Title: More Than We Deserve
Passage: Matthew 20:1-16
Preached: On 9/24/23 at First & Christ UMC
A few years back there was a commercial by Bath Fitter that featured a little boy sitting in his bathrobe on the side of the tub. He complained that Bath Fitter remodeled his family’s bathroom in a single day, and he didn’t get to miss a single bath. His friend, Jimmy’s family had their bathroom remodeled, he explains, and… “It took forever!” Jimmy didn’t have to take a bath for a month. So, the boy, in exasperation, throws up his hands and shouts… “It’s just not fair!”
Fairness is a hard concept to nail down, isn’t it? A decision is usually considered fair if it’s evenhanded or egalitarian. For most of us, fairness means that people deserve equal rights and opportunities and are treated equally. But how do generosity and grace fit into that understanding of fairness?
Does fairness allow for generosity? In this parable, some of the workers aren’t so sure.
Trouble in the biblical text.
This story is a familiar one, so we’ll only hit the high points.
An employer goes, early in the morning, to the center of town where day laborers gather and wait for employers to come and hire workers. He hires those who have gathered and sends them into his vineyard to work… promising that, at the end of the day, he’ll pay them the customary daily wage, which was a denarius.
From this we can deduce that the landowner is a righteous employer. The Torah requires that workers be paid enough to feed their families and they must be paid at the end of each day because many of them live from hand to mouth on a daily basis. The landowner was following those rules.
At about 9 a.m. he goes back to the center of town and there are some more men who are looking for work and he hires them with the promise that at the end of the day he would pay them whatever is right.
This scene repeats at noon and at 3 p.m., and again at 5 p.m.
At the end of the workday, which would be about 6 p.m., the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman to pay everyone, starting with the ones who arrived at 5:00. When they come to be paid, he gives each one a denarius. And he does the same with the ones who came at 3:00 and the ones who came at 12:00. Those who came to work at 9 a.m. see this and they’re thinking that because he’s being so generous to the late comers, that he’ll be even more so with them.
But, when it’s their turn to be paid he simply pays them the amount for which they had agreed to work, which was a denarius. They look at the coins in their hands and they all yell, in chorus… that’s not fair!
The owner of the vineyard doesn’t see the problem. Didn’t they agree to work for a day’s wage? And isn’t that exactly what they got? What do they have to be so upset about? Or are they just envious?
The answer, of course, is… YES! They ARE envious. It’s not fair that the guys who worked an hour should get paid the same as those who worked all day in the hot sun. Besides, it’s not good business. Once the word gets out about this, no one will show up to work until five o’clock in the evening and his grapes will be rotting on the vine.
The vineyard owner doesn’t seem to be bothered about that, though. As far as he’s concerned, generosity supersedes fairness. Jesus concludes the parable with that same axiom he’s spoken several other times… the last will be first and the first will be last.
Trouble in our world.
If you take this first and last business literally, all it does is create a stampede to the rear. If the last will be first, then everyone will be competing to be “last-er” than everyone else so they can be first, which will make them last, which will make them first, which will… Do you see the problem?
The kingdom takes our notions of first and last and explodes them. There simply is NO first and last in God’s kingdom. And there’s no fair and unfair, either. The whole idea of fair and unfair puts everyone on constant guard against one another and puts us in competition with each other.
Our sense of fairness is out of alignment with God’s sense of fairness because we don’t properly understand God’s grace and generosity.
In my research on fairness, I came across a study on the concept of fairness in primates, which indicated that jealousy and other emotions in primates mirror our own. And of course, I’m just twisted enough to use it as a sermon illustration to make the point that we tend to act more like monkeys than we do God.
In this experiment, biologist Frans de Waal placed two capuchin monkeys in side-by-side cages and rewarded them with cucumbers slices for performing the simple task of passing a stone to the researcher. Each monkey performed the task 25 times in exchange for 25 cucumber slices. Next the researchers repeated the experiment but rewarded the monkeys with grapes instead of cucumbers. Again, the monkeys performed the task 25 times without mistakes.
The only complication arose when one monkey was given a grape and the other one was given a cucumber slice. In de Waal’s words…
The one who is shortchanged (because cucumber is not as good) then starts to refuse and actually becomes agitated and may throw the cucumber out or may at least stop performing and sit in the corner and not [do] the test anymore — which is very strange because the food is normally good. And any [other] time you give a piece of cucumber to one of these monkeys, they will eat it, but under these circumstances they don’t. So they get sort of pissed off at the whole situation. … It’s an inequity of response. It has to do with fairness.
So, monkeys don’t act any better than humans… or is it… humans don’t act any better than monkeys? I’m not looking for any insight comments after the service… I’m just poking fun. My point is that we’re supposed to be imitators of God, but NOT understanding God’s grace makes monkey’s out of us.
Grace in the Bible: what God did.
The measure of kingdom living has nothing to do with first or last or fair or unfair. It has to do with love and grace… kindness and generosity. This is the position that the vineyard owner takes toward his employees, and it’s the attitude that Jesus wants us to have toward each other.
Did the one who came late to work get the same as me, even though I came early? Good! Now he will be able to feed his family for another night, just as I will be able to feed mine. God seems to be much more interested in sufficiency than in gaining wealth.
Tom Long, in his commentary on Matthew, points out that the landowner never focuses on the crop or on his profit. His whole attention is on the laborers. When he goes down to the marketplace, he hires whoever is there… because the landowner is motivated by THEIR need, not HIS.
The last excursion down to the marketplace is particularly touching. When the landowner found workers there at the end of the day, he asked them… “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” They answered… “Because no one has hired us.” To which the landowner replied… “You also go and work in my vineyard.”
Now, a normal employer would have said something like… “Well, we’re through hiring for the day, but come back tomorrow.” But this man recognizes their need for work… he realizes their sense of lostness, their feelings of uselessness, and perhaps even their desperation. And the landowner wanted to restore their sense of worth and make them whole again… so he hired them and paid them.
Grace in our World: what God does.
God cares ABOUT US and FOR US more than we will ever know. And although, we complain when we feel like we’re being treated unfairly… God gives us more than we deserve.
Remember last week’s lesson on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant? The master forgave his servant of a debt that he could never repay… 10,000 bags of gold. Then, after receiving such an amazing gift… the servant refused to forgive his fellow servant.
In today’s parable, vineyard workers, who after receiving their wages, are envious of their fellow workers because they received the same wage but did little to earn them… conclude that God is NOT fair!
God has forgiven us of all our sins… and Jesus gave his life in exchange for ours. How can we put a price tag on that? Ten thousand bags of gold would never touch it. Why? Because we have been given the gift of eternal life.
So, let me give a final word about fairness.
We live in a world, in which life is often cruel and painful… and unfair. That’s a hard and painful lesson that we all, sooner or later, must learn. BUT… that doesn’t give us permission to be unfair ourselves?
Yes, life is often cruel, therefore, we must resolve to be kind. Yes, life is often painful, so we must resolve to ease the pain of others. Yes, life is often unfair, so we must resolve, as Christian men and women, to be the fairest of all people.
But there is one exception… and this is where we must turn to God and follow God’s example… the exception is when charity and love demand that we abandon fairness in favor of generosity, that we abandon equality in favor of kindness, that we abandon impartiality in favor of justice.
God has given us so much more than we will ever deserve… and we should do the same for others.
So, let’s end with this…
A little boy and his father visited a country store. As they were leaving, the store owner offered the little boy some candy. “Take a handful of candy,” the merchant invited. The boy looked up at his father but took no candy. The owner repeated, “Son, its ok, take a handful of candy; it’s free.”
Again, the boy did not move, continuing to look up in the face of his father. Finally, the father reached into the candy jar and got a handful of candy and gave it to his son. When they got back into the car, the father asked his son why he didn’t take a handful of candy. The boy, with a big smile on his face, said… “Because I know that your hand is bigger than mine.”
May God’s gift of grace comfort you, encourage you, and keep you… as you share God’s gifts with others. Amen.
Watch on YouTube
October 1 – Matthew 21:23-32
“It’s Not Too Late”
(18th Sunday after Pentecost)
October 8 – Matthew 21:33-46
“Whose Vineyard is it, anyway?”
(19th Sunday after Pentecost)
October 15 – Matthew 22:1-14
“For Many Are Invited, But Few Are Chosen”
(20th Sunday after Pentecost)
October 22 – Exodus 33:12-23
“Do You Want to See God’s Glory?”
(21st Sunday after Pentecost)
October 29 – 1 Peter 4:7-11 / Matthew 22:34-46
“A Church After God’s Heart”
(22nd Sunday after Pentecost)
*** Preaching Schedule is subject to change due to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
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