A meditation on Matthew 20:1-16
for the community of St. David of Wales, Shelton WA, September 24, 2023
“It’s not fair!” The words rang from my mouth as a child whenever the gifts or desserts or treatment my sister and I were given seemed unequal. And that concept of fairness, the compulsion to split everything equally, and the grumbling of “it’s not fair” continued with my own two daughters coming to a head in the infamous cookie incident. When my girls were school-aged, I’d make a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies every few weeks. I’d time the baking to finish just before picking them up at the bus stop, and consuming our cookie was a delicious, and fair treat on that first day: We each received two cookies on our little plates as an after-school snack, and two more for dessert.
The trouble would begin the next day when I was home alone doing chores, walking past the kitchen every hour or so and popping a cookie in my mouth with each pass. By the time my girls arrived home from school on day two, there would be one or two snack cookies, and another one after dinner, if they were lucky. It all came to a head when the oldest was in Junior High and my girls came home to a house devoid of cookies. In less than 24 hours I had consumed nearly the entire batch.
“It’s not fair,” they cried, and they were right.
Next time I baked cookies, I divided them equally into bags and labeled them by name. Of course, I devoured my bag before the rest of my family. And soon I was tempted by cookies that clearly belonged to my loved ones. I wasn’t going to steal them. But I wasn’t above begging. Would they like to give one to their mother, who had baked them? No, they would not.
Well, then, Would they sell me a cookie? For a quarter? For a dollar? No, they would not. They wanted what was theirs, what they had been promised. They wanted what was fair.
My daughters, like me, like the workers in today’s parable who’ve been laboring in the fields all day, want what is fair, what has been promised to us, what is ours. And my daughters, like me, like the workers in Jesus’ parable, are steeped in a mindset of scarcity. We think and act as if more for someone else means less for us. And in that anxiety about not having enough, we often want more than we need, and we can find ourselves pursuing, even hoarding, more than “our fair share,” so that we’re prepared for the inevitable future lack.
But is the future always one with limited resources? Will it always leave us unsatisfied and wanting? Back when I was baking cookies, decades before the global pandemic, and very real supply-chain shortages, I most likely had all the ingredients to bake a second batch of cookies. And if I didn’t have everything on hand, I lived less than a mile from a grocery store, and I had the means to buy what was missing. Aside from nutritional concerns, there was no reason I couldn’t have baked enough cookies for my family and I to eat to our heart’s content.
The scarcity I was operating under was one of my own creation, but I didn’t create it in a vacuum. My beliefs, even about something as insignificant as cookies, were and are shaped and molded by a broader economy and culture that has both reinforced and reflected human behavior for centuries.
The parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel comes shortly after he told the rich young ruler to give up all his possessions to follow, and his reward would be great in heave. But the ruler returned home, unable to give up so much. That encounter seemed to spur jockeying by the disciples over who is going to be first in this kingdom of heaven they’re helping to usher in. Soon in fact, James and John will send their mother to Jesus to plead for special privileges on their behalf. After all, they have given up everything to follow Jesus from the earliest days of his ministry, and they want to be rewarded somehow, with something tangible, like better seats at the table. Don’t they deserve that? Haven’t they’ve earned it?
Before I divided the cookies equally, I justified my gobbling with the same sort of thinking: I was the one who bought and mixed the ingredients and scooped the dough onto the cookie sheets and set the oven timer and cooled the pans. Didn’t I deserve more?
I’m sure Jesus’ disciples hearing the story of vineyard laborers identified with those first workers chosen, and I find myself right alongside them. As the oldest responsible and capable child, as a mother, household organizer and planner, as a person who makes lists of tasks just to cross them off when completed, I find myself grumbling and complaining, just like those weary ones who put in the longest hours, when I don't receive the full measure of what I think I’m due in terms of money, respect, praise, or even cookies.
But Jesus makes it very clear in his story that absolutely everyone is being provided with enough. The last become first, and that annoys the first, but the first don’t become last in the sense of being forgotten or dismissed or sent away with too little or sent away empty handed.
God’s economy, Jesus tells us, is nothing like our human transactions. God’s economy operates from abundance, by seeking everyone out, by bringing into the realm not just those who are usually chosen, but all who want to participate. God’s economy offers everyone enough to meet their needs and desires. God’s economy is steeped in grace. Grace freely given without regard to our efforts, or our effectiveness, or our affiliations, or our length of service. And unlike my cookies, grace doesn’t come in portioned bags that can be bought or coerced or stolen and consumed by others.
When we say yes to a relationship with God, Jesus tells his disciples and us, the grace we receive provides all that we need. And he goes on to say there are no limits on who or how many can come into relationship and receive. The invitation is offered again and again. The reaction of the early workers in his parable illustrates how difficult it us for us to understand and embrace God’s radical fairness and hospitality, especially when we identify with the early workers.
But what if we see ourselves differently in the story? What if we are the ones chosen at the last minute, the ones who have almost given up hope of working, the ones preparing to return home in shame and distress, unable to feed our families? Wouldn’t we be thankful for even an hour of work and an hour’s wages? Wouldn’t we then be overwhelmed with gratitude and rejoicing to receive the unexpected full wage that is enough to sustain us and those we love for another day?
It wasn’t until after Jesus’ death that the disciples finally understood what he’d tried to tell them about the expansiveness and inclusiveness of the realm they could not see. Which means there’s hope for us to reframe our thoughts about scarcity and fairness as global societies, local communities, and individuals. There’s hope for our churches to truly act as places of radical welcome and spiritual generosity, sharing our gifts with one another, trusting in the abundance of grace we have received to flow through us and out into a world hungry for hope.
I baked cookies for you today. May they be a token of that intention. May they be food for thought.
photo by Whitney Wright on Unsplash
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.