Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
Jesus tells a parable about God’s generosity, challenging the common assumption that God rewards people according to what they have earned or deserve.
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When 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.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This story of Jonah is less well known than his adventures with a big fish, but it’s even funnier. Jonah has just proclaimed God’s word to the Ninevites. And they actually listen. They repent. Even though Jonah seems reluctant to do just the bare prophetic minimum. It’s A city that’s three days walk across. A city God wants Jonah to preach his word in. Jonah doesn’t even go halfway in, he walks a day’s journey, says “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And he’s done. And, surprisingly to us – the people of Nineveh repent! They go the whole nine yards. Putting on sackcloth, fasting, etc.
And God saw all this, and our text says God changed his mind. He didn’t bring the calamity. And Jonah, model of prophetic leadership he is, pouts. He says, I KNEW IT! I KNEW you were going to let them off the hook. I said it way back when I was at home, and now you’ve made me come this whole way here, and I’m stuck in stupid Nineveh and I’m angry. Just kill me now. Ugh.
Can you imagine that anger? When God is merciful to those who you wish he’d just turn his back on? When God blesses those who you perceive as undeserving of blessing, or even deserving of punishment. When God drags you all that way and you didn’t even get to see the justice enacted, and you feel like God’s just wasted your valuable time.
So, God apparently decides to teach Jonah a little lesson about what he deserves and what he doesn’t deserve. He appoints a bush. Which makes me laugh too. He appoints a bush, to provide a little shade for Jonah. It seemed to make Jonah feel a little better about his circumstances. But then the God appoints a worm, which also makes me laugh, and then there is no more bush, and Jonah is angry again.
Just kill me now, Jonah says. It is better for me to die, than live. And God has a few words for his servant Jonah. Look, Jonah, this is all MY PREROGATIVE. You’ve got yourself all worked up about what YOU think people deserve and what YOU deserve and what YOU think I should do. Perhaps you’ve forgotten who I am and what I do.
Jesus shares a parable with his disciples which encapsulates this same reminder. When Jesus tells the disciples this parable, he’s answering a question from Peter. Or rather, he’s elaborating on his answer.
Peter says in chapter 19, “Look Jesus, we have left everything, and followed you. What then will we have?” What’s the wages at the end of the day? What are WE going to receive compared to everyone else, perhaps those people who DIDN’T leave everything and follow you. And Jesus first says, oh yes, eternal life with me, you’ll be there. And then he tells this parable.
And usually as we hear parables, we try to figure out where WE fit. If you are comfortable, raise your hand if you are more likely to identify with the workers who have put in long hours, and get paid just the same as those who just put in an hour. I think that’s most people, at least some of the time. Fairness is an issue from our childhood on, and we learn to grapple with the concept by whining.
There’s a comedian whose body of work is not appropriate for a sermon, but he used to have a TV show and said something quite profound that has stuck with me. He’s making dinner or something and his one daughter begins to whine that the other daughter got more than she did, got something extra.
It’s not fair she whines; she got one and I didn’t. If she gets one, I should get one too. And he leans over to his daughter and explains that’s the way it is – life is not fair and sometimes people are going to get something you did not. And then he says, the only time you should be looking in your neighbors’ bowl is to make sure they have enough.
We are the first to call fairness, when God gives mercy. We are the first to shout justice when God gives grace. What if in the midst of feeling like we’re being taught a lesson about how God is compassionate and merciful to others even when they don’t deserve it, we realize the story is indeed about us.
We Christians, love grace and mercy. As long as it is directed towards us, towards the people we approve of, and as long as it’s not so lavish as to be embarrassing to us. We like to think we earned what we have been given. Because we’ve been good little boys and girls, we’ll get a prize at the end.
We are so concerned with the actions of others and what they should and shouldn’t get, based on our system of fairness that we forget too often that God does not operate on our system of fairness. And thank God he doesn’t. And as the landowner reminds the workers – Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Here’s what it means to worship a God who abounds in steadfast love.
It’s the difference between justice and love. Because where justice counts, love loses track. Where justice calculates, love lets go. Where justice holds all things in balance, love and generosity give everything away, upsetting the balances we have so carefully arranged.
For as we observed in the gospel last week, while accountability and justice make room for relationships, it’s love, generosity, and forgiveness that enable relationships to flourish.
Life is not fair – and we should thank God that we don’t get what we deserve sometimes – but rather are showered with grace upon grace and the gifts of God.
Pastor Erin Evans