When I graduated from high school, there were lots of different parties at different people’s places. But there was only one party that every single member of my class went to – including me. And that was the graduation party at the house of this girl named Ashley. Ashley had pretty severe cerebral palsy; her speech was impaired and she walked with crutches, and developmentally, I think she stayed around more or less the third grade level. But Ashley stayed in our class all through middle school and high school as we all grew up together. She was one of us – and so of course we went to her party.
After gorging ourselves on pizza, we started playing a game of kickball out in the back yard. Ashley played too. And I remember, every time Ashley came up to bat, the pitcher would gently roll the ball toward her, and when she managed to connect with it and kick it somewhere into the infield, whoever was closest to the ball would just take their time and leisurely stroll to go get it. Then they would pick it up, rear back, and chuck it as hard as they possibly could out into the outfield. The outfielders would go scrambling after the ball, while Ashley made her way to first base and ran on toward second, laughing her head off the whole time. Then they’d throw the ball again toward second base and overshoot it by a mile, while Ashley just kept running and laughing. We kept up like this all the way until Ashley made it back to home base and practically collapsed into a puddle of giggles. We all cheered for her like crazy the whole time. It was such a lovely afternoon together.
We didn’t care all that much about the rules of the game – nobody was playing to win. For us it was more important to make sure that everyone – especially Ashley – was included, and that we all just had a good time together.
I hadn’t thought about that game of kickball in years. But for some reason, it kept coming to my mind as I was reading through our texts for this week – especially our gospel reading.
In my experience, this is one of Jesus’ parables that has a tendency to make people really angry. And I think that’s because a lot of us tend to identify with the first group of laborers – those hard workers who started working at the crack of dawn and worked all day. And just like them, it offends our sense of fairness that the people who only worked for an hour got paid the same amount as the people who worked all day.
At the end of the day, the landowner calls in all the laborers to receive their wages, starting with the group of laborers who came in last. The early group watches the landowner pay out a full day’s wage to each of the later workers – and they start to feel this sense of entitlement that they deserve more than the daily wage that they had agreed on. But when it finally comes to be their turn to get paid, they receive the exact same amount as the other workers – the amount of the full daily wage – and they are furious.
They start complaining to the landowner that it isn’t fair that they didn’t get more than the other workers. But the landowner quickly shuts them down by making it clear that this is not about them at all. It’s his money and his vineyard and he can choose to do with these things whatever he wants. He certainly hasn’t done them any wrong – he paid them the full amount that they had agreed upon. The fact that he also chooses to be generous with the workers who came after them doesn’t mean that they received any less. But they’re still mad.
What we’re seeing play out in this story is essentially a clash between the way that God thinks about justice and the way that humans think about justice. From context, it seems pretty clear that the landowner in Jesus’ parable is meant to represent God. And we see that what matters most to this heavenly landowner isn’t making sure he gives to every laborer what they have earned – which is what seems most fair to us. Instead, the landowner gives each laborer what they need: he gives them the full daily wage so that they may buy their daily bread and have enough to live on.
What all of this boils down to is really a question about priorities. Is it more important to follow the rule of law about what is “fair” – or – is it more important to make sure that our neighbor is being taken care of? When my classmates and I were playing our kickball game, our priorities were pretty clear. If we had stuck to the rules and insisted on treating everyone exactly fairly, then Ashley would have barely been able to even play the game, let alone be hitting home runs. But we loved Ashley, and we cared more about making sure she could have fun with us and play with us than we did about the fact that her team would inevitably score more points than they “deserved.”
Likewise the landowner – AKA God – cares more about the workers themselves, about the people and what they need. He cares that their needs are met. And so he gives them what he knows they need, not just what the rules say they deserve. As Lutherans, we might recognize this as grace.
And because the landowner sees these workers as actual people, he also gives thought as to why they are in this situation in the first place. When the landowner goes into the square at 5:00, he sees the workers who are still left standing there – and instead of judging them, he asks them: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” And we find out that it’s not actually that they are lazy or unmotivated, as we might assume – it’s because no one has hired them. They have put themselves out there, looking for work, but no one has chosen them. We don’t know the reason why. Maybe they didn’t get chosen because they didn’t look strong enough or seem smart enough. Maybe they didn’t get chosen because their skin was a certain color or because they were the “wrong” gender or ethnicity. Whatever the reason might have been, they still had the exact same need as every other worker to provide for themselves and for their families.
The landowner has compassion for them, especially because the other people hiring clearly did not. In this way, this story kind of resonates with the story of Jonah from our first reading. Jonah is somehow angry when the people of Ninevah actually repent of their evil ways – like he told them to – and God decides to show mercy and not wipe them out. (I guess Jonah just had his heart set on some good old-fashioned smiting.) God chastises Jonah for his lack of compassion, and says to him: “How can you just not care about Ninevah?? There are over 120,000 people down there in that city. You may not care if they live or die, but I do!”
It’s easy for us to look down on Jonah’s callous attitude toward the people of Ninevah. But the truth is that this is something that we humans struggle with a lot more than we’d like to admit. If we think that someone is clearly in the wrong – like the people of Ninevah – we all too often take it as an excuse not to care about what happens to them. For instance, maybe we sometimes look at the people who come for assistance at the food pantry or the mobile food bank and think, “Why are we giving these people so much food??” Or maybe we see those who receive disability assistance or welfare and think to ourselves, “Well, that person doesn’t really deserve all that.”
And it’s not just individual people who act this way; we also do this on a systemic level as a society. We collectively choose to stop caring about people who are in prison because they broke the law – so who cares what conditions are like in our prisons? I have seen firsthand the terrible way that this nation treats undocumented immigrants – and horrifying reports have been coming out just this week about mass outbreaks of Covid-19 in detention centers and of migrant women being forced to have hysterectomies against their will. This is horrible and dehumanizing in the extreme.
We may disagree about people’s right to migrate or about what constitutes a just law. But as Christians, we must agree that all these people are God’s beloved children, no matter what they’ve done or where they’ve come from. And all of them deserve our care. And like the laborers in the square, all of them deserve to have their basic needs met.
God cares deeply about all of these people – just as God cares deeply about each one of us. The law does matter to God. But as Lutherans who believe in grace, we know that God is first and foremost a God of love. God loves all humanity – and God keeps on loving us no matter what we’ve done.
God’s priority is always love. As disciples called to imitate Christ, that means that we also need to make love our first priority. We are called to let ourselves be guided first by love for our neighbor rather than by what feels “fair.” We are called to make space for the Ashleys of this world. We are called to make sure – in the kickball game of life – that everyone gets the chance to play.