Last Man Standing

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Zephaniah 3:1-13, 1 Peter 2:11-25, Matthew 20:1-16


Jesus told a parable about a landowner who hired some men to work in his vineyard. He hired one group in the morning, another group around noon, and a third group late in the afternoon. Each of them agreed to the same payment of one denarius, an average day’s wages. The first group grumbled when they were not paid more than those who had worked only an hour, but the landowner reminded them they had agreed to a sum, and he was free to be generous with his money as he saw fit.

This parable is about how God’s grace is not something earned, but something given freely and equally. There’s a short bit in the middle that might deserve a little more attention than it usually gets. When the landowner asks the late shift why they stood idle all day, they answered “Because no one has hired us.”

There’s no indication they were less worthy of being hired. It seems the landowner himself had passed them over without notice earlier in the day. We don’t know why they were left waiting. The fact that they were demonstrates something we tend to minimize: not everyone is treated the same. It’s tempting to start rationalizing why they might not have been hired – what it was they might have done differently – but why is that? We are attracted to the prospect of getting what we deserve. Random unfairness offends us; it jars us when people who work less hard get more (though we’re less bothered by people who work harder and get less).

We assume idling is laziness, but the truth is many people through no fault of their own are left standing in life’s line while others are invited to skip ahead of them to participate more fully in life’s bounty. This line jumping is not always random; the invitations are extended by other people, and people are not without bias. Throughout history through the present day, ethnicity, gender, ability, and social standing have influenced who gets an invitation, but we’ve always wrapped those biases in a veneer of merit.  Any given individual might be an exception, but the trend holds.

When for decades upon decades bias has consistently left entire communities standing until late in the day, it is not just in a Biblical sense to insist they figure out on their own how to make do with a fraction of what others have had many more generation’s opportunity to earn. When real-world equivalents of the landowner seek to offer them what is just in the long term instead of what we seems fair in the short term, those among us who were hired early in the day (as individuals or as members of a community that’s been making the selections) ought not grumble like we’re the ones who’ve been cheated out of wages.

A full measure of grace is extended to all who show up to accept it. If we are to conform our hearts to Christ’s heart, shouldn’t we learn the first person hired is not more deserving of generosity than the one left to wait?

Comfort: Whether you are first or last in line, God offers the same grace.

Challenge: When you assume someone is lazy or undeserving, challenge your own assumptions. about their life experiences.

Prayer: I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. (Psalm 116:1-2)

Discussion: When has someone made incorrect assumptions about you? What were the consequences? Did you correct them?

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