19 Pentecost Proper A20
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 20:1-16 Sermon
September 21, 2008
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
417 "Alleluia, Sing To Jesus"
368 "Lord It Belongs Not To My Care"
544 "We Give Thee But Thine Own"
550 "Lead On, O King Eternal"
TURNING THINGS UPSIDE DOWN
TEXT (vs, 1, 9-11, 15-16): "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
I remember a mother who had two young boys. There were many times when these two boys had to share something, especially when it came to special treats. If that treat happened to be a bag of M and M's or Reese's Pieces, each piece of candy was meticulously counted so they each got an equal number. But this mother showed her wisdom when it came to splitting something like a Snicker's chocolate bar. She would have one of the boys cut it in half, and the other boy got to choose which half he wanted. And I can tell you that the boy doing the splitting had it down to a fraction of a millimeter. You've never seen something divided up so equally.
Being fair is a very acute sense that every human being has. We are continually assessing situations that present themselves in our lives, and we make a judgment whether or not something is fair.
How many times have we heard children make the common complaint by saying, "That's not fair!" Parents and teachers can tell you that every child has had this complaint. An older child might say that to their parents when they see a younger sibling getting away with something. "You never let me get away with that! Why are you letting him do it?" I'm sure that most of you could come up with quite a list of situations where children complain that they're not being treated fairly.
But this is something that carries over into the adult world as well. Think about that time when you might have been pushing the speed limit a little bit on the freeway, and several cars overtake you like you're standing still. You don't feel so bad about what you're doing-that is until you see the familiar flashing lights in your mirror. And then comes the complaint. "Why are you pulling me over instead of stopping those cars that zoomed past me a mile or so back? Why are you picking on me? It's just not fair."
In our world, things are just not fair sometimes. In the world of employment, the government has the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was added, which guaranteed that a person had to receive equal pay for equal work. These laws can be found in volume 29 of the United States Code. The administration of these labor laws are overseen by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And if you are an employer, I can tell you that if there's anybody you don't want breathing down your neck, it's the EEOC. They can really make life miserable.
Employers can tell you that the discrimination policies to which they have to adhere are anything but fair. Even though they were intended to prevent someone being discriminated against in the workplace because of age, sex, race, creed, or ethnic origin, this has created even more problems. Because of this policy, preferential treatment has to be given to people classified as a minority. There are "minority quotas" that have to be maintained. Instead of leveling the playing field so-to-speak, it's tipped the scales in the opposite direction. That's why these laws are now being challenged in several states as well as nationally.
Nobody likes to be treated unfairly, regardless of who they are. You can be a man or a woman, black or Caucasian, Christian or Buddhist, Mexican or German, it makes no difference. All people want is to be treated fairly, and to be regarded as an equal member of the human race.
Our Gospel lesson for this morning presents a great lesson on fairness. But most importantly, it shows us that God's idea of fairness is far different than the way we regard something being fair or unfair. So let's take a look at the parable Jesus is using to illustrate this concept.
It's a simple story really. A landowner with a vineyard is in need of workers. It's time for the grape harvest; and if you know anything about harvesting grapes, you know that time is of the essence. Once the grapes are ready to harvest, you only have a period of about two weeks to get the job done; otherwise the unharvested grapes will rot on the vine and be of no value to anybody.
So this landowner heads to the marketplace in the city to hire some workers. This was the common practice of the day; those looking for work would go to the marketplace which would be like people going to a temp agency today. The landowner finds a group of men and agrees to pay them a denarius for a day's worth of labor.
As we discussed last week, a denarius was more than an appropriate wage for a day's labor. So the men readily agreed to give this man a day's work for the pay he offered. That was fair on both sides.
But there was more work than what the original crew could do, and so three hours later he goes back to the marketplace and hires more workers. He does this again two more times. Then finally he goes an hour before quitting time and hires even more workers.
At the end of the day, he gathers the men together to pay them. This was according to Jewish law; everybody had to be paid at the end of the working day. He calls the last ones hired an hour before quitting time and gives them a denarius. And then working backward, he pays the workers hired before that until he gets to the workers he hired at the beginning of the day. Everybody gets a denarius, regardless of how much or how little they worked.
This of course didn't set well with the workers. "It's not fair!" they cry. Why should those who only worked one hour get paid the same wage as those who labored for the full day? Shouldn't those who worked the whole day get paid more than those who only worked an hour? Wouldn't that be the fair way to do things?
But the landowner reminds them that they agreed to do the whole day's work for a denarius. And the landowner tells them in verse 15, "Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money?"
If the government and the EEOC had been involved, the answer would have been "no." The man would not have had the right to do with his own money as he wished, that is when it came to paying his employees. The EEOC and the Department of Labor would have seen to it that the denarius would have been divided up according to the hours each one worked, and each one would have been paid according to the amount of work that they did. That's only fair, right?
But the landowner follows with another interrogative statement in the last part of verse 15, "Or are you envious because I am generous?" By asking this question, the landowner takes the situation out of the realm of what's fair and what's not fair, and puts it into the area of human greed and jealousy. And that's the heart of the matter.
When we make the claim of something being "not fair," frequently it tends to be a statement motivated by jealousy or greed. We see that somebody has something, and our nose gets out of joint because we don't have it. This is especially true when we feel we deserve something, and they don't. Isn't that exactly what those workers were complaining about? Even though they contracted to work a full day for a denarius, and they felt it was reasonable at the time, didn't their attitude shift when they saw the other workers get paid the same money for less work?
Even though I would tend to agree with those workers who complained based upon my judgment of what is and isn't fair, we have to realize that God's definitions frequently differ from ours. And Jesus is using this illustration to make that point.
One of the common applications for this parable is the difference between someone who has come to faith toward the end of their life over against someone who has been a Christian their entire life. Both will receive the same heavenly reward. This is an undisputable fact.
But here's where this application falls flat. Do you know of any Christian who complains to God when someone comes to faith toward the end of their life? Do you think there will be people standing before the judgment throne complaining when they see those relative newcomers to the faith receiving the same reward?
It's been my experience that Christians don't complain when someone gets salvation regardless of when that happens. This is a time of rejoicing for Christians when someone comes to faith and is assured of their heavenly reward. This is all part and parcel of the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all nations. Even though this parable might be applied here, I don't believe it is the main thrust of the message Jesus is sharing.
We can look at that denarius and understand it in the sense of everything that God gives to us. We have a God who provides blessings to both believers and unbelievers. And certainly Christians might feel that they have grounds to complain, especially when they see the unbelievers receiving earthly blessings in far more abundance than they have received them. Why should a rock star who sings lyrics dedicated to sin and Satan live a life of luxury while a dedicated Christian has trouble making ends meet? Why should a Hollywood star who parties all the time be rewarded better than the Christian who teaches Sunday School? Why do unbelievers seem to fare better than the believers in this life?
In verse 16 of our text for today, we get a clue. Jesus says, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last." And what this does is take our priorities and our earthly logic and our sense of fairness in this world, and turn it completely upside down. This statement seems to go against all those things we have learned in life.
Think of some of those old sayings. "There's no such thing as a free lunch." "You always get what you deserve." "Work hard and you'll reach your goal." And the list goes on.
If we want a real dose of reality, all we need to do is look at what we have. If we're honest about it, there isn't one thing that we have that we really deserve. We have things like life, a family, friends, a job, income, a home, food, clothing, and so forth. What have we done that God should bless us as he has?
This is the concept of God's grace, in that we receive that which we do not deserve. How's that for turning human logic upside down? We have received God's blessings when we haven't earned or deserved them.
As we consider how God's love has worked in our lives, we have to marvel at how generous he is with his free gifts. Through the Holy Spirit, he called us to faith. We come to know Jesus our Saviour. He died for our sins. And this is something we definitely don't deserve. Our sins should condemn us forever; but through faith in Jesus our Saviour, all those sins have been erased from our record.
And because we are believers in Christ, we have an absolute assurance that when we close our eyes in death here on earth, they shall be opened in heaven where they shall behold the heavenly glory that awaits us. This is a reward that we haven't worked for, this is something we haven't in any way earned, and it certainly isn't something we deserve. But it is ours nevertheless, and it is guaranteed one hundred percent certain.
Jesus' parable in our Gospel lesson today takes our human logic of fairness and turns it completely upside down. We learn that God can do whatever he wants to with his blessings, and it is not our place to tell him what is and isn't fair in his administration of them.
There's an old story that kind of goes along with this. Of course it's not true, but it illustrates what can happen when sinful attitudes take over.
A man came upon a magic lamp one day. He rubbed it and out popped a genie. The genie said: "I'll grant you three wishes; but remember whatever you wish for, your worst enemy John will get the same thing, only double."
The man thought long and hard. He came up with quite a list of things, but the thought of his enemy getting a double dose of his good fortune was just tearing him up inside. It was almost more than he could handle.
Finally, he came up with his list of things. He rubbed the lamp and out popped the genie. He said "For my first wish, I want a billion dollars in my bank account."
"Done," said the genie, "But remember, your enemy John now has two billion dollars in his bank account."
"Next I want a staff of 20 dedicated and honest servants at my beck and call," he said.
"Done," said the genie, "But you must also remember that your enemy John now has a staff of 40 dedicated and honest servants."
"Finally," said the man, "I want you to scare me half to death."
Jealousy, greed, and envy will always be a problem for us. We can find ourselves so consumed with how others are seemingly blessed more than we are. These sinful attitudes will cause us to scream "not fair" so many times. And it is at this point where we will be driven to the cross time after time seeking that grace of God, asking him to forgive us for Jesus' sake.
As we look at our Gospel today, we need to be reminded that we are to be thankful for the blessings we have, and not concentrate on what we don't have or be jealous and envious of what others have. We can thank God for giving us the blessings we have neither earned nor deserve. It's all free, and it is ours through faith alone in Jesus our Saviour.