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.”
These are the last words of Jesus after he told a parable about a landowner who hired people to work in his vineyard at the beginning of the day, at 9:00, at noon, at 3:00 and at 5:00. Then at the end of the day he paid them all the same. The workers who had worked only one hour was paid the same as the workers who were hired in the early morning, and those hired at other times throughout the day were paid the same wages too. This undoubtedly seems unfair that some who worked a full day did not receive more than those who worked fewer hours.
As I read this I thought of a friend who has sever back pain and needed a supportive chair to sit in. She had given her recliner to some college students who were moving into a rental house together and had no furniture. So she then went out to buy a supportive recliner to replace the one she had given away. She purchased one and then was told it would not arrive for a month. She painfully waited and at the end of the time was told it would be another month before it would come.
The next day a friend of hers, who had purchased the contents of a storage rental from an elderly man who was moving out of the community, called her and asked her to come look at a recliner that was part of the storage unit contents. She went and discovered it was exactly like the chair she had ordered. It was in perfectly new condition, with the store tag still on it, and they sold her the chair for less than 80% of what she had paid for the same chair at the furniture store. She was able to cancel the order from the furniture store with a full refund. The chair she received was basically a gift. Did she deserve it? No, no more than anyone else who may have paid a much higher price for it in the garage sale. It was not a matter of what she deserved based on human fairness or human justice. It was God’s grace being poured out on her by another loving Christian.
The idea of God’s justice is always combined with love. And God’s love has no measure. If I jump in the pool at the beginning of the day, I am no wetter than the one who jumped in just before it closes. The lavishness of God’s grace is not doled out based on the time we serve or how much we work in God’s kingdom. Jesus’ parable shows how we often think in our limited human understanding of fairness, but in God’s understanding of justice it is filled with his love and grace. In the final statement that Jesus makes to Peter: “the last shall be first and the first last”, Jesus is showing us that God reverses the world’s way of ordering itself in concepts of love and justice. God’s love for the “least” in the world drives divine action to overturn the world’s way of doing business.
- How do you tend to think of justice, in human or worldly terms or in God’s terms?
- Have you ever received a gift you did not deserve? Have you ever given a gift to someone because of the compassion God has planted in your heart?
- What does this parable say to you about the difference between God’s justice and worldly justice?
Sue is NLS Spiritual Director, since 2019 and is a retired Lutheran Pastor (ELCA). Active in VdC since 1995, she has served two terms on the Board of the Texas VdC Secretariat, and also on the Texas Gulf Coast VdC Board as Spiritual Director since its start-up in 2017.