We’re in the 6th week of our current sermon series, Things Your Parents Said. The 1st week we looked at “Wear Clean Underwear”. The 2nd week it was “You’ll Put Your Eye Out”. The 3rd week we considered “Don’t Play With Fire”. The 4th week was “When I Was Your Age…”. And last week we looked at “Clean Your Plate”. But before we get to today’s topic, we will, as we have every week, look at 2 “old standards”…do you remember this one? “Who do you think you are?” Seriously? Well, I THINK I’m Superman, but every time I run into a phone booth and strip off my clothes…I get nothing but strange looks! How about this one? “I hope you have one just like YOU one day!” Now that sounds great, but it’s ALL talk! Because as soon as you GIVE them one “just like you”, they go gaga over them! Bill Cosby said he watched his parents with his children and came to the conclusion that they were NOT the people who raised him, but instead 2 folks trying to get into Heaven! That leads us to today’s topic- Life’s Not Fair! How many times did we say that as kids? How many times have we said that…recently?! My mom had a standard reply when we said, “That’s NOT fair!” She would say, “God made the world round…NOT fair!”
At the end of the job interview, the Human Resources person asked the recent college grad, “What starting salary are you looking for?” The candidate replied, “$125,000 a year, depending on the benefits package.” The HR person said, “What would you say to 5 weeks vacation, 14 paid holidays, full medical and dental, company-funded retirement fund, and a company car- say, a red Corvette?” The candidate said, “Wow!!! Are you kidding?” And the HR Person replied, “Of course I am…but you started it!” We have a pretty well-defined sense of what’s fair…and what’s NOT, especially when it comes to what we earn. In today’s Scripture, Jesus takes a pretty healthy swing at the idea of fairness.
Matthew 20:1-16– “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’” ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “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. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 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.”
The interviewer told the job applicant, “I’ll give you $8 an hour, and in three months, I’ll raise it to $10 an hour. When would you like to start?” The reply? “In three months!” This story is a bit…strange. Why does the landowner go out to the marketplace five times a day, including just one hour before quitting time? Why does he take ALL the workers he finds, without weeding out those who aren’t very healthy, or strong, or motivated? Why does he do this Human Resources work himself, instead of sending an underling instead? Then there’s all the confusion at the end of the day, what with paying everybody the same wage regardless of how much they worked. What’s he thinking? Doesn’t he see how unfair this is? What kind of landowner is he, anyhow? Does he even know what he’s doing? Well, it turns out he knows EXACTLY what he’s doing. He could have easily paid the workers based on how long they worked- but that’s exactly the central point of the story. So, what are supposed to understand from all this?
Imagine a corporate executive’s reaction to this parable: If pay isn’t directly related to hours worked, then how can I motivate my employees? And if I can’t motivate my employees, how can I sell my product? And if I can’t sell my product…how can I turn a profit? This reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s not fair that the father heaps all his attention on the younger son- treating him like an honored guest even though he’s brought great shame to his family. If all parents acted like the Prodigal Son’s dad, the world would crumble into anarchy. So it is with this guy who owns the vineyard. If everybody ran their business like he did, we’d all be out of work in a matter of months. Both the Prodigal Son’s dad and the landowner enable bad behavior. Rather strange models of parenting and vineyard management, wouldn’t you say? But we have to resist the temptation to find TOO many universal principles of behavior from stories like this. Nobody asked Jesus, “How do I run a vineyard?” or “How should I pay my employees?” Jesus isn’t teaching bout micro or macro economics- He’s teaching about the kingdom of heaven. But to help the people understand His stories, He has to use human references and analogies. That’s why the kingdom of Heaven is LIKE a landowner…we learn something about the kingdom when we listen carefully.
So if this parable IS about Jesus’ kingdom, then it’s NOT about “a day’s honest work” or “fair wages”. If the parable IS about Jesus’ kingdom, then it’s also about a gracious and undeserved gift. In our cynical, modern capitalist moments, we’re prone to reduce human interactions to self-interest- what’s in it for me. But this parable isn’t about a landowner looking for workers to hire as much as it’s about a man who gathers up idle, lost people and gives them a purpose. But while this parable isn’t intended to model economic relations, us average-Joe working stiffs still have every reason to be offended…but for different reasons. Jesus’ stories tend to offend everybody- because they hit a bit too close to home.
It’s hard to imagine a parable that’s more disturbing and yet at the same time more relevant to our lives. It offends our sense of justice and fair play. it points squarely at the notion that others have gotten more than they deserve while we’ve NOT gotten what we deserve. It’s easy to identify with the first-hired workers. We remember all the times we got to work early and stayed late, all the committees we’ve served on, all the work we’ve done, and we say, “Life’s not fair! Why work hard if we’re all going to be paid the same?” Good works aren’t done to EARN something, but to SHOW something…gratitude. God’s done so much for us- why not do for others in that same spirit of generosity? When we work for a reward, we’re always looking for approval and praise- wondering if we’re good enough. But when we do good works out of love and thanksgiving, it frees us. When our only measure is fairness, when our preoccupation is “just desserts”, we lose touch with God’s graciousness. We forget about the God Who loves us more than we deserve, Who extends unmerited generosity and forgiveness to us. True compassion is most evident not when the “deserving” share their well-earned surplus, but when those who recognize they have been blessed beyond what they have the right to expect express their gratitude.
Look at what comes before and after this parable…like bookends. Just before it starts, Jesus says, “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” And He ends this story with, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The point is NOT that the landowner is showing favoritism to some of the workers. Instead, he is giving to everyone according to what they need, not what they’ve earned. So what do we have here…really? What we have is a thinly veiled look at who God is. The vineyard is God’s kingdom- a world totally different from ours. And the landowner is God…characterized by His generosity and mercy, the father waiting for his lost son, the king inviting guests from the streets in for a wedding banquet. When we experience God’s boundless love for all people, our reaction to that love reveals whether we view our own labor as a gift FROM God or a benefit TO God.
The ladder of success- we move UP the ladder when we do well…and DOWN the ladder when we do something wrong. And we spend our whole lives clawing and scratching, trying hard to climb higher and higher up the ladder. But in this story, Jesus tells us that not only is it misguided to focus on climbing the ladder…. but the ladder of success doesn’t even really exist. What? Doesn’t exist? Where’s the incentive to do good if there’s no ladder of success? Why should I go the extra mile if my reward is the same as someone who doesn’t do much of anything? Life’s not fair if there’s no ladder. But the Good News of Jesus Christ is just that…there IS no ladder…NOT in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Good News is that we can’t climb higher up the ladder by doing good works. What we get isn’t earned- God gives it to us as a gift…of grace. Ultimately we’re inheritors of God’s gifts and graces, His mercy and blessing, and that inheritance does NOT, fortunately, reflect our efforts.
Think about this- is it possible that, from God’s perspective, none of us were in the first wave of workers in the vineyard? Is it possible that, from God’s perspective, we all showed up to work at 5P.M.- the LAST hour of the day? It is possible that we’ve all been paid a whole day’s wages for only one hour of work? Don’t misunderstand- there’s value in hard work. There’s value in fair play. But when our focus is solely on “you get what you deserve”, on “life’s not fair”, then some truths about ourselves…and about God…become endangered species. When our lives are reduced to economic value- our hearts contract, and our compassion withers, and our kindness begins to dry up. But recognizing ourselves as receivers of God’s astonishing generosity is what opens our hearts…and hands…to others. The world’s NOT fair…and thank goodness for that! Because God’s grace gives us what we don’t deserve…and DOESN’T give us what we DO deserve!
Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed Sunday! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!