When my sister got to ride in the front seat twice in a row, or swiped my Halloween candy, or stayed out later than I without punishment, I would go to the Powers that Be — that is, a parent– and lament: “It’s not fair!”
And the response, predictably, repeatedly: Life isn’t fair.
In the face of this “Life isn’t fair” mantra, we often speak of the God of justice. The God who will set all things right. The God who punishes the wicked and restores — even rewards — the righteous.
In the lectionary, we read the end of the Jonah story and the parable of the workers in the vineyard together. What these readings share is this question of justice: reward and punishment; good and evil. The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is to answer Peter’s question of how good deeds will be rewarded — specifically, of how his good deed of having “left everything” to become a disciple of Jesus, will be rewarded.
Perhaps a bit of context is helpful here. Peter is a Jew living in the Roman empire, where shrines to Roman gods could often be found with three words inscribed above them: Do ut des, which translates to something like, “I give in order that you will give.” The concept of an exchange was inherent in the act of a Roman sacrifice. People were accustomed to bargaining with God. Their prayers might begin, “O God, I’ll offer you this sacrifice if you please make me rich and powerful” or “Lord, save me from this situation and I’ll dedicate my life to you,” or perhaps, “I will worship You, God, and in exchange you take all my problems away.”
So when Peter asks how his sacrifices will be rewarded, he is entering into a bargain, rooted in a familiar mindset. Jesus gives Peter a very satisfying answer, a promise of eternal life and image of glory. To which you can see Peter nodding, yes, of course, this is the answer he expects. … But then Jesus says that the same promise stands for all who follow him. I imagine a sour moment for one who had left everything. Surely his sacrifice of family and home, surely his intimate closeness to Jesus must mean something extra is in store for him?
The teacher chooses this moment to tell the parable of the workers in the vineyard, of the landowner who hires more workers throughout the day but pays them equally at the end of the day. The parable ends with provocative questions: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The questions offend us. The parable offends us. It offends our sense of justice, order, and fairness. This is not the way a just God should operate.
There is no good answer to the question, of course. Is the landowner allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him, or are we envious because he is generous? Peter’s options are either to admit his envious heart and lack of compassion, or he says no, the landowner does not get to choose what to do with his belongings — which, of course, means that Peter then forfeits his own right to do what he chooses with his belongings; and such a confession would mean that Peter forfeits his right to feel “better than” for having left everything.
The vineyard owner is allowed to do what he chooses with his wealth, and he claims the right to pay his workers not on the basis of their merits but on the basis of his own compassion. Compassion overrules justice. Compassion, indeed, looks unjust. It is not fair.
Because justice has never been the thing. Even Jonah — after Nineveh repents and turns to God — Jonah laments that God is not a God of justice. The Ninevites do not get what they deserve, but compassion overrules justice. And Jonah laments: I knew you would do this, I knew you were a God of mercy and compassion and that you wouldn’t smite them, and that’s why I ran away from prophesying to them.
The texts confront me. Who are the ones I begrudge, who are the people from whom I withhold generosity?
What would it take for me to stop being like Jonah–a person who would die for his own righteous anger–and become a person who would die to imitate a God of compassion, generosity, and mercy?
Where have I allowed justice to overrule compassion?