Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Complete and Total Lack of Fairness: A Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16

“A Complete and Total Lack of Fairness”
Matthew 20:1-16
September 21, 2008

You are taking turns to ride the swing on the elementary school playground. Just when it’s your turn, a big kid comes along, pushes you out of the way, and jumps on the swing. That’s not fair.

You are standing in line at the Big Box store, with your arms full of items after a lengthy shopping trip. When you look down to pull out your wallet, someone slips right in front of you, smiling that they’re sure you won’t mind, since they only have one item. That’s not fair.

A 56 year old man lives the healthiest life imaginable. Every day he strives for five servings of fruits and vegetables, he runs six miles, he drinks plenty of water, he avoids sugar and junk food like the plague. He has no previous history of cardiac disease, yet one day, after a run, he collapses and dies. That’s not fair.

High rolling Wall Street gamblers play it fast and loose with the lending industry, and private financial institutions are on the brink of collapse. When the dust settles, the bill for all this profligacy is presented to those people who are paying off their mortgages and their credit cards and medical bills… The taxpayers will foot the $700 billion tab. That doesn’t seem fair! Maybe someone can explain it to me after church.

You were up at dawn. You have been working all day long in a hot vineyard until your hands and arms and feet and legs and back are sore. You’ve been pruning vines, or harvesting grapes, or carrying bushel baskets to and fro under the sun, beating down on you. At the end of the day, you find that someone else, someone who began work just an hour before quitting time, received the same amount of pay as you. That’s not fair.

There is one rule that is so fundamental to human interactions that virtually every culture has produced it in one form or another. We call it the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That’s what’s fair.

It seems that our gospel lesson today is about a complete and total lack of fairness on the part of that landowner. At least, that appears to be the case. How do we understand this story in which Jesus appears to side with the one being so unfair?

We start with context. Where does this story occur in Matthew’s gospel? What else has been going on in the life and teachings of Jesus that might illuminate this difficult parable? Because—that’s what we have here, a parable, by which I mean: A story about everyday matters that transcends its everyday meaning, and takes the listener to another level of meaning and even questioning. It’s not unusual for the parables of Jesus to leave us with as many questions as we have answers. Where does this parable fall again? Well, it occurs at the end of a passage in which Jesus has been talking about those amazing reversals that make up life in the kingdom of heaven.

The “kingdom of heaven” is a slippery kind of idea for us to grasp. Sometimes we call it the “reign of God.” Our knee-jerk reaction is to assume it’s a reference to the afterlife… heaven, what happens to “good” people or “saved” people after they die. Well, that’s a part of it. But I would say, only a tiny part. The kingdom of heaven is God’s reign of peace and justice that is dawning right now. With the coming of Jesus… it’s here. But… as we look around us at a world where so many people are still oppressed, not to mention being tortured and killed in all sorts of conflict…the kingdom of heaven is clearly not completely accomplished. There’s always a sense of… “Here, and yet not here,” about the kingdom of heaven. Almost, but not quite.

Let me give you a flavor for the kinds of things Jesus has been saying about life in God’s reign. Jesus has upheld the dignity of women by putting forth new, stricter rules for divorce… men no longer have carte blanche, able to divorce a wife because simply because they don’t like her cooking or her wrinkles. Jesus holds everyone to a higher standard than that. Women have more value than that. Jesus has upheld the value of children… by making it clear that, unlike the temple or synagogue worship of the day, children are actually welcome to be a part of this faith community. And Jesus has upheld the dignity of work that does not have a clear monetary value, telling his followers to give their possessions away, and to follow him free of encumbrances. To top it all off, Jesus has said that those whom that society would consider most blessed—the wealthy, who appear to have lived good lives by evidence of how good God has been to them—that these folks are going to have a harder time than anyone entering the kingdom of heaven. Remember the camel fitting through the eye of the needle? That’s the image Jesus uses for a rich person trying to enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is that upside down reign of God again. Much as we like to say—much as I like to preach—that the kingdom of heaven is a place of peace and joy, where all are welcome, the truth is also that the kingdom of heaven is not like anything we have encountered in our families, our government, our institutions. It is demanding. It is hard. It challenges our notions of what is right and fair.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard, as it is often called, comes right on the heels of these hard teachings. And in it Jesus seems to be trying to be provocative… It’s so “in your face”, as my kids would say. What can possibly be the rationale behind such an outrageous, unreasonable parable?

Paying close attention to the details is always a good place to start. First, notice that the landowner is the one taking initiative, all the way through the story. The landowner gets up early, the landowner goes out to seek workers, at all hours of the day. Second, notice that the landowner and the first workers to be hired agree on the usual daily wage: a denarius was the usual amount. The first workers go into the field confident they will be fairly paid, because they have agreed on the amount with the landowner. Third, those workers only feel they have been treated unfairly when they develop a sense of entitlement to more than they agreed on. This happens when they see that others… others whom they considering undeserving… are being paid the very same wage they originally agreed upon.

The landowner says something interesting to the grumblers. In our bibles it’s translated, “Are you envious because I am generous?” In Greek the sentence reads, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” What is really going on here? Those who have been working all day believe they have been treated unfairly. In fact, what is “unfair” is the generosity of the landowner. No worker has been cheated out of their full day’s wage. Everyone will go home able to feed their family. But the generosity of the landowner to the latecomers irks those who have been working all day.

This makes sense. I think there is no doctrine of Christianity so difficult for us to bear as the truth of the overwhelming, prodigal love of God for those we feel don’t deserve it. It just doesn’t seem fair. And it’s not! It’s not fair. It’s grace.

Grace is the free gift of love and forgiveness for everyone… for those who don’t deserve it as well as for those who appear completely deserving. Notice I said, “appear” completely deserving. If you’re a Calvinist, as we Presbyterians are, you know the truth: nobody deserves it. As Paul says, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” Amen! We’re sinners! Every Sunday our worship service very quickly goes to a prayer of confession and an assurance of pardon, because as Presbyterians we are convinced that we are all in need of forgiveness, of grace. We don’t wallow in it. It doesn’t send us into despair. In fact, it is our great hope and joy. So we try not to be too quick to point fingers at others. But sometimes we can feel that, well, we’re not nearly as bad as those other people… whoever they are!

My daughter and I have been racing through two seasons of a TV show we have only recently discovered, “Saving Grace.” Please note: it’s a show for adults… imagine David Mamet or Stanley Kubrick or Joel and Ethan Coen producing “Touched By An Angel.” It’s about a foul-mouthed, promiscuous, hard-drinking, Oklahoma City police detective, Grace Hanadarko; she is portrayed by Holly Hunter. Grace is regularly visited by Earl, a long-haired, tobacco-chewing angel with an Oklahoma drawl—Grace’s “Last Chance Angel,” in fact. Because it’s clear: Grace needs help. The way she is going can only lead to disaster and hurt, for others as well as for herself.

In one episode, Grace has a criminal in her custody… a man who has, over many years, irreparably harmed many, many people. To her shock, she learns that this man also has Earl as his “Last Chance Angel.” She witnesses, with absolute horror, Earl assuring the man that God still loves him. Grace howls. NO. NO!!! What kind of God loves him? Not fair.

Where does this leave us? Well, it might leave us like Grace Hanadarko, the angry detective. It might leave us the early-birds, the workers who worked all day. We might be grumbling. We tried an interesting experiment with the Youth Group/ Drama Group on Friday night. We went through this story a couple of times, with the players taking different roles. Their feelings about the story were strongly influenced by which parts they were playing. When they played the workers who were hired first, they were full of indignation… angry, envious, ticked off. They felt completely wronged because the landowner had not paid them more than the latecomers. But when those same players took the part of the landowner, they felt different. They felt… generous. And they felt a little angry that their judgment had been called into question.

Maybe our reaction to this story can teach us something abut our need to be forgivers, to be extenders of grace in our own lives. We love the God whom Jesus has told us about. And this is the truth about our God. Our God does not embody fairness. Our God embodies grace. Grace is completely and totally unfair. Grace is forgiveness where it is not deserved. Grace is love despite the quality of life exhibited. Grace is not fair, it is grace. Thank God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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