The story of the landowner and the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16 generally leaves those who read it for the first time scratching their heads. It has a kind of shocking, subversive impact because the actions of the landowner are so not like the way things actually work in our world. The last workers hired, who are paid first and work only one hour in the field, are paid the same wage as those hired first who bore the heat of the day. A short saying that appears in several different contexts forms the conclusion: "So the last will be first, and the first last."
The landowner chides the first hired workers who complain: "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?
From the standpoint of economic justice this would be a real problem, but this story is about something else. In the story, both groups are surprised because they were so conditioned to judging value and estimating worth on the basis of comparison and merit.
We live in a world where almost everything is based on competition-business, economics, education, even recreation. Consider how success driven our collegiate athletic programs have become.
This is our operating system and how we survive in the world. Especially as Americans we believe that if you work hard enough you can make something of yourself. Sure, we need some assistance along the way, but we believe that if you want something bad enough and work hard enough, you may not get everything you want, but you can do okay. And in this process of bettering ourselves, we compare ourselves to and compete with others. It's how the system works and almost all of us are caught up in it on some level.
But let's not make the mistake of thinking that God endorses this system or lives by these rules. This story of Jesus gives us a glimpse into a different kind of world; a world based not on a system of meritocracy, reward and punishment, or comparison and competition, but on an economy of grace where gratitude is the capital.
Our capacity for gratitude is directly connected to our capacity to see and experience grace. If we tune in, if we are awake and spiritually observant, we can see expressions of grace popping up here and there right in the middle of an operating system based on different rules.
I see it when I see someone win with grace-with humility, with genuine empathy for the loser/s, with honesty about one's own shortcomings and failures. When I see that I see the economy of grace intruding into our world of competition and comparison.
When I see a person break through the rules of tit for tat and quid pro quo by offering to some offender the extraordinary gift of forgiveness, I receive a glimpse of the reign of God breaking into our world. Every act of forgiveness is an intrusion of grace into a world of reward and punishment.
When I see a person go out of his or her way to embrace someone who has just made a fool of himself or herself or someone that others have excluded and marginalized, I see God's new world erupting into our present world and that fills me with gratitude and hope. Gratitude is the capital in God's economy of grace.
The way to nurture this spirit of grace and gratitude is by engaging in the practice of being a blessing to others and conferring blessing upon others. Brother David Steindl-Rast says, "Blessing is like the spiritual bloodstream that flows through the universe. . . That blood keeps on flowing and if we tune in to the bloodstream of blessing, the world comes alive . . . Blood is alive only as long as it keeps flowing. This is true also of blessing."
Steindl-Rast points to the Jordan River and the contrast between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Seaas an example. The life giving water of the Jordanflows in and out of the Sea of Galilee. The shores around the lake are a paradise of fields, orchards, and gardens. By contrast, the water flows into the Dead Sea but doesn't flow out. Its water is so salty that it is deadly for fish and unfit for irrigation. It has inflow, but no outflow. The water stays in one place and stagnates.
We are alive. The breath that fills our lungs is a gift. Life just comes to us and fills us from this mysterious source we call God. When we "bless" others we are affirming, we are saying "yes," we are saying "thank you" to the Source of life for the gift of life.
If we desire more gratitude in our lives, we have to train ourselves to be awake to and aware of the spirit of grace at work in our world. The more we see and experience grace, the more we will be filled with gratitude, and the more we will be motivated to pass on life, to affirm and bless others. And the more we bless others, the more our hearts will overflow with gratitude. It's a transformative cycle. That's how God's economy of grace works.
The good news at the heart of God's economy of grace is that no matter how bad we mess up and fall on our face, not matter how gigantic a failure we have been, are, or will become, God loves us as much right now as God ever has or ever will. If we can't be grateful for that, then we are almost dead. But . . . no need to despair. God delights in bringing life out of death.