The gospel lectionary reading today on the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, found in Matthew 20: 1-16, reminded me of one of the biggest challenges facing the Christian church in the United States today. It is increasingly becoming a utilitarian meritocracy, a system of beliefs that rewards you for certain laws, cultural norms, and doctrines that one observes and does well. It is a system that advances one’s worth based on their talents and achievements. While this system is operative in the secular and corporate world, it is not the case in the church and the community of faith that is founded on the core claim of God’s unmerited grace. To make the challenges Christianity is facing in this disenchanted society, the most dominant expression of American Christianity, the “Evangelicals”, is now an undisguised extension of a partisan political ideology.
This has made the church’s teaching shallow in an already secularized, and materialistic social reality. As it becomes shallow, the church’s voice about the transcendent presence and goodness of God in our culture has become muted. American Christianity is increasingly losing its skill in engaging the culture around it in such a way that makes Christianity not only intellectually compelling, but also inviting and satisfying to the journeys of both the seeker and the unfound. Multiple studies now abound that have reported an alarming percentage of an entire generation, the Millennials, leaving the church as they continue to feel that the faith is no longer relevant to their life. And since we are formed by the amalgamation of our historical and personal experiences, the church needs to contemplate the future with clear eyes how these who have decided to leave the church will, in turn, form and shape their own children.
Encoded deep in the very being of every person is the longing to find ultimate meaning and purpose in life here on earth. And when the church continues to become an insular body, an echo chamber, a factory that reproduces and rewards only it own kind, then it continues to drift away from the very culture it seeks to transform. As it loses its distinctiveness as interlocutors and proclaimers of a compelling new vision of life and meaning, it also descends into irrelevance.
The teaching of Jesus in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard reminds us that God’s unconditional love is available to everyone. It is not given because of merits that we earn. In the parable, the Master of the House goes out early in the morning to hire laborers for a denarius for a day’s work. They agreed, and he gets them to start work on the vineyard right away. After that he continued to hire laborers 4 more times as the day wore on, during 4 different hours of the day. And so those who were hired later understandably started work also later than those who were hired earlier. When evening came, the Master of the House asked his foreman to call on all the laborers so that he could pay them their day’s wages. The landowner paid everybody the same. Then the laborers who were hired by the landowner earlier in the day complained to the landowner for asking those who were hired later “equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
The point of the parable is then revealed in the response of the landowner: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or, do you begrudge my generosity?”
God is not in the meritocracy business. The extravagance of God’s love, generosity, and grace is radical. God’s invitation to us is not time or materially bound. God never sleeps, and always awaits our response. It doesn’t matter what time of day you come – whether it’s early in the morning, at noon, or at night – those who come receive an equal measure of grace. And God’s RSVP never has an expiration date.