Saturday, September 20, 2008

It's Not Fair

I know that I really haven't been keeping up with the old blog lately. If you're reading because you want exciting news about my not-so-exciting life, well I'm sorry. I've about come the the sad realization that during those months when school is in session, I might as well reconcile myself to the fact that I'm not going to get anything done except work and school. I haven't even picked up my knitting in over two weeks, and that's unimaginable! Thank God for supportive husbands and families!

Anyway, at least the sermons are getting done. Here is this week's:

It’s Not Fair
“For 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.” (Matthew 20:1-16)

How many of you have ever felt like this guy? I think that most of us have, at one time or another, even though we don’t like to admit it. Somewhere along the line, someone has overlooked us, or taken us for granted, or failed to reward us for something that we really felt like we deserved—something that we worked really hard for that was given to someone else. And whoever that person was, they had not done nearly as much as we had to earn it.
It happens to us all. And if we’re really honest, sometimes we allow ourselves to get so wound up that we convince ourselves that it only happens to us.
So maybe that’s why this parable strikes such a chord in people. They don’t like it. In fact, this parable is right behind the Prodigal Son as being the parable that angers people the most. Something about those laborers essentially getting paid for sitting around all day really gets our goat. It just seems wrong. It goes against just about everything our culture is built around. Isn’t that the American dream? That if you work hard enough and long enough you can get just about anything you want? That if we do the right things and keep the right attitude we can make ourselves healthy, wealthy and wise? That we, and we alone, are in control of our lives? So why would God reward these guys for not doing any of that? It offends us, the good kids, when Dad is generous to the not-so-good ones.
I find it interesting that Matthew is the only gospel that includes this story. At the time Matthew was being written down, towards the end of the first century, or about 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the church was still trying to get used to the idea that God was welcoming Gentiles as well as Jews into the family. It just really took some getting used to, and as you read through the Paul’s Epistles, you can see time and time again how much the early church struggled with what that meant and how it should work.
One of the things that really seemed to rankle those new Christians who had been observant Jews all their lives, was how easy it was for these former pagans to just waltz into the church and belong. They ate whatever they wanted, dressed however they wanted, worked or didn’t work whatever days they wanted, and God seemed to welcome them just as much as those who had worked so hard all their lives to follow all God’s laws. It just wasn’t fair. Good thing for us, the Gentiles, huh?
See, that’s the thing about this story. Just like we read in Romans last week, this story isn’t about us, it’s about God and God’s generosity—both to us, and to ‘the others,’ whoever they may be.
I agree with Barbara Brown Taylor that one of the most curious things about this story and people’s reactions to it is where they place themselves in the story. As we’ve said before, in every story there is a place for us to stand, a character that we can identify with. That’s what makes these parables so meaningful. So where do you place yourself in this story?
As Rev. Brown Taylor says,
“The story sounds quite different from the end of the line, after all, than it does from the front of the line, but isn’t it interesting that 99 percent of us hear it from front-row seats? We are the ones who have gotten the short end of the stick; we are the ones who have been cheated. We are the ones who have gotten up early and worked hard and stayed late and all for what? So that some backward householder can come along and start at the wrong end of the line, treating us just like the ne’er-do-wells who do not even get dressed until noon!
That is how most of us hear the parable, but it is entirely possible that we are mistaken about where we are in line. Did you ever think about that? It is entirely possible that, as far as God is concerned, we are halfway around the block, that there are all sorts of people ahead of us in line, people who are far more deserving of God’s love than we are, people who have more stars in their crowns than we will ever have
They are at the front of the line, and we are near the end of it for all sorts of reasons. No one told us about it, for one thing. We did not know there was a line until late in the day. But even if we had, we might not have done much about it. We know all kinds of things we do not do much about. There are so many things we mean to do that we never get around to doing, and there are so many things we meant not to do that we end up doing anyway. Even when we manage to do our best, things get in the way: People get sick, businesses fail, relationships go down the drain. There are lots of reasons why people wind up at the end of the line, and only God can sort them all out.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven, 2004)
That makes it different, doesn’t it? We all know, or have heard of, people who will be ahead of us in line, maybe far, far ahead. Do we really want what we deserve? Do we really want what we’ve earned? Maybe not so much. In fact, by this time I’m beginning to worry that instead of getting a fair day’s wage, I won’t even get enough for a Coke at the Sonic on the way home.
But God is not fair, and now that I think about it, that’s really, really good news. Because God is not fair, I’ll get better than I deserve. I’ll get God’s unmerited grace. I won’t be judged on who I am, but who God is. Thanks be to God.
To quote Rev. Brown Taylor one more time, “God is not fair; God is generous, and when we begrudge that generosity it is only because we have forgotten where we stand.” From where I stand, God’s generosity looks very good indeed.
In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer—The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen