Sermon: It Isn’t Fair…
Date: September 7th, 2014
Preacher: Rev'd Mike Rayson, OSL
Church: Nameoki United Methodist
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard.
“Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ And they went.
“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’
“‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.
“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’
“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”
Matthew 20:1-16, CEB
It was Christmas eve 1981… my 7th Christmas. If I can set the scene for you it was hot… so hot that we didn’t have the pine Christmas tree we cut down from the back of our property inside or it would simply turn brown and drops it’s needles… we had the Christmas tree, decorated with tinsel and a few fairy lights, on the back porch under the verandah.
Christmas was always an interesting holiday growing up. Firstly, it’s in the middle of summer… so Santa in his big red woolen suit finds himself somewhat out of place down under. He’d be far more comfortable in seemed to have some kind of hot cooked meal on Christmas day… so, 110 degrees outside, 120 degrees inside, and hot roast pork and hot roast lamb with all the hot trimmings on the kitchen table… then, hot Christmas pudding covered in hot custard for dessert.
It may not have escaped your notice that I was, let’s just say, my Grandmothers revenge on my mother. As a kid, I bounced off the walls in every direction you could ever imagine and I rarely ever slept. When the sun was up, I was up… and when the sun went down, well I was still up.
So it’s Christmas eve 1981… and I was awake. We hadn’t been in church, because the tradition in Australia is that folks head off to church Christmas morning around 9 o’clock… and it’s usually the largest attended church service of the year. I was so excited… I’d asked Santa for a go kart. A wooden go kart with wheels on it so I could ride it down the long sloping driveway at breakneck speed over the rocky dirt road.
And boy had I worked myself up. A go-kart… just maybe I was going to get a go-kart. So when midnight rolled around, I was still wide awake thinking about my go-kart.
It should have struck me as odd when my mom came into my room at midnight with a cup of hot cocoa. Firstly… did I mention it was HOT outside. And secondly, when my mom came into my room at midnight, it was usually so she could yell at me to GO TO SLEEP!!!!
But here she was, a hot mug of cocoa on a hot night, and she sat on the edge of my bed as I told her about the go-kart that Santa was going to bring… and soon after that… I fell asleep.
And I slept…
Usually on Christmas morning I’d be up with the sparrows, but on this particular occasion, I was still after 7… that’s when my mom woke me up to get ready for church. But boy I was still tired. I remember plodding out to the Christmas tree to see what Santa had dropped off during the night.
And there it was… a go kart. Except… well, I had no energy to get into it. I kinda blinked and thought… well that’s nice… but I really wanted to just go back to bed.
We went to church… I slept in the car. It was about a 45 minute drive to the church and my parents had to wake me up when we got there. The service began, and I held a hymn book in my hand as we sang Hark the Herald Angels sing… but I dropped it. Now usually I’d get a glare from my mom for messing up in church, but she ever so lovingly bent down and picked up the hymn book… but I dropped it again… I was just so tired.
It wasn’t until years and years later… when I looked at my mom and said “tell me about Christmas eve in 1981” that she finally confessed.
She’d slipped a valium into the hot chocolate… and had the best Christmas eve nights sleep ever.
When it came to gifts, even back then, my Mom was fair. And I mean strictly fair. If my sister’s gift cost $20, and mine cost $15, well there would be an envelope with my gift with an extra $5 in it.
My sisters and I never thought much about that as kids at Christmas or birthdays… until we started having kids.
My mom did the same thing with the grandkids. If a gift was slightly more expensive for one grandkid, the other grandkid would receive a little money along with their gift. Everything had to be exact for every child… because it was fair!!!
When we immigrated to the USA, she even went to the point of calculating international money transfer charges and currency fees in her fairness. If she spent $20 Australian dollars on one grandkid in Australia, well she would spend $17.50 US dollars on my kids.
Except, well now there was a different challenge for my moms gift giving… because the Australian dollar has less purchasing power than the US dollar. These days, we track within 5 or 6 cents of parity on either side of each other… and parity is 1 US dollar for 1 Australian dollar. But you’ll pay $2.50 for a can of coke in Australia… or 50c downstairs in the youth soda machine. Can you see how this has just messed with my mom’s mind!!!
Thank God my Mom has discovered Amazon in recent years. Now everything is ALWAYS fair. Because our gifts now all come as Amazon gift cards.
This morning’s parable is a tough one. The workers who went to work at 6am get paid the same amount as those that started work later in the morning, and at lunch time, and in the afternoon.
Sometimes as you read Jesus parables, you feel like slapping him upside the head for some of the things he says. Because if there’s one thing at first glance in today’s parable, it’s a distinct feeling that Jesus is being ‘unfair’.
Jesus begins this parable with the statement… the kingdom of heaven is like. Jesus actually begins many of his parables with these words. The kingdom of heaven is like… He doesn’t start his stories, ever, with the comment… “A Christian is like”… or “You are like”… and that means that what Jesus has to say in most of his parables pertains to us, the church, the people of God, or even society as a whole group more so than an individual.
And not just today’s community, but the whole of humanity before, now, and after.
The kingdom of heaven is like…
And then comes this seemingly socialist manifesto. The redistribution of wealth. It almost seems like Jesus has made a complete mistake in this story. It goes against our principles of democracy, our capitalist free market economy, and our general feeling that everyone should receive by virtue of what they do. Give a man a fish they say and he’ll eat for a day. Give a man a fishing rod and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Except… this parable kind of gets in the way of that kind of thinking.
It should read, at least in the minds of some… a man found some workers at 6am and hired them for the day’s work, telling them he’d pay them a denarion… a silver coin… for the day’s work. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that 1 silver coin is worth $100. But the owner was short staffed, and found a few more to join the workforce at 9am. Then a few more at midday. And again at 3, and again at 5.
When the workers were called in at sundown, say at 6 o’clock, the workers hired at five were given $100 – not bad for a day’s work, but ridiculously extravagant for just an hour.
You can imagine that those who were hired from 3 til 6 suddenly got very big eyes as the foreman handed them their pay packet. Wow – it must be like $300!!! And those hired at midday $600. And those hired at 9… $900 big ones!!!! And those that started out at 6am… well, it must be $1200!! Woohoo.
Yet as each person opened their envelopes, just a hundred bucks each. Which actually is everything that was promised. Those that went to work early were promised $100 for the day.
But how would you react if that happened to you? Would you be thankful for the $100… or would you suddenly feel like you had been cheated by the boss?
Our society conditions us to feel like this kind of thing is a grave injustice. But what if I was to turn that injustice around on us a little.
In 2006 I visited Nicaragua on a mission exposure trip with the charity Compassion International… a child sponsorship organization that I have had links with for many years, and sponsor 4 children through. Rose in Haiti who is 18 and we have sponsored since she was 3, and then Yuri, Martha and Maria in Nicaragua.
We were told that we were going to visit a family who lived on the outskirts of Managua – the capital of Nicaragua – who had children involved in a Compassion Program… Project 193, the Sunflowers of Jesus community.
Now prior to arriving in Nicaragua, our team had been in Guatemala… and we’d seen poverty that week… poverty that we’d never seen before… and poverty that has nothing that rival’s it in the United States.
We drove for a long time… around Lake Managua… in fact we drove until the asphalt disappeared, replaced by a dirt track through shanty towns on the other side of the lake. When the bus stopped and we all got off, we could smell something… bad. I had no idea where the smell was coming from, except that it was… bad. Bad enough that I wanted to be sick bad.
The children in the Compassion community put on a program for us, the western tourists… because to be honest we weren’t missionaries… we were there seeing what Compassion was doing, not helping them do it. Afterwards, we were introduced to Miguel, a little boy in the community, and we were invited to visit his house.
We walked down the dirt road with our team, and workers with the Compassion project, and turned a corner. And there was the source of the smell… one of the main trash dumps where most of Managua’s waste – a city of 1 million people by the way – was thrown.
Mountains and mountains of… trash… the foulest you’ve ever smelt or seen. As we walked towards the dump, I thought surely we will turn down one of these dirt roads and visit the house Miguel lived in.
But we didn’t… we walked… and walked right into the dump. And there… inside the gates, in a home made out of trash… was where Miguel lived.
And I met Miguel’s dad. Francisco Ortiz. He was barefoot… dressed only in a pair of shorts. He shared his home with his wife, and 9 children. And it was about the size of my office. Made from rusty corogated iron and twine… infested with rats… Not all of the children were his… several of them were his nieces and nephews – living there because their parents had died. We heard that afternoon the horrible story of the family next door who had lost twin boys a few days earlier. The boys had found rotten food in the dump… and were so hungry they ate it. But the food had been deliberately spiked with rat poison by the dump workers.
Francisco made his living collecting hard plastic. The kind that you get your oil in, old buckets and coke bottles the like. And he managed to collect enough plastic each week to sell at a market. I asked through an interpreter how much money he made a week from selling plastic. And when the translator answered I thought they had made a mistake in translating. So I asked again. US 50c a week. Half a dollar. 50c to buy food, 50c to clothe his kids, 50c to pay his mortgage of $200. Yes… there was a mortgage on that hovel in the dump.
Does someone like Francisco deserve 50c a week for busting himself day after day just to make a living, and someone like me or you deserve to live in what is considered absolute luxury…
Yet as we continued to talk, Francisco asked me something. You see, Francisco was a man who loved Jesus. Francisco was a man who knew what it meant to teach his children about Jesus. Francisco relied on Jesus for everything… his next meal… the safety of his children… everything.
And there, in the dump, he asked if he could pray… for me. And he did. And I was truly humbled. He had more faith in his little finger than I will have in a lifetime. It was an experience of being prayed for I will never forget. It didn’t seem fair that he would pray for… me.
In all reality, this morning’s parable is not about economic working conditions – just like last week’s parable wasn’t really instructions on how to look after a few sheep. There’s something else going on here.
In the context of Jesus parable, something vitally important is being said about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is making a place for the outsiders to become insiders.
The first Christians were all Jewish. God’s own people. People who had been living by the book by and large for centuries. They had history, longevity, and knowledge about the struggle of God’s people. They had experienced times of trial and tribulation that usually culminated with God pulling them from a sticky end again and again.
But then along comes these “gentile’s” – the ‘other’, the outsiders… like the woman Jesus meets in Matthew chapter 15… she begs him to intervene in the life of her daughter who was gravely ill. She begs and begs… and Jesus treats the woman EXACTLY how the crowd expects her to.
I was sent only to help the people of Israel – God’s lost sheep – not the Gentiles!
Now you would have thought that faced with such a bold faced ugly attack from this man of faith would have driven her away. But not so. You see Jesus is really setting people up for a reality check.
After he is bothered again by the Gentile woman, Jesus looks at her and calls her a dog… telling her that it isn’t right to take food from the children, meaning the children of Israel, and throw it under the table for the dogs, meaning the Gentiles, to eat.
He probably got a round of applause from the established church for that one. Score 1 Jesus, Score 0 Gentile.
And her response… and granted, I would have left Jesus long ago, but she is still there and still begging – even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall down.
And Jesus delivers a knockout verbal punch so to speak… not to the woman, but to those around him – his own disciples included. Woman, Jesus says, your faith is great. Your request is granted.
What – I mean what. I mean come on… that’s not fair Jesus. We were here first. We were here longer. Where’s OUR miracle.
Many of the Gentiles that had begun to listen to this Jewish rabbi preach had turned from pagan lifestyles to follow him. And it was a source of contention in the Jewish community. Some wanted them to become Jewish, to follow kosher food laws and come under the totality of the law. Some didn’t want them around altogether.
But Jesus showed them the same measure and gift of grace that had always been there for the Jew’s. Problem was, why should the Jews, the chosen ones, get the same treatment from Jesus as the Gentiles. We’ve been here from 6am, 9am, 12pm, even 3pm… and these johnny-come-lately’s get the same measure of love and grace poured out on them by God and they’ve been here 5 minutes.
The parable of the vineyard workers is addressing once again the outrageous nature of God. A God who loves without precondition or without predication. A God whose love cannot ever be earned or purchased.
This is the love with which God loves. Whether you arrived at the baptismal font too many years ago to even remember or like Patrick, who has come to the waters of baptism today… Whether you have followed Jesus from the years of your youth, or made a connection on your death bed… everyone receives the full measure of God’s grace. Everyone. Everyone. Even you.
In biblical economics, God promise to love and care for us has nothing to do with what time we started working, how much we have accomplished, or to what end we have arrived. It has everything to do with the incredible gift of grace that God shares with us again today – both in the waters of baptism and through the pages of scripture. Is it fair?? By our standards – no. By God’s standards – his grace, all of it, is sufficient for me… it’s sufficient for Francisco, it’s sufficient for Patrick, it sufficient for you.
Fairness has nothing to do with it. Absolutely stinking nothing. We are not called by God to be fair… we’re called to share in God’s love equally.
Life isn’t fair. But God is good. And God calls you this day to experience his goodness. You may think you don’t deserve it… you’re not good enough… or holy enough… or rich enough… or even poor enough… to be included in the kingdom of heaven – or even in something as simple as say, membership in the church. And you’d be right.
But the kingdom of heaven is not about whether you deserve God grace, earn God’s grace or think you have a right to God’s grace. It’s all about… experiencing and living in God’s grace. It matters not if you come into a realization of God’s grace as a child, a youth, an older adult, or when you hit a hundred years old. It matters… that you come. And today is a good a day as any to receive that gift – for the first time or the millionth time.