Archdeacons hold a strange place in the Church of England. Our roles extend to Bishop’s Executive officer, holder of discipline and church law and order, and general dogsbody for all and sundry. When visiting our church schools, I often hold an Any Questions session—and after the inevitable—what is an archdeacon—I reply well, if the Bishop is the shepherd—every shepherd needs a sheepdog to keep the sheep in order. You need to get to know me to decide whether I’m a Labrador puppy or a Rottweiler! The next question is often—how much do you get paid? My reply always disappoints—just enough, I say, just enough so I don’t have to go out and get another job to pay the bills.
We could all tell our own version and experience of this Gospel parable from Matthew. We know people who, in our not so humble opinion, neither earned nor deserved what they got; a job, a promotion, a pay rise, recognition, happiness, success. That we worked longer and tried harder seemed to make no difference. More often than not we view the world, ourselves, and others through the lens of fairness rather than grace, the exact opposite of how God views the world and our lives.
We’ve been taught from an early age that fairness matters. Watch a group of children play and it won’t be long before you hear one say, “That’s not fair!” It’s not just children. Adults want fairness too. Too often, however, fairness rather than love, is the measure by which we act and judge another person or life circumstances.
We like fairness, I think, because it give us some assurance of order, predictability, control, and hierarchy; even if it is a false assurance. Fairness is based on what you deserve, how hard you work, what you achieve, the way in which you behave. We live in and promote a society in which you earn what you get. You deserve the consequences, good or bad, of your actions.
What happens though when divine goodness outdoes human fairness? You get today’s parable. Today’s parable suggests wages and grace stand in opposition to each other. The degree to which this parable strikes us as unfair, is the degree to which our life and world view is wage based. A wage based world view allows little room for grace in our own lives or the lives of others.
Grace is dangerous. It reverses business as usual. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” That’s not how a wage based society works. The world says the last are last and the first are first, because they deserve it. It is what is fair. Our understanding of fairness, however, does not seem to have priority in the kingdom of heaven where grace is the rule not the exception. Grace looks beyond our productivity, our appearance, our dress, our race, sexuality or ethnicity, our accomplishments, our failures. Grace recognises there is more to you and who you are, than what you have done or left undone.
The only precondition of grace is that we show up and open ourselves to receive what God is giving. When we do, we begin to see our lives, the world, and our neighbour differently.
Grace reminds us that we are not nearly as self-sufficient, deserving, or independent as a wage based society would like us to believe. Neither is our worth determined by our productivity or usefulness to another. Grace does not justify or excuse discrimination, unfairness, or oppression. Quite the opposite, it holds before us the truth that each person is more than their behaviour, their looks, their accomplishments, or their failures.
The tragedy of a wage based life is that it blinds us to the presence of grace, the life of God, in our own life. It separates and isolates us from others. Eventually we set up standards and expectations not only for ourselves and others, but for God. That’s what happened to the first hirelings in today’s parable. They saw themselves as different from and more deserving than the later hirelings. They grumbled against the landowner saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”
The truth is they are not that different from each other. Neither group owned the vineyard. Both groups needed a job and both groups were chosen, invited in, by no effort of their own doing. There is, however, something that distinguishes the first hired and the later hired.
The distinction is not what time they showed up to work. The real distinction between the first hired and all the later hired is the terms under which they entered the vineyard. Apparently the landowner is willing to pay more than the usual daily wage. A full day’s wage for less than a full day’s work. “That’s not fair,” we might say. No, it’s not. That is grace.
Why settle for the usual daily wage when God wants to give you “whatever is right” for your life, your needs, your salvation? “Whatever is right” will always be more than fair, more than we could ever ask or imagine. Yet we sometimes trust a wage based life more than we trust grace. In so doing we deny ourselves and others the life God wants to give. So how might we begin to move from a wage based life to the vineyard of grace?
Stop comparing yourself and your life to others and you will create room for grace to emerge. Refuse to compete in such a way that someone must lose for you to win. Trust that in God’s world there is enough for everyone. Let go of expectations based on what you think you or others deserve. Give God the freedom to pay whatever is right knowing that God’s ways are not your ways. Make no judgments of yourself or others. That is the way of grace, the way of God.
Imagine if we all let go of these things; comparison, competition, expectation, and judgment. Your life would be God-filled, you would make space for the life of another to be God-filled, and the world would, the parable tells us, look a lot like the kingdom of heaven, where even an Archdeacon might be saved.