“Its Just Not Fair”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 28, 2016
Romans 9:14-24 & Matthew 20:1-16
Today we finish out another Summer Sermon Series. This is the third summer we’ve done this at The First Presbyterian Church and I thank you once again for offering such engaging and thoughtful questions and topics. I am encouraged each time we do this because it is a sign of your commitment to your faith, to God, to living as Christ calls you to live, that you ask questions and think deeply about your faith. As I said last Sunday, there is no such thing as professionals in the Church; all of us, with seminary training or not, with deep Biblical and theological knowledge or not, are invited by Jesus to search, to ask, to knock. On the other side of that invitation is Christ’s promise that you will find, you will receive, the door will be opened to you. This invitation and promise is issued not just to pastors and preachers and teachers, but to all who follow the Lord. Perhaps you had your question answered this summer or you learned something new that you did not know before. If so, that’s good. If not, then keep asking, keep searching and knocking. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination,”; the same is true of our faith. We find faith, hope, love, and grace not in the destination, but in the journey of questions and searching that takes us there.
Garrison Keillor, from A Prairie Home Companion, was once asked what he thought about the parable Jesus told of the workers in the vineyard. He said, “I think preachers should always avoid a text that suggests that you could get in on the last portion of the service or sermon and reap the full benefits.” Indeed. But whenever I am asked to speak about grace, I cannot resist this parable even though I think Garrison’s warning is a good one.
This parable raises so many questions, most of them about fairness. Whether between children at home or school, co-workers or roommates, spouses or neighbors, what is “fair” is often a matter of interpretation and dispute. That is certainly what is happening in this text. Prior to this parable in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has just finished a lengthy seminar on divorce, on the place of children in the kingdom, and on how it is more likely for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than it is for someone to get into heaven who is attached to their worldly goods. This unsettles the disciples and it grinds on the nerves of the religious leaders. No way, they grumble among themselves, its just not fair.
The fairness of God had been under debate long before Jesus even told the parable. The community in Matthew’s gospel was struggling with who was in and who was out, particularly when it came to converts to the Christian faith. The Jewish converts to the faith, though the topic of much discussion and debate, had been God’s children all along, so they were fine. But what do we do with new converts to the faith, people who were pagan or worshipped the emperor or worshipped the sun, those who are proverbially coming late to the party? Jesus makes it clear many times in the gospels that all are welcome under the large and ever-expanding tent of God’s kingdom. But that isn’t fair, particularly in the minds of those who have been there since the start, who got in on the ground floor.
Though the human family has advanced since the time of Jesus we still struggle with how unfair God seems. We soothe our struggle by saying things like, “You get what you pay for,” or “First come, first served,” or “Nothing worth having comes easy.” This is our way of clinging to what we have received from God while keeping everyone else out that hasn't worked as hard or as long as we have. But this doesn't hold up in the presence of God. That is why God’s grace, especially as Jesus illustrates it in this parable, can be pretty offensive. How is it fair that everyone gets paid equally when everyone worked different amounts of time? How is it fair for a person to make a confession on their deathbed, profess faith in Jesus Christ, and experience the same grace of God as someone who has spent their entire life following Jesus and doing his work? How is it fair that God’s grace descends on a repentant murder, thief, or rapist, when the same grace descends on someone who has never transgressed the rule of law?
God is unfair. And for that Jesus offers no apology. ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like…’: that’s Jesus’ way of introducing his followers to the economy of God. When we hear Jesus say, ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like…’ we need to be prepared to learn about God and what we mean when we pray, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. Jesus says that God is like a landowner who hires laborers for his vineyard. There are some workers who get to work early in the vineyard, and they agree with the landowner on their daily wage. A few hours later, the landowner goes out to hire more workers, and sends them into the vineyard at about 9am. At noon and 3pm the landowner hires even more workers and sends them into the vineyard, too. The landowner promises to pay each new batch of workers what is fair. When evening comes, the workers stand in line for their pay. And the workers who had been there all day are astonished to see that the landowner is paying the same amount to everyone, whether they worked 10, 8, 5, or 2 hours.
Matthew says that the workers who worked the longest take their pay with much grumbling. They are upset because they worked the hardest, digging around in the vineyard during the hottest parts of the day. They are also upset because the landowner was so generous, an act that took on a different meaning in the first century than it might today. When a ancient landowner or employer was generous to their employees, paying them above and beyond what they expected or earned, the employer was showing interest in having a long-term relationship with the employee. When the first batch of workers and the last batch are paid the same, the generosity swings in favor of the last. The first group grumbles because it appears that the landowner is playing favorites, valuing those that came late more than the workers who started early in the day. The grumbling of the workers sounds similar to what the older son said to his father when his father welcomed the prodigal son home: “For all these years I have been working for you and you have never given me even a young goat…but when this son of yours came back, you killed the fatted calf for him!”.
In an interesting nuance to the text, scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, point out that what is often translated as ‘grumbling’ could also be translated as ‘giving the evil eye.’ This is something else that took on a deeper and more complex meaning in the ancient world. When someone gives you an evil eye today, it is unpleasant. But ancient folks really believed that dirty looks, giving someone the evil eye, was a true act of the devil, transferring evil from one person another. Ancient people carried all kinds of charms and would wear certain colors of clothing to avoid having an evil eye cast on them. People would go out of there way to avoid the evil eye because it could greatly effect their standing in the community. So the workers didn’t just grumble and complain, they cast evil on the landowner.
The landowner digs in even more when the workers complain about their pay: “Am I not allowed to do what I chose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” The workers are obviously envious, offered by the unfair landowner, hurt in some ways that he chose others over them. We could say the same things about the people listening as Jesus told the parable. “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” is overly reassuring.
To find the good news in this parable we must search for what Jesus is telling us of God and God’s kingdom. On one hand Jesus is saying that God’s kingdom does not operate by our rules. On the other hand Jesus is saying that God is not interested in the hours we work or what we think we deserve or how we imagine God should act. The real intent of this parable is to show how earnestly and passionately God desires to be in a relationship us…all of us. Since the reign of God is compared to a landowner and the workers in his vineyard, we must understand that God is inviting people who are standing on the outside to be in a relationship with God. This relationship is made secure in the fact that God comes seeking us, and not the other way around. In fact, in this story, it would have been below the dignity of workers to go looking for a job. They must be found in order to maintain their honor. The owner of the vineyard not only seeks workers, but does so repeatedly until the end of the day. God goes back out to find workers, over and over again, until there are none with a job.
God, in Jesus Christ, comes looking for us. Daily, in fact. Through the Holy Spirit we are constantly sought out and brought around to be workers in the vineyard of God. Vineyards are powerful symbols in the Bible, symbols of growth, of life, of a world that can either be well-maintained and beautiful or overgrown and unruly because it has been abandoned. God invites us daily to go into the vineyard of the world and do the work of God, to maintain it so that it can flourish and produce good fruit. The good news of the Gospel is that our pay, the abundance of God’s grace in our lives, is dependent on God’s generosity and not on how long we work. In this way God’s grace becomes the hallmark of our identity; whether we came early or part way through the day or even late and, we are treated with generosity by the landowner. With such an identity we can be nothing but different from what we were; we can be nothing but people of grace who live in and extend grace as generously as it is lavished on us.
And this is patently unfair. We’ve not done anything to deserve God’s generosity or God’s invitation to relationship. We think and act selfishly; we hoard even when there is no need for what we have; we turn the other cheek not because Christ taught us to, but so we don’t have to see what’s really going on in the world; we confess and profess one thing in here and act totally different out there; we act boldly and creatively on our faith like we go to the gym…a few times a week, maybe, but only for an hour . That’s why God’s action is so unusual. But rather than getting caught up in how God is so unfair, God’s actions should inspire us to faith and love. God seeks out each one of us and invites us to participate in this new and usual way of being the world. We are invited into a relationship with this God of grace whether we worked 10, 8, 5, or 2 hours in God’s vineyard.
There is a decision here that all of must make. Will we accept that God’s grace is dependent solely on God’s generosity or will we grumble because we can’t understand how God could act the same towards those people as God acts towards us? Will we greet God’s abundant grace with joy or with an evil eye and turn away? Will we accept God’s invitation to be in relationship or will we spurn God’s invitation because God doesn’t play by our rules? Can we accept that there is a place for each one of us in God’s vineyard, unfair as that may be, or will we worship the god of rationality and miss the opportunity to serve the Landowner of All?
This decision is a hard one, to be certain. It is an act of faith because it is a matter of choosing between justice and love. Which is easier, to obsess over a perceived slight from a coworker or to remember all the ways they have been helpful? Which is easier, to praise all those who drive their cars properly or give into anger because someone cut you off? Which is easier, to nurse a grudge about one thing someone did to hurt your feelings or celebrate the thousand kindnesses they have performed on your behalf? The choice should be clear: love. But, truth be told, that’s hard, as we are almost hardwired to count our hurts rather than our blessings. I don’t know why that is, but I know it’s far easier to live by counting faults than by celebrating grace.
We know God cares about justice. The law, the prophets, and Jesus’ own life and ministry testify to that. But in the end, justice can only make things better, and only sometimes. It is love that saves. When God was forced to chose between executing justice or exercising love, God in Jesus and his cross and resurrection chose and chooses love.
No matter how much we identify with those who worked all day, we are the latecomers, those who had no good reason to expect such lavish, even reckless generosity from the landowner. This is the God we discover in Jesus Christ, the God in whom we live and move and have our being. This is the God who overlooks all those places we fall short and forgives our sins. This is the God who welcomes us to the table, to the font, to be reminded of our salvation and that there is enough to go around. This is the God who identifies with us in our weakness, yet loves us just the same. This is the God who willingly laid down his life so that we could take ours up. This is the God who broke the power of death so that we could live life in a new, abundant, and generous way. This is the God who chooses, now and always, to treat us with unmerited grace.
Receive this good news. Receive God's grace. Don’t get bogged down in trying to explain it…get busy in accepting it and putting it to work for God’s Kingdom. And give thanks, because the only and most important response to God’s abundant and unmerited grace is gratitude. Thank you, Lord! Amen.