Not Fair but Gracious

15th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 20:1-16                                                              
21 September 2014
Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                         

Did you grow up thinking life was fair or unfair?   Growing up with siblings who were 8, 10, and 12 years older, I did not have normal sibling rivalry.  But I do remember feeling that it was most unfair that I always had to go to bed early.   I assumed all the fun stuff was happening after I went to bed, and I was missing out.  

Looking around my small town, I knew life was not fair.  I lived in the big civil war era house.  I can remember well how often I felt guilty that I had so much, while the maid who came to clean our house could not read or write.   She accepted every gift of clothing, toys, and home goods we ever offered no matter how worn it was.   I remember girls on my high school basketball team who wanted to take a shower in the gym because they had no shower at home, while I preferred the privacy and comfort of home. 

I remember in 5th grade feeling sorry for Sadie (not her real name), who came from very poor family, that she never had a current event from the news as our teacher required because I figured her family did not have a television or a newspaper, and that was not Sadie’s fault, though Sadie bore the brunt of the teacher’s frustration.  I have that same feeling when I read about refugees in war-torn countries – that life is not fair, that I am being paid too well.

But on the other hand, I grumble sometimes.  When I go to presbytery meetings and they list all the salaries of ministers, as they are part of the public presbytery record, I sometimes am tempted to compare myself to other ministers.   I then start thinking that I must surely be working harder than the minister at a large church with lots of support staff.  But then I remember how much I love Peace Church and the joy of developing this congregation with you, and I rebound from that crazy moment of coveting. 

I see people who have suffered through the death of children and painful divorces or other family estrangement, and I cannot help but think life has not been fair.   It seems that life has been too easy for me, at least so far.  But the trouble with all this speculation about life being fair or unfair is that it is founded in comparisons with a marketplace mentality.   God operates differently, Jesus teaches us in the parables.   Let’s hear how:  

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 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 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 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? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The traditional way of viewing this passage is to think in terms of salvation in life after death.   11th hour conversions.   So it does not matter when you accept the invitation to be a worker for God, you will get the same reward.   We cannot earn God’s love.   God will not give us what we deserve but what we need – life everlasting.   This is great news for those who have ignored God.   It’s never too late.

Another view into this passage is to realize that Matthew’s audience was mostly Jewish.   So the message to the Jews is that while you were selected for God’s vineyard generations before the Gentiles, the Gentiles will receive the same reward as you.   They are just as beloved and appreciated as you, even though you were the chosen first.  The last shall be first.

Yet another way to read this parable is to say that this vision of the kingdom here and now means that God thinks people should get paid enough to live on, no matter how much labor they have put in.  Some of us saw the PBS special on the Roosevelts this week.  Is that the fundamental principle underlying FDR’s new deal which provided unemployment and social security?   The point is not reward for work, but sustenance for life.  The landowner knew that each worker needed enough to feed his or her family that night – whether they had worked one hour or ten.

But this parable is a lot like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which could be re-named the Parable of the Forgiving Father.  This Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is really the Parable of the Generous Landowner.  One of the primary lessons of the parable is how the generosity of the landowner upsets people.   Isn’t it interesting how dis-gruntled we get when we compare ourselves to others, and when we think we have by our hard work, earned more than other people.  When we are the ones who have worked hard, when we are the ones who did no wrong, when we are able to rightly claim, “This is not fair.”   Because it’s not fair, but gracious. 

Remember the anger of the elder brother when his prodigal brother came home and dad threw a party.   The brother resented the brother, and sad, “Look, I have been a good son.   What did you do for me?   The father said, “Son, everything I have is yours, but I have to rejoice because your brother was lost and now and found.   The father was so happy to have his son back that he did not care how. 

The vineyard owner is so pleased to have workers, at any hour, he does not want to give them less than they need to live.  The vineyard owner has not been unfair to those who worked all day.  They were paid fairly.  But they resent the fact that those who started later received more than they deserved.

The bottom line is that each of us has received and/or will receive more than we deserve.   The generous gifts of God in Christ our Savior are always more than we deserve, and so we are called to be grateful for what we have and to share it generously, rather than begrudge those who have more or look down on those who have less.

I kept thinking this week about my little classmate Sadie.   Who worked harder in school – Sadie or me?   Well, I walked into school knowing how to read, having had three siblings and two parents who read to me.  Sadie probably never had a book in her house.   I came from several generations of college-educated parents, who had the extra benefit of living securely in this USA.  Sadie’s family was brought over on a slave ship and was mis-treated for generations.   Who worked longer and harder?   I’m the one who was rewarded with teacher and peer approval and A’s for all my hard work.   But was Sadie, in her context, actually working hard than I just to put on her dirty little dress and get there to endure the hostility she faced?    I stayed in education longer and in the eyes of the world am more successful.  Why?  Because I worked harder?  No, the cards were stacked in my favor.   But I know Sadie’s getting a big party with God and I hope I’ll be mature enough to enjoy it.

Who is working harder in God’s vineyard today?  Is it a growing community of faith like Peace Church in the USA or is it a Chaldean Christian Church in Syria?  We likely look more successful and definitely more comfortable, but they are very likely closer to the kingdom of God, as they suffer with Christ.

God's grace is given to each one of us - whether we have served God faithfully our whole lives or we come to know God in that great transition into the eternal.   God’s grace is given to each of us -- whether we have given sacrificially of our time and finances or if we have struggled to share what we have with God and others. Whether we spent a lifetime doing what was right or if we screwed up every day of our life. God's gifts are for each of us and God is generous. You see, God does not give based on who we are, but rather because of who God is.  God does not parcel grace out according to what we deserve.   No, the definition of grace is unmerited favor.  When you understand that, it is easier to become generous, because you see that God will take care of you.   You don’t have to make it happen.   It already is.

It’s interesting that the Old Testament lesson today is of the Israelites complaining in the wilderness about being hungry and thirsty and tired.    Why, Moses, did you bring us out of Egypt?   How quickly they forgot the brutality of their slavery and begin to resent freedom!   How quickly we forget all the blessings we have been given and begin to complain.   How could we possibly complain about the life we have been given – all the creature comforts we have, the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech, the opportunities that abound!  How could any of us with so much begrudge a little extra going to someone who didn’t work as long as we?  

Have you ever noticed that sometimes the people working the hardest are the most unhappy?   Oh, they are pressing on, getting so much done, but they begin to resent other people, who are not as busy as they are.   God is going to love you and bless you, even when you fail to get everything done.   It is impossible to get it all done.  God wants you working out of pure gratitude and joy, not an onerous sense of obligation.   So slow down.   Go to God’s vineyard late, if you are tired.   You cannot achieve grace by getting there early.  Grace is a gift, freely, freely, FREELY given.