|It’s a scene that plays out on baseball diamonds, basketball courts, and in backyards|
all over the world,
in as many languages as the people of the world have invented,
wherever kids get together and play.
You have two captains, one for each team (sometimes there is even the formality of a coin toss) and these captains take turns choosing people to play on their team, in a pure, true meritocracy.
Who is selected first?
The best, the most skilled, the strongest, the biggest, the boldest,
and the most gifted are picked first – until the teams are filled –
-and the rest, those who are unpicked and unchosen, the ones who don’t make the cut, and who are overlooked,
end up stranded with nothing to do but watch.
Jesus’ story is one about a landowner who comes to choose players for his team.
And as much as a baseball player wants to get dirt and grass stains on his or her uniform, the urgency for the day laborer to get in the games was even greater…
Because without the security of a ‘job’ with a contract as we might think about it… Every day was the same:
their hunger and worry about their family’s hunger (if they had one)
would rouse them from sleep well before the sun came up and carry them to the gathering spot where day laborers would enter a pool
hoping a team captain would call their name and pick them, so they could get in the game.
But the “game” for them was grueling manual labor, done in the scorching heat of the day,
because the economy ran on the backs of those working poor, who were used, abused, paid little, chewed up and spit out.
These day laborers had no hopes of a savings account, a pension, or social security.
They were just looking to make enough money to feed their families for the day. There were no assurances beyond that.
So, there they are. Standing together. Their lives on the line. All pleading inside: pick me!
When a landowner comes to the day laborers pool
and picks several workers to begin the day in the field.
Those who aren’t picked are disappointed,
They’re just sitting on the bench
but there’s something unusual about the landowner in Jesus’ story because after the initial round,
a few hours later,
he comes back to the lot where the unchosen workers are still hanging out and
picks up a few more people,
telling them that he will pay them whatever is right –
they don’t know how much, but they are in no position to argue or question because they need work.
And this landowner reveals himself to be even more peculiar than first imagined because
all throughout the day
he keeps coming back:
at noon and
then at three
and he asks them: why they aren’t you working?
And they say, we just weren’t hired. No one picked us.
Maybe they are scrawny, maybe they’re older, weaker, maybe they have a disability, maybe they have a murky past,
but this landowner hires them and sends them into the field saying that he will pay them whatever is right.
And then, at FIVE o’clock, with one hour in the work day left,
the landowner hires even more workers who have stood idle
for the last eleven hours
and EVEN sends them into the field.
Just an hour later, with the last-to-be-chosen probably having barely broken a sweat,
the landowner comes with his manager to pay everyone for the day’s work, and…
The manager lines everyone up
and begins by paying those who were picked last,
and to everyone’s surprise, he gives them pay for a full day’s work.
A full denarius! which was the daily minimum wage and what a family would need to buy food for the day.
And here’s the interesting thing: no one bats an eye. No reaction at all, from anyone, that we know of.
Of course, the workers who went into the field at 5 o’clock are probably overjoyed,
but those who have worked all day don’t complain, because they are imagining that based on what’s fair and just and right, they will get more.
But they are ALSO given a denarius — the EXACT same amount!
And they grumble and they complain.
For them, this is now beyond peculiar!
This is an outrage!
This is unfair!
This is an offense!
After all – they are the best! The first picked! They are the most skilled! Look how much work they did!
Surely, they should be rewarded with more than those who came last, who were left on the sideline, who hardly did anything at all!
But it is the landowner’s prerogative to be generous to the last-picked and within his power to make them equal to the first-picked.
But notice this: the landowner goes out. of. His. Way. really, to cause a stir.
He could have paid the first-chosen, all-day workers first… and sent them on their way and they never would’ve even known that all the workers were paid the same
but the landowner clearly wants to make a point of his generosity to the first-to-be-chosen.
The landowner wants the first-chosen to see that the last-chosen are receiving the generous gift of a denarius
and the means to get plenty of food for their family’s dinner table too.
The landowner and the storyteller who imagined him mean to overturn our sense of justice and fairness.
Jesus is telling us that God includes those whom the world overlooks,
AND not only does God include those whom the world overlooks, but God intends for us to do the same:
For us to learn to see those who are overlooked, and to see value in those to whom the world assigns no value
Some people jump to say that this story isn’t fair
and doesn’t illustrate how life REALLY works.
And people who would say this are 100% correct.
This isn’t how things really work –
because our sin guides us in choosing teams and sides
where we leave some people out because they are
black or brown
or poor or disabled
or gay or from a different country or culture or region or religion.
This isn’t the way life really is –
because the media and Hollywood and sports industry
elevate those who are physically talented and beautiful
as the ones to be heaped with attention and
praise as super-human.
This isn’t what life really looks like –
because under the power of the empires of this world
the value of a person is dictated to be equal to their intellect,
family lineage, earning power, or pedigree.
This isn’t the way things really are –
because schools, colleges, universities, and companies
are meritocracies that celebrate standard achievement
and overlook those who test poorly,
aren’t supported, don’t speak the language, or can’t pass the test.
This story Jesus tells us does NOT illustrate fairness
as the temporal,
every-person-for-themselves (or) every -community-for-itself
world we live in defines it.
This is a story about the Kingdom of God
that illustrates God’s values
and God’s sense of fairness and justice, and means to
break open our stone hearts and inspire them to beat with God’s burning desire.
God is always coming back to the pool of those overlooked to include more of us,
God is always choosing those who the world leaves out,
God is always making room for those who lack the privilege we may sometimes take for granted,
God is always providing hope for those who live day to day without reassurances,
God is always identifying with the last and the least and the lonely and the left out and
choosing them for his team.
Jesus’ intention is to train us to see that God’s love for us is unconditional,
and train us to see God’s love is also unconditional for others…
And especially for people unlike us.
And especially people we don’t think deserve it.
God’s love is given to each of us equally,
regardless of how good we are at hitting a baseball,
how successful we are in our work,
how faithful we are to the promises in our life,
how long we’ve been sober or even if we’re not,
how educated we are,
how hard we work,
how much we go to church (or watch church on our phone),
whether or not we need medication to help us function.
Regardless of our past.
Regardless of our present.
God loves us a free gift.
And we call this grace.
The heart of God… is love for us …no matter what.
Grace is such an easy word to use.
After bedtime prayers one night last week, as I was getting ready to leave the room, our son Samuel asked
, “Dad. What’s ‘grace’?” I must have used the word in the prayer.
I thought about that for a second.
I said, “Well, it’s when you get something good that you don’t deserve.
So like, let’s say you don’t clean up your room like we ask (a timely example if I ever heard one),
and we tell you that if you don’t clean up you can’t have any ice cream,
but let’s say we’re all having ice cream and we give you some anyway. That’s grace.”
He was real quiet for a minute and then he said, with a deep frown on the forehead,
“So you…tell me to clean up… and…
you say that I can only have ice cream… if I do…
but I don’t…
and then you’re having ice cream… and you give me some??? …..”
I said, “Yeah”
“Dad!” He said, “It’s that last part I don’t understand.”
And none of us understand God’s grace.
But God picks us for the team, not because of our prowess but because of God’s prodigal love.
Not because of our skill but because of God’s kindness
Not because of our resume but because of God’s grace.
God’s love for us comes to us,
not because we are so good, but because God is so good.
AND God’s grace comes to other people not because they are so good –
which we’re often sure of –
but because God is so good to them, too,
no matter what we might hold against them.
The story of Jonah – the other Galilean prophet in today’s texts –
is perfectly paired with Jesus story
to show the hardness of heart we have towards other people
being the recipient of God’s graciousness.
When God sent him to Ninevah to preach God’s kingdom,
he ran the other way to Tarshish – to the West instead of East.
And when his boat sank and the fish swallowed him
and he found himself in despair and cried out to God,
and the fish spit him out on land and God called him again to go to Ninevah
and he did and he preached the shortest and worst sermon
in the history of preaching,
saying nothing more than: “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown!”
and the people of Ninevah all repented…
and from the day laborers all the way up to the king,
everyone dressed in sackcloth and ash and asked for God’s mercy…
and God spared them, Jonah finally comes clean: Saying, “
the reason I ran in the first place
is that I know you are gracious and merciful slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love
and ready to relent from punishing!”
Jonah ran because he knew God was gracious
and would extend his care to people Jonah detested!
We can run from God’s grace but we can’t escape it.
God’s grace is coming to you and to me always, choosing us.
Not leaving us on the sidelines but giving us a place.
The scene plays out in homes,
church buildings, on lawns where we gather, physically distanced,
over zoom Bible study, as we drop off food for the food pantry,
gather around the kitchen table to do Sunday school to-go,
as we pray for one another, share a conversation, open our hearts to one another… God has chosen us.
And we have a captain who is good and trustworthy –
Who is making the line up to include you
Who is working in the Spirit to give his gracious love,
Who is coming to us and choosing us to be on God’s team,
And who is inviting us to see each other as teammates,
called to the one and same mission,
standing firm in one spirit,
striving side by side for the gospel.
God is calling our name.