Hear these words from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 20, verses 1-16:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o”clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o”clock, he did the same. And about five o”clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o”clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘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; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
There was a familiar refrain in my house growing up. Whether it was because my sister got a bigger piece of cake, or extra play time, or I got to go somewhere the other two didn’t, or the youngest got away with something we two older girls were never allowed to do, it was the same: “It’s not fair!” This was usually followed up by the just-as-familiar response from one of my parents: “Life is not fair.”
And while this is certainly true, we like to think of God as just and…fair, right? Well, not according to this parable. I don’t know about you, but I can definitely understand the point of view of the early laborers. I’d be pretty annoyed too, if I’d worked hard a full day for what I thought was a fair sum, only to turn around and have that same sum given to people who’d shown up an hour before closing time. That’s not fair! Why should they get the same?
I think it’s not too much of a stretch to assume many feel the same way about deathbed requests for forgiveness or expressions of belief—especially if it’s coming from someone who hasn’t led the best life up until that point. It doesn’t seem fair that we who try our best to be good people, get the same amount of forgiveness and grace as the ones who proclaim their faith just before they die. We protest just like the early laborers: “Now, wait just a second! I was baptized as a baby, went to church my whole life, followed the ten commandments, did good things in my community and be nice, and this guy, who lied, cheated, stole, hurt other people, wreaked havoc around him, never set foot in a church, was just plain mean, prays five minutes before he dies and he gets the same amount of grace I will?? That’s so not fair!!”
No, it’s not fair. That’s the point. Jesus was trying once again to explain how different the world is when God reigns. Those who arrive late, who don’t get the first chance, still get just as much as those who are first on the scene. As the landowner explains to the complainers, this takes nothing from those who work hard. We get just as much grace as we expect from living good lives, from being people who have held life-long faith. We don’t lose anything by God being generous. So if we’re not a person who had faith from the get-go, if we found Christ as teenagers or adults or are just settling into our faith now, we still get all that grace. The kingdom of heaven is not competitive, like the world—or at least the United States—is, where everyone needs to fight to be first, to get the best things, to do the most and receive the most recognition or money or status. The last shall be first in God’s reign. No, it’s not fair…it’s grace.