair. That feeling inside, I think, is in us on purpose, it’s a sense of justice. We can use that feeling as fuel to make the world a better place.
We can be that worker who says, “Wait a minute, something’s not right here.”
We can be the landowner, who tries to hire as many people as possible, and is generous to latecomers.
And, you know what, truth be told, we should notice when we’re the guy that shows up late, and be grateful we’re getting more than we deserve. Most often, we’re probably that guy.
That’s where the good news of the grace of God comes in. The good news is that grace actually isn’t fair, because fair means portions of grace would divided up according to our worth.
That’s the secret of the parable, why any question about fairness in the Kingdom of Heaven is a trick question. The Kingdom of Heaven is a whole new world, freed from “fair” and “unfair”. God’s grace is freely given, available to everyone, no matter when they show up, no matter how worthy they are. Grace is abundant, ever-present, flowing freely. In the end, you do “get what you get”, and what you get is grace. May it be so. Amen.