Faith United Methodist Church
September 24, 2017
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Kristabeth Atwood
Scripture: Exodus 16:2-8, Matthew 20:1-16
Prayer for Illumination:
Lord of love, as we hear your word and reflect upon it, come to us with clarity. May the words that we speak and the thoughts that we form bring to us your message of wholeness and your light of truth. Strengthen us, enliven us, empower us, for the living of your Word. Amen.
Sermon: “It’s Not Fair”
There are grievances flying left and right in our Scripture lessons today. In the gospel, we see angry workers protesting their employer. In the Old Testament, we have grumbling Israelites shaking their fists at Moses. And, in both instances, there seem to be grounds for at least some of their complaints.
In the Gospel Jesus told a parable of a landowner who needed his grapes harvested. At the beginning of the day he went out and hired laborers, agreeing to pay them the usual wage. For some reason, though, he was not satisfied with the number of workers he had. Maybe his grapes were overly ripe. Maybe he thought was going to rain. Maybe he just has a soft spot for the unemployed. Whatever the reason, he went out again and again, several times during the day, even as late as 5pm, to hire more workers.
Now this would all be fine, but then it came time to settle up. All the workers lined up and those who worked the longest were feeling pretty good. They knew they would have enough money to feed their families that night. And everyone else? Well, they’d just have to get by. But something strange happened. Everyone received the same wage. As they walked away comparing their earnings, they saw that everyone got the whole paycheck. Some loafer who only worked half the day – maybe only one hour – got the same pay as those who worked all day long. The slighted workers sought out their employer to give him an ear-full, “These last worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
And then we have the Israelites. Having just escaped from Egypt ~ having just seen the power of God in the parting of the sea ~ they were for the first time in their lives a free people. No longer slaves, but God’s own people. But today’s story picks up as the awe and the wonder of what had just happened began the wear off. They complained, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” At least in Egypt, they reasoned, we had something to eat. Their grumbling and complaining filled the camp and Moses and Aaron’s approval ratings sunk.
It seems that human nature has not changed very much in these intervening years. We know what it is like to be slighted. To feel like we are not getting what we deserve, that we are being taken advantage of, used, and made the fool. You know that feeling, right? A party that arrived after you is seated before you. A friend gets a great deal on something you bought for full price. A coworker gets a promotion when you’ve worked for the company much longer. We have ample opportunities to complain and we often take advantage.
And wouldn’t you say that often our complaining takes on one version or another of the phrase, “It’s not fair….”? It’s not fair. It’s not fair that those who only worked one hour get the same pay as those who worked all day. It’s not fair that the Israelites had to leave behind ample meat and bread to starve in the wilderness for their freedom. It’s just not fair.
There are other stories in the Bible that address this issue of fairness. One of the best examples is the parable of the prodigal son. You remember that one, right? The younger son took off with his half of the inheritance and squandered it. He spent it all on who-knows-what and returned to his father with nothing. And what did the father do? He threw a party! Now, if you remember, there was another son, an older son, who never left. This older son worked hard for his father, and never asked for anything. So how did this son feel when he saw that a party was being thrown for his delinquent brother? He complained. He was jealous. It just wasn’t fair not fair.
Before I came here I served as associate pastor in a church in Connecticut for five years. The senior pastor, Mark Goad (retired now), was a gifted preacher. I always remember what he said about this particular parable- The Prodigal Son. Mark said that as Christians the words fair and unfair no longer exist in our vocabulary. The concept of fair and unfair no longer matter to us. This got me thinking. As Christians we do know more than fair and unfair. We know something beyond fair and unfair. We know grace. Fair and unfair are of human making but grace is something that we can know through our relationship with God.
Let’s think about this grace thing for a minute. When we are focused on fairness we are focused on earning. Getting what is right and due. Fairness is a reward system and when we are working for a reward we are focused on ourselves. In this sense, it is as if the path to heaven is a board game. If I am kind to my coworkers, I get to move ahead two spaces. If I donate to the Food Shelf, it’s another three spaces. If I come to Bible study, ten spaces. If I skip church to go skiing, back five spaces. (Just kidding!)
Luckily grace is not like that. God upsets our neatly ordered board game. God topples it and those who were first are last and those who are last are first. Those who just started the game are moved to the very top and those who have been playing tirelessly bring up the rear. We are all given the get out of jail free card without even landing on the Community Chest.
In the parables of the vineyard workers Jesus is essentially saying that there is no concept of fairness in the Kingdom of God. We have no rights when it comes to God. In the kingdom there is only grace. If we had to rely on fairness or rights, no one would have a chance. The Israelites were brought out of Egypt because of God’s love for them, not because of something they had done to earn it. And God rained down quail and manna for them to eat in the desert in spite of their complaining, not because of it. As William Loader puts it, “If we persist in thinking of God in terms of rights, we will inevitably view all of life in terms of rights and miss the point of the Gospel.”
Grace frees us from the exhausting task of keeping track of what we are owed. It frees us from looking over our shoulders to make sure there isn’t someone back there getting something that we deserve. Grace reminds us that we have already received more than we could expect, so why should we be upset if someone gets the same?
It is human nature to think in terms of fairness and unfairness. We want things to be equitable and ordered. And we like to put ourselves in the place of those who work hard and are fair. But sometimes we are not the ones laboring in the heat of the day. Sometimes we are the one who just showed up at five o’clock and got a day’s pay for an hour’s work. The grace of God is not based on human fairness and aren’t we blessed by that. Aren’t we blessed!
Thanks be to God who calls us all regardless of our worthiness, who gives us more than we deserve, who sees beyond fair and unfair, and shares with us abundant grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.