TITLE: It's Not FAY-YUR!!! SCRIPTURE: Matthew 20:1-16
Has life ever been unfair to you?
Have you ever done your very, very best, only to see someone else walk off with the purple ribbon?
Have you ever been the one who came to work early in the morning and turned off the lights at night only to see someone else get the promotion?
Have you ever seen a co-worker promoted because of charm or connections instead of hard work?
During the 1960s and early 70s, this nation was in turmoil. Young people were rioting in the streets and smoking dope in Greenwich Village and wallowing in group sex at Woodstock -- but I was faithfully keeping my nose to the grindstone and doing what was right -- right and lawful, I might add. I figured that justice would prevail -- that I would prosper and the hell-raisers would suffer.
There was some truth to that. Some hippies died with a needle in their arm or ended up on the streets. But others ended up as owners of profitable businesses or professors at Ivy League universities. Some of them inherited money and spent their lives on the beach. A few became rich and famous.
As kids would say, "It's not FAY-YUR!" ("Fair" can be a two-syllable word.)
Or how about men and women who spent their lives working on the assembly line at General Motors -- working hard -- working long hours -- enduring noise and heat and heavy lifting -- only to see the company fall into decline and their pensions fall into jeopardy. Only a few years ago, General Motors was the biggest, richest company in the world. Today, Toyota is worth TEN TIMES as much as General Motors-- TEN TIMES! There is plenty of blame to go around -- but there are lots of good, hard-working people saying, "It's not FAY-YUR!" And, in many cases, they are right!
In Jesus' Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard -- our scripture reading today -- Jesus tells a story that doesn't seem fair. This parable comes around in the lectionary every three years, and I have more or less gotten used to it -- but it still has the potential to set my teeth on edge. It's one of those stories that makes me want to shout, "It's not FAY-YUR!" The fact that the parable has God dishing out the unfairness makes it especially unpalatable. I expect better from God! I expect justice.
In the parable, the landowner -- God -- hires five groups of people:
- He hires one group early in the morning, and they work in the vineyard all day.
- He hires the second group a 9 a.m., and they work most of the day.
- He hires the third group at noon, and they work half a day.
- He hires the fourth group at 3 p.m., and they work only a few hours.
- Then he hires the last group at 5 p.m., and they work only an hour.
Fine! No problem! He has to get the grapes harvested! He has to do what he has to do.
Except that there is no hint in this parable that there is any desperate need to harvest the grapes. As the landowner goes about his business, he seems more concerned for the people standing around the labor hall than about his grapes. From the sound of it, he just wants everyone to have a job.
No problem there either! He is a nice man. We need more nice men.
BUT!!! And this is big! BUT at the end of the day, the landowner does some strange things. First, when he pays the workers, he starts with the latecomers -- the workers who came at 5 p.m. He pays them a full day's wages, even though they worked only an hour.
No complaints so far! The other workers sense that this is a generous man, and they smell a bonus coming their way.
Next, the landowner pays the other groups, and each receives a full day's pay -- everything that they are due, but no bonus.
Finally, he turns to those who worked all day. These workers sweated in the sun the whole day long. They worked their hearts out for this man. They did everything that he asked of them. But when they come to the pay table, the landowner hands each of them a full day's pay-- everything that they are due, but NO BONUS!!!
Jesus reports their response in highly cultivated language. According to him, these all-day workers say of the latecomers:
"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!"
I have spent some time in the company of people like that, and that isn't how they talk. When they are upset, they say things that I cannot repeat from this pulpit. They shake their fists -- and stomp their feet -- and threaten violence. Sometimes they throw stones or break windows or turn cars upside down.
Jesus obviously cleaned up their language in this parable. They didn't really say:
"You have made them equal to us."
No, they didn't. I am sure that their language was very colorful. They were not happy -- not in the least. But whatever their language, they meant, "It's not FAY-YUR!"
But the landowner -- who, in this parable, stands for God, took one of them aside and said:
"Friend, I am doing you no wrong;
did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what belongs to you and go;
I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.
Am I not allowed to do what I choose
with what belongs to me?
OR ARE YOU ENVIOUS
BECAUSE I AM GENEROUS?"
There's the point, isn't it! OF COURSE, they are envious -- envious and jealous and mad as ---- mad as they can be ---- envious, jealous, and mad.
So what does this story mean? In its original context, it meant that God was going to give equal access -- equal rights -- to Gentiles. The Jewish people had thought of themselves as God's people for many centuries -- since the time of Abraham. They thought that they should live in a gated community -- protected from the riff-raff -- no Gentiles allowed. But this parable meant, for one thing, that God was planning to unlock the gate -- to invite Gentiles to the party. That should make us glad, because most of us are Gentiles. This parable tells us that God loves us too.
But what does this parable mean for us today? It means that our status with God isn't determined by the number of years that we have served him -- or the offices that we have held in the church -- or the money that we have given -- or anything else. It means that we come to God with empty hands. It means that we are dependent on God's grace-- totally dependent on God's grace.
In the parable, after all, the landowner was generous to all the workers -- even those whom he hired early. Those crack-of-dawn workers didn't have to stand around the union hall all day, wondering if anyone would hire them -- wondering where their next nickel was coming from -- wondering if they would be able to put food on the table. Yes, they sweated all day in the hot sun, but they didn't have to sweat whether their children would go hungry that night. They STARTED the day secure in the knowledge that they were employed -- that they were earning money -- that they would be able to provide for their families.
So hiring workers early in the day was a generous act. It was a different kind of generosity than paying latecomers for a whole day's work -- but this landlord was generous to both groups. And so this parable promises God will be generous to all of us.
Let me repeat an old joke. A man dies and goes to heaven. Saint Peter greets him at the gate and offers to show him to his new home. They walk for quite some distance, and Saint Peter points out the huge mansion where Saint Paul lives -- and there is a pope over here -- and a great preacher over there. As they continue walking, the houses get smaller. Finally, Saint Peter stops in front of an old, rundown shack, and says, "This is your new home."
But the man protests, "But we saw all those beautiful mansions. Why do I get this old shack?" And Saint Peter replies, "I'm sorry, but that's all we could build with the money that you sent up."
That's an old joke that some preachers use to try to get people to give more money. I've probably used it a time or two myself.
But this parable says, NO!!! It isn't what you sent up that counts. It isn't your money. It isn't your years of service. It isn't your office or your title. It's all the grace of God!
That might seem like bad news to people like the scribes and Pharisees -- and to other prideful people who like to imagine that they're better than they really are.
But it's good news for those of us who understand that, but for the grace of God, we wouldn't stand a chance!
Some years ago, Newsweek ran an article on prisons, and they talked about Chaplain Bill Lindsey, who was a prison chaplain in the House of the Dead -- the name given to an Alabama prison for prisoners who had been diagnosed with AIDS. At that time, a diagnosis of AIDS was equivalent to a death sentence. There was no effective treatment in those days.
Bill Lindsey was a very conservative Christian. At that time (and sometimes today), conservative Christians tended to regard AIDS as God's judgment on people who engaged in unacceptable behavior (promiscuous sex or drug use). They tended to feel that AIDS patients were getting what they deserved.
But Bill Lindsey brought a different perspective to the House of the Dead. He said, "God is a second-chance God."
That is true, and most of us would acknowledge that. What we find it more difficult to acknowledge is that we (pastors, elders, deacons, pillars of the church) are as much in need of a "second chance God" as those prisoners in the House of the Dead.
I'm grateful for this parable, because it teaches me that God makes it possible for me to be as happy and blessed as any great saint. It tells me that God will be as generous with me as he will be with a missionary who devoted his or her lifetime to service in some hell-hole of a mission field.
That's good news for me -- and it's good news for you, too.
Earlier in the sermon, I said that I expected better things of God -- that I expected justice. Well, let me tell you a little secret. In my heart of hearts, I don’t want justice for most people, but I want mercy for me. And I want mercy for you too.
This parable promises that we will get mercy -- that God will be generous rather than fair -- that he will give you better than you deserve -- and that he will give me better than I deserve.
It also suggests that we will see lots of people in heaven whom we didn't expect. We'll see the prodigal who spent his father's inheritance in wanton living and then came home with his tail between his legs. We'll see the drunk who never quite succeeded in crawling out of the bottle. We'll see some of those Woodstock kids -- and others whom we probably would not have chosen as neighbors.
But there won't be a bad neighbor in the bunch, because we will all have been touched by the hand of God. We won't have a thing to complain about, because we will all be hip-deep in blessings.
And most important, we will be there! We will be with God! And we will be there by the grace of God -- just like all the people we never thought we would see there.
May the grace of God be with you this day -- and forever!