God does not discriminate

Pentecost 15 – 2014
Matthew 20:1-16
Marian Free

In the name of God who values each one of us equally and desires only that we allow ourselves to be loved. Amen.

One of my favorite movies (and books) is The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. It tells the story of five Chinese women and their daughters. The mothers have all fled traumatic experiences in their homeland and have made a new home in America where, like many Chinese women, they want their children to excel. This desire puts a great deal of pressure on the daughters who, not surprisingly, find that while they are like cousins to each other they are also each other’s competitors.

One of the daughters Jing-Mei doesn’t fit the competitive mold. She is quiet and unassuming, always blending into the background rather than drawing attention to herself. At social functions, it is Jing-Mei (June) who hovers around the older women ensuring that they have what they need – drinks, snacks and so on. It is June who takes the worst piece of crab at a dinner party and who can be found in the kitchen washing the dishes when the meal is finished.

Though June has happily and willingly taken on the role of nurturer, there are times when she cannot help but feel that she is unappreciated and unseen.

On one occasion, when June is clearing up yet again after a dinner party, all her pent up frustration bursts out. She says to her mother:

Jing-Mei: I’m just sorry that you got stuck with such a loser, that I’ve always been so disappointing.
Suyuan: What you mean disappoint? Piano?
Jing-Mei: Everything: my grades, my job, not getting married, everything you expected of me.
Suyuan: Not expect anything! Never expect! Only hope! Only hoping best for you. That’s not wrong, to hope.
Jing-Mei: No? Well, it hurts, because every time you hoped for something I couldn’t deliver, it hurt. It hurt me, Mommy. And no matter what you hope for, I’ll never be more than what I am. And you never see that, what I really am.

But her mother has seen, her mother knows her and loves her. She does not want June to be like her friend’s daughters but to be herself. She responds (referring to that night’s meal):

Suyuan: That bad crab, only you tried to take it. Everybody else want best quality. You, you’re thinking different. Waverley took best quality crab. You took worst because you have best quality heart. You have style no one can teach. Must be born this way. I see you.

All this time, June had thought that she had to work hard to be noticed and that if she only did enough she would stand out from the others and her mother would see and value her. All that time, she hadn’t realised that who she was was enough. Her mother did not compare her with her friends, but valued her for herself. June did not have to earn her mother’ love, it was already hers.

It has been said that the parable of the labourers in the vineyard is “the gospel in a nutshell” and while June’s story is not an exact parallel it does illustrate the point that we do not have compete for love and certainly not for God’s love. God’s love is not something that we have to earn – it is already ours. If it is ours, it is others also. It doesn’t matter if a person recognises God’s love at the eleventh hour – like the thief who is crucified with Jesus – or whether – like many of us – one has known God’s love since birth. It is not a competition. God’s love is given in equal measure to each one of us no matter who we are or what we do.

In first century Galilee, many of the small land holdings had been consolidated. This meant that there were many men who had no means of support and who had to hire themselves out on a daily basis. These men would gather in the market place every day in the hope that they would be offered work. Landowners would come to the market place to hire day-labourers. (Even if they could afford slaves it was cheaper to pay a daily rate, than to expend money on slaves who had to be fed and kept even if they were sick and unable to work.)

What is unusual in the parable is that the landowner comes out at dawn and at the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour and even the eleventh hour. He agrees with those hired at dawn to pay them a denarius for the day. Those hired at the third, sixth and ninth hour are simply told that they will be paid what is just – no amount is specified. Those told to work at the eleventh hour are not made any offer of pay.

Our attention is caught by two details: first that the landowner should take on anyone so late in the day and second that the landowner has not specified any recompense for the latecomers. The tension is heightened when we discover that those who arrived last are paid a denarius – the same amount that was offered to those hired first. We, the audience expect that those who have worked all day will receive more – despite their initial agreement with the landowner. We join the gasp of surprise and resentment when they receive only what was promised. After all, those who were hired first have worked so much longer and have born the burden of the day. In human terms the landowner’s action is simply unjust.

That is the point of course. The landowner is God, as the parable makes clear by calling him the “lord” of the vineyard. God is not just in human terms. God does not discriminate according to how long or how hard a person works. Everyone who responds to the call of God – whether early or late – is treated in the same way, because there is only one thing that God has to offer and that is salvation or eternal life. It would be nonsense for someone to be one third or one half saved or for God to give the late-comers only a representative proportion of eternal life depending on when they came to faith. Eternal life is eternal or it is not.

This is why the repentant thief is told: “today you will be with me in Paradise” and why those who come last receive the same as those who came first. There is no such thing as partial salvation or limited eternal life. One is saved or one is not, one belongs to the kingdom or one does not, one has eternal life or one does not. Those who work all day are no more saved than those who come in late.

At the heart of the gospel is God’s inclusive love. No one who accepts that love is excluded from the kingdom – not tax-collectors, not prostitutes, not even sinners. In God’s eyes we are all equal and all equally loved. If God chooses to love, who are we to begrudge that love to others? If God makes no distinction, who are we to compare ourselves favourably with others?

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