My father had a strict rule when my brother and I were children. When we divvied up a piece of cake or other treat, he would say, “one divides while the other chooses.” The regulation, he said, was intended to prevent squabbles about unfairness or uneven division. If the brother who split the portion also were to choose which helping he would take, there would be a natural incentive to divide the ration in an uneven way, given the reality of original sin. The brother who was cheated out of his full portion then would cry foul and a fight inevitably would break out. To keep the peace, one divided while the other chose.
Jesus tells another parable in the gospel reading this Sunday. The workers who started their employment late in the afternoon obviously expected to be paid a small portion of the daily wage, but surprisingly were given the usual rate for the entire day, which in those times was a Roman silver coin called a denarius. When the day laborers who had arrived in the morning and had worked all day saw this, they expected to be paid more. If the latecomers earned a silver coin for one hour of work, they must have thought, shouldn’t they earn twelve silver coins for twelve hours of work? That would be the fair and equal result. Yet, when they also received the normal daily wage, they grumbled against their employer because the portions had been divided unequally and they did not get to choose the portion they would receive. Since they equated inequality with injustice, they complained.
We began a four-week message series two weeks ago called, Get off your high horse, Lone Ranger, and let’s do life together. The series is based on the four destructive and isolating behaviors and attitudes Jesus addresses in the gospel readings over this period, such as making judgments about others, refusing to forgive people, and becoming too self-righteous. The parable of the day laborers is a perfect illustration of the human tendency to become resentful and jealous when we perceive that we have not been treated fairly. The landowner’s response to the complaints of the day laborers essentially was to tell them to get off their high horses. “What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?” he asked. “Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”
As Psalm 37 exclaims, the Lord hears the cry of the poor; he does not hear the cry of the jealous, the bitter, the indignant, and the resentful. The point of the parable is that God opens his hand to those in need, giving generously, even to those who have dallied and waited until the eleventh hour. The Lord gives people what they need, not what they think they deserve or what human wisdom defines as “fair.”
If you, like most of us, have taken umbrage at some perceived offense or inequality against yourself by others, catch yourself falling off your high horse andn forgive. The impact from the drop may be a little painful, but there will be others there to heal you and welcome you back into the community.
Father Roger Gustafson