September 22, 2019: Rev. Scott Moncrieff
September 22, 2019 Rev. Scott Moncrieff
THAT’S NOT FAIR Matthew 20:1-16
Some years back an anonymous dialogue circulated on the Internet. It was aimed at parents. It went like this:
Whenever your children are out of control, you can take comfort from the thought that even God’s omnipotence did not extend to His own creation. Soon after creating heaven and earth, God created Adam and Eve.
And one of the first things God said was “DON’T!”
“Don’t what?” Adam replied.
“Don’t eat the forbidden fruit,” God said.
“Forbidden fruit? We have forbidden fruit? Hey Eve, we have forbidden fruit!”
“No Way!” says Eve.
“Yes way!” Adam replies.
“Do NOT eat the fruit!” says God.
“Why?” Adam and Eve ask in unison.
“Because I am your Father and I said so!” God replies, wondering why He hadn’t stopped creation after making the elephants.
A few minutes later, God saw His children having an apple break! “Didn’t I tell you not to eat the fruit?” God asked.
“Uh huh,” Adam replied.
“Then why did you?” said the Father.
“The serpent made me do it,” said Eve.
“She started it!” Adam said.
Having had it with the two of them, God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own. Thus the pattern was set, says this author, and it has never changed.
Now obviously none of our boys and girls act like that. “Did not!” “Did too!” “DID NOT!” “Did too!” But I have heard of families where such squabbles occur.
But there is another kind of squabble that is universal. If you’re around children very much, or if you have multiple children in your household, one declaration that you are surely going to hear sooner or later is, “That’s not fair!”
Sometimes, it is for good reason. Did you know that in the Galapagos Islands there is a bird called the blue‑footed booby (I’m not making this up). The blue‑footed booby hatches two eggs. Then she watches these two eggs closely and observes which of the newborn chicks is the sturdiest and most likely to survive. Then she boots the other chick out of the nest to die. It appears that it was just a spare.
Small children, possibly view any trace of parental favoritism with the same panic that must be felt by the luckless booby chick. Every parent has heard the anguished cries: ‘Her piece is bigger than mine!’ ‘I want one just like Johnny’s!’ ‘You love him better than me!’ Unfairness can feel like a matter of life and death and, in some situations, it probably was.
It’s the oldest contention in society, “That’s not fair.” Remember Adam and Eve’s two boys, Cain and Abel. They brought their offerings to God. For some reason, God accepted Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. “That’s not fair,” Cain thought in his heart and his resulting anger was the source of humanity’s first murder.
We hear it not only among children, but among adults as well, “That’s not fair.” That’s one of the reasons we have lawyers and judges--and, if things get out of hand, police. It’s the reason why some families are split after the reading of a will. It is why some people will always feel victimized in our society. Life isn’t fair.
I’m not going to ask if any of you have ever experienced inequality in the workplace. Would you believe that in some workplaces some people are paid more than others, even though they may actually work less?
I love the story about a man who owned a small farm in South Georgia. The Wage and Hour Department claimed he was not paying proper wages to his help and sent an agent to interview him. “You just give me a list of your employees,” said the agent, “and tell me how much you pay them.”
“All right,” said the farmer. “I have a hired man. Been with me for three years. I pay him $600 a week, plus room and board. I have a cook. She’s been here six months. She gets $500 a week plus room and board.”
“Anybody else?” asked the agent as he scribbled on a note pad.
“Yeah,” the farmer said. “There’s a half-wit here. Works about eighteen hours a day. I pay him ten dollars a week and give him chewing tobacco.”
“Aha!” the agent roared. “I want to talk to that half-wit!”
The farmer said, “You’re talking to him now.”
At every layer of society, someone is complaining, “That’s not fair.”
Jesus told a parable about a landowner who went out early in the morning, about six o’clock, to hire workers for his vineyard. This was a common practice in that part of the world, particularly during the grape harvest. Storms could easily ruin the crop and it was important to get the harvest in as quickly as possible. So for a time, anyone who wanted a job could have one. The work was hard; working hours were from dawn to sunset, which in a Mediterranean country means a twelve-hour day. The wage was a standard one, a ‘denarius’ or silver coin.
In Jesus’ time, a denarius was not only the average daily wage for a worker, but it was also the average cost of surviving per day for the masses of poor families in Israel. It didn’t allow any room to maneuver. A denarius would buy your family what they needed to stay alive, no more and no less. So a day’s work and a full day’s wage were essential to survival.
During the grape harvest, men who wanted to work would go to the marketplace and stand around; it was like going to an employment center in the morning to look for a job for the day. They would work the twelve hours, and then they would be paid at the end of the day so that each man could go home with money to buy food for his family. If a man was unable to find work on a particular day, then his family would not eat. If he found work for only a part of the day, and thus was unable to earn a whole denarius, his family would eat, but would barely survive.
I hope that you will appreciate, then, what is at stake for the workers in this story. It is not only about fairness. For some of these workers, it is about survival. That helps explain some of the dynamics of the story.
The landowner went out at six o’clock in the morning to hire workers. He agreed to pay these workers the standard wage--a denarius for the day.
About nine in the morning he went back to the marketplace and saw some other men standing around doing nothing. Obviously, no other jobs were available. 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 noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon, the final hour of the work day, he went out and found still others standing around. He told them to work in his vineyard too.
When quitting time 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 five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. Can you imagine how deliriously happy these workers were? A full day’s wage for only one hour of work! They would be able to feed their family. They would be able to pay their bills. Maybe they could keep the bank from foreclosing on their house. How in the world under such circumstances could they be expected to hide their joy? And that created a problem.
When those who were hired first came to be paid, and they knew how generous the landowner had been with those who had worked only an hour, they expected a huge bonus. Can you imagine their disappointment when they also received a denarius? They began to grumble. “These 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 the landowner answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one 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?’
Then Jesus added these cryptic words, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This is a parable about the generosity of God. God pours out His grace full and completely on all who will receive it. We who have labored in the vineyard as Christians for most of our lives would like to think that we will get an extra measure of grace in return for our many years of service, but it will not happen. It cannot happen. The Father’s love is without limits. He pours out His grace without reservation and without regard to who deserves it and who does not. If that bothers you, get over it.
If there are no limits on grace, if it exceeds everything we could ever hope for, everything we could ever expect, how can one person say he’s received more than another?
If I have a great deal of money, I might buy a piece of property on the ocean. My piece of property might be nicer than yours. But no one can buy the whole ocean, no matter how wealthy they are.
God’s grace is far greater than any ocean, any land mass, or the entire horizon as well. Do you remember the Gospel song, “The Love of God”? We sang it just last week. The third verse goes,
“Could we with ink the ocean fill, And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill, And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above, Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Though stretched from sky to sky.”
That’s grace. And it’s poured out in infinite quantities on you and on me. It is totally unearned, whether we have labored for Christ for 50 years or 50 minutes. All we have to do to receive God’s grace is to open our hearts to it. To some people, it doesn’t seem fair, but it is a fact. No wonder it’s often called Amazing Grace.
Writer Philip Yancey tells about an incident that occurred a few years ago. Journalist Bill Moyers created a documentary based on the hymn “Amazing Grace.” One of the more unusual scenes in the film took place at a massive benefit concert in England.
All day, fans had been blasted with hard-driving rock music. Strangely, the concert organizers had scheduled opera singer Jessye Norman to close the concert. Some fans reacted negatively when Ms. Norman first took the stage. Here was a middle-aged black woman without any back-up band, at what had been a rock concert, depending completely on her own voice. But she silenced the crowds with her opening line:
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me!”
And soon, thousands of rock fans were singing along with this humble, life-changing hymn.
It’s been said that there are more people who know the words to “Amazing Grace” by heart than know our national anthem. That would not surprise me.
Many of you may have seen the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan. Saving Private Ryan is about the invasion of Normandy in World War II. Another writer has summed up the movie beautifully:
The movie opens with an elderly man walking through a cemetery perched above the Normandy beach where allied troops landed on D-day. He approaches a grave at the cemetery and kneels down in front of it, weeping.
“Suddenly the movie jumps back 54 years to the day of the invasion. For the next 20 minutes we watch one of the most horrifying war sequences ever filmed. Some 5,000 allied troops were killed or wounded on the beaches of Normandy that day, and it seems like the movie shows every one of them, in anguishing personal detail. Finally a beachhead is established, and for a moment the troops are safe.
“But then the real plot of the movie begins. Eight soldiers who survived the invasion are sent to rescue an American paratrooper named Ryan who was dropped behind enemy lines.
“They go through harrowing experiences to find him, and when they find him, several men lose their lives trying to rescue him and get him out. The last one killed is the captain of the unit played by Tom Hanks. As he dies, he says to Private Ryan, ‘Earn this.’
“At that moment the movie switches back to the gray haired man at the cemetery, and we realize that we are looking at Private Ryan, now in his 70s. He is kneeling before the grave of the captain. Slowly he stands up, turns to his wife, and says, ‘Tell me I’ve been a good person.’
“His wife is puzzled. She does not understand the question, but we who have been watching the movie understand it completely. He is asking her, ‘Tell me that my life has been worth saving. Tell me that I have fulfilled the purpose for which the captain gave his life.’”
That’s how many of us feel about our lives. We know that God’s grace is free. We know that we did nothing to deserve it. But we also know it cost Christ his life. And we hunger in our hearts to think that our lives lived in response to his act of self-giving love are proving worthy of that act. What kind of people would we be otherwise?
Amazing grace. It’s not fair. It’s not just. It’s simply unbelievably generous. And it is all ours for the taking today. Amen.