Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
A number of years ago, I took a group of teenagers to Plainfield United Methodist Church to volunteer with a ministry they ran that provided food to homeless communities in downtown Indianapolis. I ended up doing this a number of times over a year long period, and it really opened up my eyes to how complex of an issue homelessness is. Getting off the streets is hard because often it requires steady employment, but obtaining steady employment often requires having a place to live. The issue is for further muddied because some people are homeless because of bad luck and circumstances outside their control, while others are homeless because of bad choices they have made. It really is a complicated issue, which officials have struggled with for decades. Starting in 2005 Utah began a ten year program that found a novel way to address the problem of homelessness. They gave the people without homes somewhere to live. This was a “housing first” initiative, so there were very little strings attached. Proof of employment was not needed nor was an illicit drug screening. The idea was to address the issue of homelessness first, and then work from there to address other issues. This was a novel approach and it worked. By 2015 the program had reduced homelessness in Utah by over 90%. The vast majority of the people provided with housing were able to build from there and stay off the streets. It was also found that this approach was paradoxically cheaper. An analysis found that on average a chronically unhoused person cost Salt Lake City $22,000 using traditional means of social services, but providing housing first was a cost of $8,000 per year. Since 2015, similar programs in other states like Colorado and in Canada have shown similar results.
Homelessness is a complex issue, and there is not a one-sized fits all magic bullet to solve it. However, a growing amount of data is showing that a housing first solution is one that has a lot of merit, both in its ability to permanently get people off the streets and in its cost effectiveness. Despite the initial success of these initiatives there has been resistance to widespread adoption, and I get it. Even though housing first programs have had success it can really rub us all the wrong way. I get the knee-jerk reaction to think it is unfair and that it is giving people something for nothing. It is kind of like if one person worked all day and another person worked just an hour, and they got paid the same amount.
Much like a housing first initiative, this morning’s parable can really challenge our notion of fairness. I am not an urban housing expert, so I am not qualified to weigh in on the long term good of housing first initiatives. However, I do think like this morning’s scripture they illustrate that a grace-first approach can make a real difference in the world.
I mentioned before that when Jesus told parables he always included details that would have really struck the people hearing the stories as highly unusual. This morning’s parable has several extremely unusual details. It begins with a landowner coming to hire workers. Hiring day laborers to work the fields was not unusual in this era. The landowner comes back for workers multiple times showing he must have quite the vast vineyard, so what is unusual is that the landowner would come themselves repeatedly instead of sending an underling. The next odd detail is not only did the land owner keep coming back, but he kept finding people to hire. This especially would have struck the original hearers as odd, why would a day laborer hoping to get hired still be waiting around at 5:00PM to get started?
The next odd details come at the end. Verse 8 specifically states that the landowner begins paying the workers with the ones hired last and ended with the ones hired first. This is an odd details to call specific attention to, and then the final oddity comes that all were paid the same. Those who put in a twelve hour day got the same payment as those who worked for an hour. Just like it does today, this detail would have immediately stuck the original hearers as unfair.
Often these odd details that stick out in the stories Jesus told are the clues to the stories deeper meaning. The parable begins with the “kingdom of heaven is like”, so this very quickly associates the landowner with God. Unlike the cultural standard of the time, the landowner is hands on with the workers. He goes to hire and find them himself. This communicates that our God is not a distant God. That our God is a God who is hands on and who is involved in the world.
The next detail that sticks out are the workers sticking around late into the day hoping for some kind of work. For these people to still be there with only an hour left in the working day, they must have been desperate for the chance to earn anything no matter how small or meager. As the day goes on the people left to hire would have been the latecomers, the stragglers, the ones who either had a lot of difficulties or were routinely overlooked. With only an hour left of work to do, we get the sense that the landowner hired this last lot not because he needed the extra workers but because he wanted them. The fact that those who started working last got paid first, reiterates this. Jesus actually tells us in verse 16 that this parable shows that the last will be first and the first will be last. This reinforces a point throughout scripture that God has special care for those most in need. It communicates the wealth and standing of this world is not going to mean a whole lot in the kingdom of heaven.
This gets to the final oddity, the one that might annoy us the most, and the fact that everyone gets paid the same. This goes so against the ethos we are brought up in. Yet, the parable itself makes the point that those working a full day and getting paid what they agreed to is not unfair. This story illustrates that God’s love, grace is more than fair. Good deeds and faithful living do not earn us more heavenly perks. Our salvation is not based on paying our dues, it is based on the deep and abiding love of God. This is a love that is intensely for us whether we have known it from the beginning or come to it in the final hour. One of the things that this parable illustrates is that our concept of fairness does not quite apply in the kingdom of heaven. Fair is the first should go first and the last should go last, but Jesus says “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The kingdom of heaven it seems is not based on merit and fairness, it is based on grace. And thank God it is. None of us could work or earn our way to heaven. We all fall short. By our own merit we would find ourselves without a home in God’s kingdom, but out of boundless love Jesus has gone before us to prepare a place for us. Even though we did not rightfully earn it, we are forgiven, we are reconciled with our creator, and we have a place in God’s kingdom that has been graciously given to us. For those who claim salvation and eternal life in Christ Jesus, we can claim that because the kingdom of heaven is one that uses a grace-first approach.
This morning’s scripture is a story Jesus told that wonderfully illustrates the grace first approach God takes and that is found in the kingdom of heaven. As those who have received God’s amazing grace and benefit immensely from a grace first approach, I wonder how we could also apply a grace-first initiative to the world around us, because as I look around the world we live in it seems that grace is in short supply. Instead of grace I see a lot of cruel indifference disguised as tough love. I think for me one of the items I have seen that best illustrates this is a viral post that I have seen continually make the rounds for a few years now. It claims to originate as a set of classroom rules and has eleven items written in black and red sharpie under the heading “Reality check”. This reality check includes items like “life is not fair”; “Respect is earned, it is not just given”; “The world owes you Nothing. Work for it.”
I understand the idea behind this reality check is to combat a perceived sense of entitlement, but overall it paints the world as a cruel, harsh, and unforgiving place. I also understand there is some truth to it all as well. Many of us can point to experiences that shows life is not fair, we have encountered people who refuse to treat us with respect unless we meet their exacting standards, and we feel that we have had to work and claw for every minor gain we have ever had. It may even be a true reality check in that this world is broken, lost to selfishness, and over run by grim darkness. But we do not have to accept that as just the way it is. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can do better. We ca be better. Because we know this broken world is not the final word. We know that light breaks through the darkness. Friends, I peaked at the last chapter of the book and I know how it all ends. Spoiler alert: Love and goodness wins over fear and evil. This morning’s parable reminds us that the kingdom of heaven is not fair. It is more than fair. It is a place where love is given, not earned. And even though we may not be owed anything, it is a place that starts with grace first.
This morning’s scripture gives up a glimpse as to what the kingdom of heaven is like. It also points us in the right direction if we want to join God in realizing the kingdom of heaven on earth. To make our world more like God’s kingdom we should also have a grace first initiative. We can do this in our own lives, and we do it by showing more grace than the world around us. If the reality check is that life is not fair, then the way we should treat people should be more than fair. More than that, let’s go a step further. If we know someone is being treated unfairly, instead of just saying well life isn’t fair, we should advocate for and work on their behalf to correct that unfairness. Instead of telling people we will not respect them until they somehow earn it, we should instead recognize, value, and celebrate that everyone has sacred worth because they have been lovingly created by God. Instead of washing our hands and saying we don’t owe nothing to anyone, we should instead see the needs and meet the needs around us.
We cannot right every wrong, but we can treat the people we interact with using a grace first approach. When we do, we make a very real difference. It is an old, almost cliché story at this point but it is one of my personal favorites. Along a coastline a strong storm blew in and greatly churned waters. The next morning the beaches were littered with a whole hosts of sea creatures that the waves had stranded on the sand. Several people came out to gawk and see the spectacle of the debris. They were surprised to notice one young boy walking the beach, finding star fish and throwing them back into the ocean. One man went down and asked this boy what he was doing, he simply replied, “Saving star fish.” The man, not really satisfied with that answer asked, “Why?” The boy, not quite sure what the man was not understanding replied, “Because they need saving.” Perhaps this man was just having a bad day, but he did not find this boy’s naive outlook very endearing. He bluntly stated, “Why bother? Look how many have washed up on this beach there is no way one little boy can save all of them. Even if you do, they are just starfish. What does it matter?” The young boy reached down, grabbed a washed up star fish, through it back in the sea and replied, “It matters to that one.”
God has treated every single one of us more than fair. So may we in turn treat others the same. Yes, this world is not fair but let’s buck the trend. May we reject that reality check and instead fight for a better one, one where grace comes first. May our thoughts, may our words, and most of all may our actions be one that displays a grace first initiative, because that is the single best way we can let others know about God’s amazing grace.