A sermon based on Matthew 20:1-16
Sunday, October 12, 2014 – Pentecost 18A
A popular fast food chain used to have the motto, "You deserve a break today." They wanted us to believe that because we work hard we deserved a good meal at a good price: one that they would gladly provide. Sounds fair, right? We work hard, we earn the paycheck. We take some of that paycheck and give it to the restaurant. The employees at the restaurant work hard to make a delcious (if not nutritious) meal for some of our paycheck, and we get a break from work not having to prepare our own meal. It's all very fair.
But this morning, Jesus uses a parable to remind us that life isn't always fair! We don't get what's fair and thank God! He gives us his grace instead of his justice which would be fair. And he reminds us that his grace is for everyone because no one earns or deserves it.
Jesus had just finished dealing with a rich young man who thought he was close to perfection and wanted to know what else he had to do to get his fair reward. But Jesus shocked him, "Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor." In essence he was telling the man, "You're not perfect. You love your wealth and posessions more than you love God."
But Peter misunderstood. He thought giving up his posessions must have earned him a reward. He asked Jesus, "Lord, we have given up everything for you! What sort of a reward will we get for that?" And while Jesus did assure Peter that he would be richly rewarded, he pointed out that that reward was not something Peter earned or deserved. It wasn't fair. It was a gift of grace. In God's eyes no one deserved any more or any less than any other. But gave was no fair. He gave them all his grace. To illustrate that point he told this parable recorded for us in Matthew 20:1-16:
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 "About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' 5 So they went.
"He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6 About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'
7 "'Because no one has hired us,' they answered.
"He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
8 "When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'
9 "The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
13 "But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
16 "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
I. God Isn't Fair to Us
In a society without trade unions or welfare provisions, unemployment meant starvation. These day laborers would wait in the market waiting for any kind of work because any job was better than hunger. Early in the morning, let's say 6am, the owner hired several of them agreeing on a reasonable wage. A denarius was a good days' pay. Let's say $10/hour for 12 hours, or about $120. And he sent them to work in his vineyard.
But these few were not enough. He went out again 9am, at noon, at 3pm, and at 5:00. He told them all he would pay them what was right. Finally at 6:00, the workday ended and it was time for the paycheck! But as the pay was passed out, everyone received the same amount! Everyone got the same $120, even those who only worked for an hour!
The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.
Hey! That's no fair! Their expectations don't seem unreasonable. After all, they worked eleven hours more than the ones hired at 5:00! They worked longer and harder through the scorching heat of the day! Certainly they deserved more! As they watched the guys who only worked an hour get a full day's wages, they must have thought they were going to get a huge paycheck! What disappointment, what frustration, what sense of injustice they must have felt! So they lodged their complaint with owner, "This is unfair! Where is your sense of justice?"
'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
But the owner responded, "You want justice?" "'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go." He gave them what was fair. It was not unfair to pay them what he agreed to pay at the start of the day. They should have been thankful that the owner graciously gave them a job at all.
Now, what about us? How do we respond when we see how God has blessed others? Do we get upset? Do we get jealous? "How come God gives that guy so much? He has great job that pays a lot more than mine! Her life is so together, but mine is falling apart! He is always in good health no matter what he eats and I always seem to be sick! It's just not fair God! I've endured so much for you! Why don't you bless me more?!"
Or maybe you take it to whole new level: "That guy just keeps sinning in bold and blatant ways. He almost seems to flaunt it. But then when he's called out, he just says he's sorry and the pastor says he's forgiven! And what about her? She never comes to church, but once, maybe twice a year! And she's a member in "good standing"?! I'm here every week, every Bible class, every work day, literally bearing, "the burden of the work and the heat of the day." And they are made equal to me?! No fair! After all, I'm the pastor!"
But what a ridiculous objection we make, friends! How can we sinners demand justice from God? Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes 7:20, "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins," no regular churchgoer, no elder, no pastor, no one.
So we don't dare demand God for what is fair, because we know too well what we rightfully deserve for our sins. Just a few moments ago we all confessed it. "I am altogether sinful from birth. In countless ways I have sinned against [God] and do not deserve to be called [his] child." Or positively stated in another confession: "I confess that I am by nature sinful and that I have disobeyed [God] in my thoughts, words, and actions. I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good. For this I deserve [God's] punishment both now and in eternity."
If God dealt with us according to his justice and gave us what we deserve, what's fair, we would all be punished not just for our insatiable greed demanding more from God in our malcontent, but also for our arrogant pride that thinks we deserve something more from God than he's given to us. What we deserve is to be struck down right here, right now and sent to suffer eternally in hell. That would be fair.
But thankfully, God does not deal with us according to his justice. Thank God that he does not give us what is fair! Instead of acting according to his justice, he acts according to his love. He gives us his grace unjustly. "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." In grace and mercy Jesus left the paradise of heaven to rescue us. And living a perfect life, being perfectly content after giving so much up, he suffered the hell that we deserve. No fair! Through Christ's death on the cross he gives us free and full forgiveness for all our sins. No fair! We are sinless saints, God's dearly loved children, brothers and sisters of Jesus himself, through no work of our own, no labor of our own, no effort of our own, but only by Jesus work for us! No fair! Thank God!
And God continues to bless us with so much more even thought it's not fair! He gives us families who love us in spite of our failures. Few if any of us have ever had to sleep on the ground for lack of shelter. We rarely miss a meal, and certainly not for lack of food! It would be more than enough if God just gave us forgiveness, but he continues to give us so much more than we deserve!
But all that we have is by God's grace, not because we deserve a thing. How can we complain that we don't have it as good as the next guy when we've already been blessed so much more than we deserve?! How can we cry, "No fair!" when we see another sinner forgiven, when we realize how unfair God has been with us in his grace?! No! We don't want what's fair. And we don't get what's fair! So we can take what he gives us and go, thankful and content, knowing that God has given us far more than we deserve. He has given us his mercy and grace. No fair! J
II. God Isn't Fair to Them
And now that we understand what we truly deserve and how much God has given us and gives us still, it affects the way we view others.
The workers in the parable who were hired first viewed the rest with jealousy. The workers hired at the eleventh hour, at 5:00, only worked for a single hour. Yet they too received pay for a whole day. How unfair! They didn't deserve it! But the workers hired first didn't realize that they were just as undeserving. The master reminded them, "Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?"
The owner said, "I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you." God gives his grace unjustly to everyone. To those who seem least deserving. To the man spending his welfare check on his drug habit. To the inmate in Wildwood. To the 90-year-old woman who comes to faith at literally the last hour.
When these come to faith and receive full forgiveness for their sins even though they don't deserve it, are we envious because God is generous? Do we cry, "Unfair!"? When we remember how little we deserve and what grace God has shown us, we can show compassion to others as well. We, just like they, deserve no grace. No forgiveness. No salvation. There's no difference between us. There is no first or last. God gives the same grace and mercy to everyone.
One of the two criminals crucified with Jesus understood God's unjust grace. Though he had wasted his entire life of crime, at quite literally the very last hour of this man's life he said to the other criminal, who was still mocking Jesus, "Don't you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." That day he received God's unjust grace. He didn't get what he deserved after death. Christ said, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
Jesus answered Peter's question. You will be richly rewarded. You are richly rewarded. But that reward is not something you deserve. It's all about grace. There is no room for our pride. No room for our works.
Instead of being jealous of someone else's blessings, we're grateful! We're thankful for the grace and mercy that God has given us in spite of what we deserve—that we're not just saved, but priviledged to work for him—not just as servants or slaves, but as partners in the family business, as "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God!" We don't just have a duty, but have a great priviledge of bearing the burden of the work and the heat of the day for our Savior as we go to find others standing aroudn in the market and "declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light."
Earlier this week we got our final truckload of pea gravel for our new playground. Now I have already helped shovel and wheelbarrow and rake 10 other truckloads full this past summer. And as I felt my age (and my desk job) this week, I may have thought and even said outload, "Man! I thought I was done with this this summer! This is why I got a desk job—to avoid manual labor!"
The burden (if not the heat of the day) was not a joy to me. But there were a few kids who were still hanging out after school who ran over and grabbed a shovel or a rake and got to work: "Can I help? Can I? Can I have a shovel?" For them, it was different. This playground was a gift to them and it is a great joy in their lives. And they wanted to be a part of it. They were eager to work.
That's how we are now in God's harvest field. It's not a burden, but a joy. And if there's a perceived inequality that some of us may be doing more of the work, then we rejoice that we get to do more for the Lord! It is our priviledge to sweat for him!
So, in gratitude, thanksgiving, and joy for the grace shown to you when God was not fair to you, let's get to work! Let's tell everyone about the grace God has given to them too. Tell them how God is "no fair!" Tell them now. Their last hour may be coming soon. The whistle may blow, the foreman will call it a day. And the day of reckoning will be here! And go full of joy knowing that when that day comes you will receive the richest of rewards! You will be with him in paradise! No fair, dear friends! No fair! Thank God, dear friends, he's no fair! In Jesus' name, amen.