15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 21, 2014
Matthew 20: 1-16
“It’s not fair!” Our whole system of justice is instilled in us when we are somewhere around 4th or 5th grade, when we become acutely aware that the world isn’t fair. That is when we realize that not everyone gets what they deserve. Friend’s loyalties shift, others get special treatment, people have favorites and often make judgments based on that instead of what’s really right. Make one mistake and people never give you another chance. So today we get to talk about the difference between what’s fair and grace, between justice and generosity.
Jesus is telling a story to people who are pretty proud of their religious standing in the community and pretty assured that they will be rewarded for their good behavior. But they are judgmental and mean-spirited, exclusive and harsh. Like all of Jesus’ stories it is packed with meaning. But most of the message is about getting what you deserve.
You can imagine the workers on the corner outside Home Depot, right, waiting to be hired for a construction job, or maybe lined up along side the road to a vineyard. Group by group, the owner, not just the manager, goes out to hire workers. He does it all day. Finally he has the grapes all picked, or the framing done and it’s time to pay everyone. When the people who’ve only worked a few hours get a full day’s pay, the ones who worked all day are nudging each other and raising their eyebrows – they’ll get something extra for having worked all day, right? That only seems fair. But as we hear, it’s not the case. Everyone who worked gets a day’s pay. Everyone gets the same.
Are you mad at me because I am generous? Says the landowner. Are you envious of another’s good fortune? It’s my money, I can do what I want with it, it has nothing to do with you. “So in the same way, the last will be first and the first will be last,” says Jesus.
This story that makes me really uncomfortable. The first shall be last, etc…. Whether this is Good News to you or to me depends on our “Social Location,” as the Biblical Scholars call it. If you are an American you will hear this story differently than a Guatemalan. If you live in a democracy and have freedom to worship and work and live where you choose, you will hear it differently than if you live in Burma or Egypt where you don’t have those freedoms. What I’m trying to say is that it’s easy for us to think we get what we deserve. We’re good, we’re honest, we’re hardworking, right? It’s so easy to forget that the freedom we enjoy, the prosperity that is possible for us, the beautiful children and grandchildren, the health we expect are all blessings. They are gifts. There are plenty of people in the world who work harder than we do and have so much less.
They are poor, they are caught between rival factions with weapons, their children don’t have enough to eat, they don’t have secure homes and are subject to every whim of weather. Even in our own country, people work hard and have little, caught in a cycle of poverty and abuse that puts barriers before them than we can only imagine. Are they the ones who will be first, while I, who already have such blessings will be last?
God has one measure of what makes us deserve God’s regard: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s the same for everyone. And no one can do it. Instead we love our own heart and mind, want justice for ourselves but care little for anyone else. We all fail to live the life that God requires. And so it’s a good thing that we don’t get what we deserve. It’s a good thing that God is not fair. It’s a good thing that instead, God is generous, God is merciful, God is so loving that God invites us and includes us even though we don’t deserve it.
When you realize how much you are loved your heart is changed. When you see how blessed you are, how rich are the gifts you have been given, your heart is opened, and you begin to notice what you can do with them that can make a difference. “How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me?” says the Psalmist in Psalm 116. “I will sacrifice a thank offering to you and call on the name of the LORD. I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of all God’s people.”
Because God loved us first, because God is generous instead of just with us, because God is gracious instead of fair with us, we live the same way. We are generous instead of judgmental. We are forgiving because we are forgiven. We are gracious instead of only fair. Our hearts have been changed by God’s great love, shown to us in Jesus’ presence in our world. And the power that raised Jesus from the dead is the same power that makes it possible for us to love, to be generous, to be gracious and forgiving. Through the love of God, blooming in thanksgiving, we can change the world to be what God imagines – a world where no one goes hungry, no dies without healthcare, no one lives in fear.
The fact is, all of us are really the workers who’ve come at the end of the day, invited in when we thought we’d never have a chance, and paid a whole day’s wage, not because we deserved it but because God is gracious and loving and generous. What will you do to say thanks?
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord.