Sermon notes 09-20-20  Unfair Generosity

[Matthew 20:1-16; ESV] “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. [2] After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. [3] And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, [4] and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ [5] So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. [6] And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ [7] They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ [8] And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ [9] And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. [10] Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. [11] And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, [12] saying, ‘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.’ [13] But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? [14] Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. [15] Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ [16] So the last will be first, and the first last.”

 I want to ask those of you who are parents to think back to when your children were learning how to talk and try to remember the first sentence you ever heard them speak.  I think many parents would say that in teaching their children to talk, one of the first sentences that we teach them to say is that three-word phrase that is music to our ears, “I love you.”  Maybe that was the first sentence you ever heard your child speak, and if so, wasn’t it a beautiful thing to hear your child say those words?

But in my observations, there is a second sentence, not so beautiful, that many children learn to speak at a very early age.  It’s another set of three words that children learn to put together, seemingly without ever being taught: those somewhat less endearing words, “That’s not fair!”  Did you ever notice how early in life children seem to develop a sense of what is fair and what is unfair?  Those words “that’s not fair” are generally spoken by a child having an eye on what she or he has in comparison with what another child has.  We have all witnessed this … and not only in children.  We all have a tendency to make judgments as to the fairness of what some people have or are given versus what other people have or are given.

Our Gospel lesson today tells a story that goes against our sense of what is fair and just.  It upsets our notion of what is deserved and what is undeserved.  It is a story about unfair generosity known as the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

We often find in the Gospels that when Jesus wanted to teach his disciples something important, he taught them by using parables.  A parable is of course a kind of story about a familiar situation that is used to explain or describe an unfamiliar situation or concept.  Jesus very often taught his followers by telling a parable about something they were very familiar with—in this case the grape harvesting practices in the Holy Land—with something they were unfamiliar with—in this case the kingdom of heaven.

A problem we present-day Christians can sometimes have with the parables of Jesus is that, what was familiar to the disciples in biblical times may not be so familiar to us in these present times.  As a result, we might easily miss the point of the parable, or, worse yet, think that it doesn’t apply to us.  But I hope we will see this morning that this story about unfair generosity has meaning not only for those first century disciples of Jesus, but for all of us here today, and it has application for us in the present time, but even more importantly for the end times.

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard describes the kind of thing that happened very often during certain seasons in the Holy Land.  The time of the grape harvest in that region was and is very close to the same time it is around here, beginning right about now, sometime towards the end of September.  But while around here the month of October is often one of our driest months, in the Holy Land the rainy season begins in October.  If the grape harvest was not gathered in before the rains set in, the harvest would be ruined; so getting the harvest in was often a race against time.  Any worker who could help for any amount of time was welcome.  So it was customary for laborers to show up in the marketplace with their tools, waiting to be hired.

The situation Jesus describes in this parable was very true-to-life and very familiar to the disciples.  Jesus describes the laborers as standing idle in the marketplace, but they were not idle loafers hanging around; they were there because they wanted and needed to be hired.  When laborers were hired, the usual daily wage they received, called a denarius, was generally just enough for them to feed themselves and their families, so if they didn’t work, they didn’t eat.

In Jesus’ story, the landowner hires one group of laborers early in the morning, then he goes back to the market place again at 9, at 12 and at 3 PM, telling the laborers that he will pay them whatever is right.  Finally, he goes back at 5 o’clock, one hour before quitting time, and he sends another group of laborers to his vineyard.  This last time there is no indication that wages are promised; these eleventh-hour laborers are simply commanded to go into the vineyard along with those hired earlier.

At quitting time, the owner orders the foreman to distribute payment beginning with the last ones and ending with those who were hired first.  Each of the laborers receives a denarius—a full day’s wages—while those hired first are watching.  Those who were hired first expect, as anyone would, that when it comes their turn to be paid, they will receive more than those hired at the end.  But when they receive one denarius, just like the others, they are ticked.  They grumble against the vineyard owner, and they state their case.  It is a compelling case about having worked all day in the scorching heat, but in essence it is those three words, “That’s not fair!”

Their actual choice of words is quite interesting: “You have made them equal to us.”  Maybe their gripe is more about superiority and inferiority than fair wages.  The wages were fair; in fact the landowner reminds the first laborers that he has paid them what was fair, right, and agreed upon previously.  He tells them that it is his choice to give to those hired last what he gave to those hired first, and that they should not begrudge his generosity.  Even so, knowing human nature as we do, it is difficult for us to imagine that those workers who were hired first went away happily.

But we might want to ask, how does this parable apply to us today?  Our world has changed so much since then, we might say, and that is of course true.  But I think the stories in the Bible illustrate to us over and over that human nature is one thing that has not changed.  We are still inclined to act just like the people in the Bible, and the lessons that applied to them still apply to us today.

One of the main characteristics of human nature that we see in this story is that of envy, or covetousness.  When we consider the realm of human sin, covetousness is a sin that often gets underestimated.  I think if we were to take a poll and ask which of the Ten Commandments we should be the least concerned about, or which one is maybe the least dangerous to break, most people would answer, “Thou shalt not covet.”  But we would be dangerously wrong to underestimate the sin of covetousness.

Covetousness is actually one of the most dangerous sins because coveting can lead to committing many of those other sins that we consider more dangerous.  Coveting is of course wanting or lusting after what belongs to someone else.   When we want what belongs to someone else, it can easily lead to us doing wrong in order to get what we covet.  Coveting someone else’s spouse, for example, can lead us to commit adultery.  Coveting someone else’s property has led people to lie, steal or even kill to get what they coveted.

And what does this parable have to do with coveting?  Well, the first laborers agreed beforehand to the wages that they were paid.  Presumably they were satisfied to work for the agreed-upon amount or they wouldn’t have done it.  It seems logical to conclude, then, that they would have been happy when they received their pay—except for one thing – they saw what someone else got paid and they were jealous.  We have all undoubtedly observed this about human nature.  A child can be perfectly content and happy to play with a certain toy—until that child sees another child with a toy they perceive to be better.

And of course, this doesn’t apply only to children.  We adults can be perfectly content with what we have: our clothing, our car, or our home—until we see someone wearing something or driving something or living in something that we perceive to be more desirable than what we have.  And we can go from contentment to covetousness just like that.

If you have ever gone on a mission trip to an underdeveloped country, or talked with someone who has, you know that one of the surprising observations we affluent American missionaries often make is how happy and joyful the people in these foreign lands seem to be, even while living in conditions that we consider to be deplorable and unacceptable.  There may be several reasons why these people seem to experience more joy than we do, but one of the reasons could be that they haven’t been told how “bad” they have it; we might say they don’t know what they are missing.  Perhaps it is because they aren’t coveting what they don’t have.  Everyone around them seemingly lives the same way they do.

But we look at each other’s homes and cars, and we watch commercials on TV and the internet and look at magazines and we are told by the advertisers that we should have better things and live like the beautiful people we see in the ads.  So even though we all have it really good compared to most of the world, we are not satisfied with what we have when we see that somebody else seems to have more or have it better.  And like those laborers in the parable who worked all day, we especially don’t like to think that somebody got the same thing we have by doing a whole lot less to get it.

This is another level where this parable might apply than merely ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’  You can detect an attitude from the first group of laborers that suggests they felt they were entitled to better privileges and benefits by virtue of having been there first.  ‘We were here from the beginning,’ they say, ‘but you have made them equal to us.’

In a nation of immigrants such as we are, unless our ancestry is fully Native American Indian, none of us can claim that all of our ancestors have forever belonged to this land.  Yet we sometimes resent it when outsiders move in and hope to receive the same privileges and benefits we have.  Like the laborers in the vineyard, we don’t want these outsiders, these newcomers, to be made equal to us.  I have observed this in my own neighborhood, where we have many people moving from up north, and I see it in our views regarding national immigration policies.

We might ask ourselves, we who live here, whose families are from around here, how do we regard persons who want to move here from south of the border, or from north of the Mason-Dixon line?  Do we believe these newcomers are entitled to the same privileges and benefits we enjoy?  Do we treat them with the dignity and respect with which we expect to be treated?  Or do we resent them with a “we were here first” attitude?  Something to think about.

But I want to switch gears here as I draw toward a close.  So far I have been talking about how this parable applies to us now in these present times, but it is important to know that this parable is often understood to be about the end times.  And it is a parable not so much about human nature as it is about God.  There is another thing besides human nature that has not changed since Bible times, and that is the nature of God, which the Bible teaches is unchanging for all eternity.  When we realize this parable is really about God, we can learn something about God’s nature.

In the parable, God is of course the landowner who went looking for those who would work; and God is the one who decided at the end of the day what was fair payment.  The landowner knew that all the laborers, whether they were hired in the morning or the evening, needed to be paid a day’s wages in order to feed their families.  The landowner didn’t care so much about what the laborers had earned or deserved as much as he cared about what they needed.

In terms of their need, the laborers were all equal in the eyes of the landowner; that is why he made them equal when he paid them.  Traditionally this parable has been interpreted as a story of salvation, and about those who will ultimately make it into the kingdom of God.  After all, Jesus begins the parable with the words, “for the kingdom of heaven is like….”  When interpreted that way, salvation is represented by the denarius, the payment received from God, the landowner.  This parable is about the extravagant generosity of God, and we can all be thankful that God’s generosity is not based on our views of fairness.  The parable is not about fair wages or justice in the workplace.  It is about a gracious and undeserved gift.  There is another word we could use for unfair generosity: grace.  And there is one thing that is equal in all of us, and that is that we are all equally undeserving of God’s grace and mercy.

This parable teaches us that God is not bound by systems of merits and awards, or by our human understanding of fairness. The truth of the matter is that if we all got what we fairly deserved, we would be condemned to hell for all eternity, because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And no matter how early in the morning we might start working to try and earn favor from God, there is nothing we could do to earn the special favor that God offers us both here and now in this lifetime and in heaven for eternity.  Like the landowner in the parable, we have a God who is compassionate and generous beyond words, who does not give to us as we deserve, but in his grace gives us what we need.

I don’t know about you, friends, but I’m glad that God doesn’t give me what I deserve or what is fair.  I am thankful that God gives us his mercy, love and grace, in spite of what we deserve!  At the end of the long day when this life on earth is over, we will all be made equal in God’s sight, and will receive the gift of salvation none of us deserve.  That’s not fair!  But thanks be to God, for his unfair and extravagant generosity!  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.