Pentecost 15 A: Love or Justice?

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Given the choice, which would you choose, love or justice?

I know this is a hard choice, as both are really important. So if you’re anything like me, you understandably want both. And yet every once in while, we are forced to make a choice. And that can feel really, really hard. I think that’s part of what is going on in this quite remarkable parable. You know the contours of this story as well as I do, but lets tarry for a few moments at the climatic moments of the story.

Let’s first put ourselves in the place of the workers who were chosen last. Likely they had all but given up hope for work that day and would soon make the long and disappointing trek home. These aren’t folks who are trying to make a little extra pocket cash, after all. They are laborers who can expect to earn from their work no more than a daily wage – just enough, that is, to support them and their families for one more day. What we now call food insecurity is their norm, and so it’s easy to imagine their excitement when they finally get an invitation to work – they won’t earn a full day’s wage, but enough perhaps to scrape by. That excitement only multiplies when the manager unexpectedly and inexplicably pays them for a full day! I suspect that equal measures of relief, joy, and gratitude suddenly coursed through their veins as each received their payment.

Now, let’s put ourselves in the place of those who had been called to work at the beginning of the day. Grateful for employment, they had labored all day, doing that work on this day as they had so on so many others not because they derive any particular pleasure from their labor simply because they have to put food on the table (an experience, by the way, that is not limited to folks in the first century). At the end of their shift, they line up, as they do every day, to receive their wage. And when word travels down the line that those hired at the end of the day received a full day’s wage, their own moment of wonder turns quickly to anticipation as they calculate what that might mean for them. It’s a reasonable expectation, don’t you think, that if people who had worked only one hour received a full day’s wage, then those who worked all day would receive much more? But all that anticipation turns to dust in their mouths when the manager gives them the same payment: a day’s wage. This must seem to them so utterly unfair – they have, after all, worked literally ten times longer than those other workers. And so resentment, rather than gratitude, now grabs hold of them. And sensing this, the owner of the vineyard protests that he actually has treated them fairly, paying exactly what was contracted, and wonders why they begrudge his generosity to others.

It’s all too easy, I think, for us to dismiss these laborers as ungrateful or selfish or, to borrow a biblical phrase, hard of heart. But come on – their reaction is almost exactly what most of us would have felt had we been in their shoes. Because what happens to them simply does not add up and so doesn’t seem fair. Never mind it’s what was contracted – if those who worked an hour received a day’s wage, then those who worked so much longer deserve more.

So I’ll ask again: if forced to choose, which would you take, love or justice?

I know this parable is at one level about generosity, but I think that every act of generosity is also and simultaneously an act of love. Which brings the occasional clash of these two values to the fore. These workers want justice. And who can blame them. They feel cheated because they calculated their wages in accord with what the manger paid the latecomers. And that’s what justice does: it counts and measures and calculates because justice is a matter of the law and seeks to ensure that all people receive equal treatment, equal opportunity, and equal standing. Which is why justice is so important to us.

But the manager responds that he has acted not with justice in mind but rather with love expressed through generosity. And when these two – justice and love – clash, it can get ugly. Because where justice counts, love loses track. Where justice calculates, love lets go. Where justice holds all things in the balance, love and generosity give everything away, upsetting the balances we have so carefully arranged.

Love, however, is not the opposite of justice – far from it! Nor does love countenance or encourage injustice. Rather, love passes beyond the realm of justice and law into the realm of relationship. Think about it for a minute: what would it be like to govern your relationships primarily by the law of justice, counting up every slight or injury done you by your partner so that could do the same to him/her? Keeping track of every time your child or parent disappoints you so you can hand them the tally at the end of the day? Logging every hurt you experience at the hands of those around you so that you can remember, keeping a record of your grievances and waiting for reparations?

Can you imagine living your life this way? I think it would be hell on earth. For as we observed last week, while the justice makes room for relationships, it’s love, generosity, and forgiveness that enable relationships to flourish.

And here’s the thing about this hypothetical choice between love and justice, Dear Partner: it turns out that it’s not hypothetical after all, as we actually make this choice every day. When, for instance, we forget all the times a colleague has been helpful and obsess about a perceived slight. Or when we overlook all those who drive their cars quite reasonably but instead get driven to distraction by the one guy who cuts us off. Or when we overlook the thousand kindnesses a partner or friend has performed on our behalf but nurse a grudge about the one thing they did to hurt our feelings. At each of these turns, we can choose: will we call for justice, or will we live out of generosity and love.

Put this way, of course we want to live out of love. But, truth be told, that’s hard, damn hard, as we seem almost hardwired to count our hurts and disappointments rather than our blessings. I don’t know why that is – perhaps it was evolution’s way of teaching us to avoid threats – but I know it’s far easier to live by counting rather than by grace.

So perhaps I’ve asked this question wrong. Acknowledging that while we want to chose love but end up calling for justice, maybe rather than asking which we would choose, I should instead point out which one God chooses. Because that’s why Jesus tells this parable. The primary actor in this story is the vineyard owner, the one who keeps sending for workers all day long until everyone has secured employment, the one who instructs the manager to pay generously, the one who takes the time to answer the indignant laborers, the one who in all ways and at every possible turn chooses love over justice.

We know God cares about justice. The law, prophets, and Jesus’ own life and ministry testify to that. But in the end, justice can only make things better. It’s love that saves, and so when forced to choose – between exercising God’s just judgment against us or forgiving and accepting us in love – God in Jesus and his cross and resurrection chooses love. No matter how much identify with those who worked all day, in the end we realize that we are the latecomers, those who had no good reason to expect such lavish, even reckless generosity. This is God we discover in Jesus, Dear Partner, the God who looks at us in love and therefore overlooks all those places we fall short and chooses to treat us with unmerited grace, mercy, and generosity.

Which would we choose? Better question – which has God already chosen? Thanks, Dear Partner, for sharing the news of God’s remarkable choice.

Yours in Christ,


Post image: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, 11th Century Byzantine.