SERMON: Matthew 20:1-16
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “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?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
• • •
It’s hard to live in a world where life isn’t fair.
Sometimes it starts right from birth. In their comedy act, Tommy Smothers used to always say to his brother, “Mom always liked you best!” Sometimes parents don’t treat their own children fairly. Children don’t always treat each other fairly. And as we live and grow together in our families over years and decades, we are always facing new challenges with regard to fair treatment. Even at the end, there may be conflicts and arguments over who gets what piece of furniture, or who’ll move in to mom and dad’s house. We all like to think we have a fair claim on whatever it is we are wanting, and when it doesn’t go our way, we find that it’s hard to live in a world where life isn’t fair.
Of course, home is just the beginning. In preschool we have to be taught to share, because we naturally think it fair that all the toys belong to me. Throughout our school career we see certain students seem to have an easy time of it while others struggle, and this seems unfair. On school teams, some of us don’t get picked to play. We may think the paper we wrote was better than another student’s, but she or he got the better grade. Some students seem like “teacher’s pets” while others seem to get picked on more than their fair share.
Have you ever really liked a boy or girl, and they decided to go out with someone else? Didn’t seem fair, did it? After all, what did that other person have that you don’t have?
Ever apply for a job, thinking you were the best qualified, but someone else was hired? Ever found out that one of your coworkers was making more money than you, or that he or she was getting some other perks that you weren’t getting?
Some of you know much more profound experiences of life’s unfairness. Just last week a man said to me, “Why my mother? She’s one of the good ones. Why, of all people, does she have to get cancer?”
It’s hard to live in a world where life is unfair.
I’ve seen it in churches too, because, well, churches are full of people and we all have our own ideas about what is fair.
I used to be an associate pastor in one congregation, and it was my job to schedule people to sing in the worship services. Like any church, we had some pretty remarkable musicians, and some not so remarkable musicians. I tried to include them all, but I didn’t always do so equally. If I scheduled someone to sing too often, I would hear about it from those who thought they were being passed over. Somehow they had the idea that the process should be “fair” — which in their minds meant, I should sing just as often as anyone else. That was hard for us all to deal with at times.
In another church where I was a pastor, a church that had been through a difficult time, and was still trying to get back on its feet, I thought one way to solve the problem was to smother them with kindness. So, at the end of our first year of a new program, for example, I thought we should honor the people who had led that program well. So we gave them something special — a night out I think it was. Well, you should have heard the blowback I got! — “In all the years we’ve served, we’ve never gotten a special gift like that!” I guess no good deed goes unpunished.
It’s hard to live in a world where life is not fair.
Well, I hate to burst your bubble if you are looking for someone to come along today and give you some kind of comfort or encouragement that God is going to make that all better or change life so that it is fair. I mean, did you hear today’s Gospel? Jesus tells the most unfair story in the Bible, maybe the most unfair story I’ve ever heard.
Some vineyard owner had people working for him 12 hours a day. So he went into the village to hire day laborers, and he went at 6am, 9am, 12noon, 3pm, and 5pm and hired workers. Then guess what, he paid them all exactly the same wage! So one guy works 12 hours — gets paid a day’s wage. Another guy works 9 hours — same pay. Still another only has to work 6 — he gets a day’s wage too. And the guy who gets called in at 3, he only works 3 hours — but the pay is still the same. Then, to top it all off, in order to get the day’s work done, the owner hires another guy at 5pm, just 1 hour before closing time. And he pays him a full day’s wage too.
Now if that doesn’t offend your sense of fairness, I don’t know what will.
And the worst part of all, is that, if the traditional interpretation is correct, Jesus is talking about God here, and how he rewards people. If God is the vineyard owner and we are the workers, this parable is teaching that God takes care of everybody without regard to how long they’ve worked, how hard they’ve worked, or how well they’ve worked. It’s about his generosity, not our hard work. It’s about his grace, not about whether we’ve earned anything from him. If he decides to pay the person who only works one hour, or indeed, who never works at all, the same as the person who toils all day long, that’s his decision.
So now, what Jesus is telling us is that it’s not only life that is unfair, but now he tells that the way God works offends our sense of fairness too.
The first people who would have heard this were the disciples and the people of Israel. Think of what it might have meant for them. They were the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The chosen people. They were the descendants of those whom Moses brought across the Red Sea and whom Joshua brought into the Promised Land. They had a heritage of kings like David and Solomon, prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. God spoke his very Word to them on Mt. Sinai. He led them through the wilderness. He dwelt among them in the Tabernacle and Temple. Jerusalem was his throne on earth. They had a history, a heritage, a long record of life with God. He had blessed them and they had served him.
Then they went into Exile, and foreign nations ruled over them for hundreds of years. When Jesus came, the Jewish people might have expected their Messiah to praise them for their faithful perseverance, to rail against their enemies and to overturn the occupation of Israel, to judge the unfaithful in the land and to reward those who had kept their faith going — people like the Pharisees, for example.
But now he comes and tells a parable like this. Essentially, it says to them, look I know you’ve worked hard for a long time for God, but see this sinner over here? See this person who has never kept the Law faithfully? See this man who became a tax-collector for the Romans and cheated his own people? See this woman who has lived an immoral life? See this Roman soldier who is occupying your land? See this Samaritan who is following a religion you despise? I’m going to reward them with my salvation too. They haven’t done much, if any, work for me, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve decided to bless them and include them in my family right along with you. I’m going to call them “righteous” and “holy” the same as you.
Let me try to make this relevant to you. St. George church has been here for over 175 years, right? For all those years, this congregation and her pastors have faithfully served God and have been a light in the midst of this rural community. Now, let’s say a group of people comes along and buys the land across the street and starts a new church there. They build a large modern building and start attracting people with worship styles and programs very different from anything most of us are familiar with. Folks from all around the area — from Columbus and Edinburgh, from Flat Rock, Shelbyville, Mt. Auburn, and Marietta, from Franklin and places all around the region — start streaming in to this new church. It becomes a megachurch, with thousands of people enthusiastically participating.
And here we sit across the street, a small traditional congregation of Lutherans who get together and have our simple services, Bible studies, and fellowship gatherings.
Now, let me ask you, how high did your blood pressure just rise? What do you think about these newcomers? Feeling defensive at all? Thinking about how it’s just not fair that this congregation has been here for almost 2 centuries, faithfully serving God, at times struggling to keep going, and here comes a group of Johnny-come-lately’s with a bunch of new ideas that becomes immediately successful beyond imagination. Are you tempted to question their motives, their methods, their doctrine, their leadership, their faithfulness to God? They must be doing something wrong, right? It’s not fair!
Now remember, this is just an illustration, and it might turn out that you’d be right to question lots of things. I’m just trying to make a point about our human nature and the way we immediately react to something we think is unfair. Is it possible that these young, inexperienced folks with no history or tradition or experience or track record can be blessed by God right here, in the face of this historic congregation?
I’m here to tell you this morning something you already know in a thousand different ways — life is not fair. And furthermore, what God does in our world and in our lives doesn’t always seem very fair either. Some preachers might tell you it’s our job to just be quiet, buck up and accept it. Submit to God!
I’m not going to tell you that. I will tell you that it’s alright to go to God and complain with everything you’ve got when life is unfair. The Bible is full of people doing just that. It’s called “lament,” and entire books of the Bible, like the Psalms, are characterized by people crying out, “Why God?” “How long will I have to go through this, God?” “Why are wicked people prospering when good people get no breaks?” God wants us to be honest with him, to question him, to share our anguish with him. You don’t get brownie points for polite prayers.
I am also going to tell you that we are not just to accept injustice in the world. Through Jesus, God is making a new creation of justice and peace. Where things are unfair, God’s people ought to be at the forefront of trying to make things right. When unfair things happen and people get hurt, we ought to be first responders, offering them mercy and healing. None of us should be the priest or levite, passing by on the other side of the road, attending to our religious duties while leaving them lying in the ditch.
Finally, I will tell you that God understands “unfair” and voluntarily experienced it himself. All you have to do is look at the Cross. The unfair treatment Jesus suffered there may not help us understand the mysteries of life’s unfairness that we go through, but it will let us know we will never, ever be alone.