We like to imagine that people “get what they deserve,” whether for good or for ill. We like to imagine that “bad” people come to bad ends (eventually) and that “good” people always win (eventually). I hate to break the news to you, but such a world view is hopelessly naïve and, even worse, potentially dangerous.
Consider the fires and smoke, the winds and waves, the victims of pandemic and economic emergency around us—verifiable “bad” things. Regardless of where we lay blame for these natural and financial catastrophes, the catastrophes themselves have no agency. Fire burns where it finds fuel. Smoke billows where wind carries it. Hurricanes roar where atmospheric conditions create them. Viruses attack without regard for one’s station in life. Even a financial crisis as deep and wide as the one we are experiencing, falls like a blanket on all landscapes. That some are more deeply impacted than others is a discussion for another day. But there is nomorality, no intention, no judgment on the part of the crisis itself. “Bad” things can happen to any of us.
Now that we’ve settled that (as if), my mind turns to Sunday’s gospel reading (Matthew 20.1-16), which argues the same point from the opposite direction.
Jesus adds an eighth “the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” parable on Sunday. In this case, the kingdom of heaven is like a vineyard owner who plucked workers from the local labor pool in the same way those day laborers would pluck grapes from his vines. It seems the vineyard owner is a poor manager, since he fails to hire enough pickers on his early morning foray to the labor pool. At 9 a.m. he hired more laborers, again at noon, at 3 and at 5 p.m.
Rather than criticize the vineyard owner’s quirky hiring practices, Jesus focuses on the unorthodox way he structures his compensation package. At the end of the day, the owner summoned the 5:00 hires first and peeled a thick wad of bills—a full day’s wage—from his pocket. The late-comers were both surprised and delighted, since they received far more than they deserved. The early birds saw the wad of bills that exchanged hands and began to salivate. “Hmm,” they calculated, “if the pluckers who showed up at the end of the day get the usual daily wage, imagine how much we will be paid, we who have been working from sunrise to sunset.”
Remember the lack of agency on the part of “bad” things? The early pluckers are about to learn that there is a complete lack of agency on the part of “good” things, too. Jesus’ fictional vineyard owner counted the same number of bills into the hands of all his day laborers—those who worked 15 hours and those who worked 15 minutes. Each laborer went home with the same paycheck that night. A “good” thing happened to each of them, regardless of their deserving. Infuriating, right?
Fortunately for us, God is that foolish vineyardist. At the end of a day, at the end of a life, God does not regard us as we regard one another. Good or bad. Faithful or unfaithful. Worthy or unworthy. In a fit of foolish generosity, Jesus teaches and we believe that God is gracious to all. And that God’s magnanimous nature toward one doesn’t diminish God’s magnanimity toward another. God’s pocket is bottomless. Each of us receives from God not what we deserve, but what God chooses to give. And God chooses to give wildly, lavishly, generously.
Does that bother you? Does that seem somehow unfair? Apparently, Jesus’ hearers thought so. He reprimanded them, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Are you envious because I am generous?”
In a country that drips with “bad things” for so many, I am choosing to bask in the kingdom of God in which “good things” fall on our heads like cooling rain. I am loving God’s seemingly random generosity.
Jesus’ parable is a gift of cooling rain on my parched soul. There is “good” all around us, though it is often hidden behind a screen of smoke, a hurricane of horribles, a crush of crises.
Today I pray good things for all of us, regardless of who we are or what we have done. When God does the plucking, we all get picked.
Pastor JoAnn Post