The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 18, 2011
The Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
Sermon: "It's Not Fair!"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Jesus said, "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 marketplace; 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 Not Fair!
Some of you know that I grew up in the agricultural heartland of California; the Great San Joaquin Valley. Itís not a part of California that most people even know exists. Culturally, itís a big chunk of the mid-west transplanted into the middle of the State. In other words, donít go looking for any culture there other than agriculture.
Around Fresno, where I grew up, table grapes are probably the biggest crop. I remember one fall when the grapes had matured very late in the season. The rains were coming on schedule, and there would be just a one week window left to pick, or the harvest would be lost. School was cancelled for that week so that we kids could go help save the crops.
Just such a sense of urgency permeates our Lordís story from our Gospel lesson this morning from Matthew. It occurs about this time of year, late September, when the grapes would have been ripe in Palestine. It would be a race against time. The crop would need to be harvested in a hurry before the October rains. Every available person in the community would be employed for the two to three weeks it would take to bring in the harvest. So, Jesus tells us, the owner of a vineyard goes into the marketplace very early in the morning and hires laborers.
After a couple of hours the owner realizes that he needs more workers; time is running out. He returns and hires more. Still the work is not going fast enough, so he repeats this action two more times; hiring the last workers at just one hour before dusk. It works. The harvest is finished and he goes to pay the workers. Now the trouble starts. Starting with the workers last hired, he pays them the same wage as the workers first hired. The first workers are outraged. How dare the owner pay them all the same wage. Itís not fair. They feel cheated.
Of course, this parable isnít about harvesting grapes at all. Itís about grace. It tells us that Godís grace isnít fair; not by our common standards of fairness, anyway. And it tells us that we should be very glad that it isnít fair.
For the first thing that Jesus would have us know about Godís grace this morning is this: Grace is unmerited favor. Let me emphasis that word, unmerited-unearned good will. The early workers in the vineyard expressed their outrage to the owner. They really had a point. They had worked more. If the late laborers had earned their wage, then the earlier laborers had certainly earned more. Then again, the landowner had not actually cheated them in anyway. He had paid what he had promised. To all this the landowner asks an interesting question, ďAm I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?Ē In other words, ďDo you really begrudge my generosity?Ē Here is an important lesson about the grace of God. Godís grace is a gift; it isnít earned at all. Whether we have been in the family of God for a long time, or are a recent arrival, the benefits of faith are the same. God does not seek to be fair; God seeks to be generous.
Jesusí parable reminds us that no matter how hard we might try, we never deserve Godís grace; it is a gift. Itís not a matter of how long or hard we work. Itís not a matter of how pious our demeanor. We cannot earn Godís love and acceptance. It is instead poured out freely and lavishly upon us all. Grace is unmerited favor. Thatís the first thing Jesus is telling us about grace this morning.
Hereís the second thing his story makes clear: Many wish grace were not so gracious. We might as well face it. Many of us who have served Christ for most of our years would like some kind of reward scale for services rendered: salvation for those who serve adequately; even better benefits for those who work harder. It doesnít seem fair, does it, that people can waltz into the Kingdom at the last minute, even at the end of a profligate life, and receive the same grace as those of us who have labored our whole lives?
Jesus faced this same dilemma. He was criticized for spending too much time with tax collectors and other sinners, and for not spending enough time with the respectable folks. Itís amazing how quickly we can judge other peopleís situations. The Bible teaches us that only God is qualified to judge. Only God sees the heart. Only God knows the inner person. Then, when God renders his verdict, ďForgiven!Ē it is total and absolute. Ultimately, none of us are deserving of such a verdict. Therefore, all of us are deserving of each otherís consideration, not judgment. Godís grace is equally poured out on us all whether weíve worked twelve hours in the heat of the day or whether weíve worked only one hour in the cool of the evening; even if some would prefer grace were not so gracious. Thatís the second thing Jesus tells us from this story.
But this leads us to the good news for this morning: You and I can be agents of grace. Place yourself, for a moment, in the story. Imagine that the owner has selected you to dispense the silver coins. Can you see the eyes of those late workers as they receive a silver coin for only one hourís work. Wouldnít you like to bring that kind of joy into someoneís life?
Linda Malone, a member of a congregation I know, tells about the transformation that occurred in her life. She was once one of the million of homeless people living in streets and under bridges across our country. Linda uses words like ďconfused, lost, and deadĒ to describe those days before she found the grace of God. Actually, Linda will tell you Godís grace found her.
A couple in that church, Tom and Claudia, wanted to help a needy family. Through a social agency they were given Lindaí name. At the time they met Linda, she had two young children with a third on the way. Her husband, an addict, had deserted her. She had no place to live.
Tom and Claudia quickly realized that they could not help Linda and her children by themselves. They enlisted the help of others in their Sunday School class and church. They helped Linda and her children find a place to live. They helped her find a job. Tom and Claudia kept the two children for a week while the third was being born. Other People in the church took turns caring for the children, providing food and clothing. They supported and helped Linda in many ways.
One Sunday Morning, a year or so later, Linda stood up in church to give her witness. She told the congregation that she had been completely sober for six months by then. She had a job and was able to be a responsible mother to her children. She was no longer worried about living on the streets, spending time in jail, or having her children taken away from her. Linda not only uses words like confused, homeless, lost, and dead to refer to her old life, but, as a result of her new life, she use words like joy, love, direction, coming home, life, and saved by Jesus Christ.
Linda and her children have been members of that church for a few years now. They are regular Sunday morning attenders. They sit in the third pew. Tom and Claudia and other members of that Sunday School class sit nearby. After worship Linda teaches the three-year-old Sunday School class. She is there every Sunday and the children love her. ďIf you know anyone who doubts that Jesus is alive,Ē Linda says, ďlet them talk to me.Ē
There were those in Lindaís church who complained about all the attention Linda and her children were receiving. It seemed unfair that they should receive so much of the churchís limited resources. Such complaining happens. Thank God for the others: Tom and Claudia, and the members of that church who knew that they themselves were recipients of Godís grace, and had been called to pass that grace on to Linda and her children.
No, Godís grace isnít fair. Thank God! Wouldnít you hate to live in a world where we each get exactly what we deserve? None of us deserve Godís grace; it is unmerited favor. Yet, we can be partners with God in bringing that grace to others. In your own life, donít be fair, be generously gracious!