Sermon, 25th A Ordinary, September 21, 2008, Matthew 20:1-16

Read the texts at Vanderbilt’s site

the Labor Market
the Labor Market

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Matthew 20:1-16

Fairness is not God’s Strong Suit

Worry and anxiety are probably the words for this past week. When I was younger, swings in the stock market did not seem to matter too much to my daily life. Has that ever changed?!

Jesus never had to deal with a stock market – but he did deal with business issues – and the underlying issues that everyone of us deals with every day, and especially in times like these.

It is amazing that on a week in which all eyes seem to be riveted on the stock-market, this week’s lectionary text is set in the market place, and in fact speaks to market-issues.

But really, the setting of this parable is the human heart – and what it has to say to us in our Wall Street-conscious, anxious world is powerful – and we need to hear it.

Who are We in this parable?

First, a question: with whom do you identify as Jesus tells this parable – the landowner looking for laborers, or with the laborers?

As the story goes, it becomes clear that the Landowner is God, deciding whom to call and how generous to be.

So that leaves us identifying with the laborers. But which ones?

Those chosen early in the morning who have, as it says, “born the burden of the day and the scorching heat“?

Or with the ones who came last, who only worked an hour, but got paid a whole day’s wage?

It appears that we are stuck identifying with the all-day long workers: the others disappear having spoken no lines.

The center of this parable is the dialogue between the owner and the all-day-long workers. We identify with them.

Life is not fair

It is not a very happy state of affairs. They clearly come in for a rebuke which is no fun, and that’s after they have grumbled against the landowner. No pretty pictures in that bunch.

But they are us, and the long day they have born is life, and that’s exactly how it goes. The classic line from the film Princess Bride sums it up like this:

Life is pain, Highness; anyone who says differently is selling something”

(like mortgage-backed securities?)

And the most obvious thing you can say about the life whose burdens we have born in the scorching heat is that it is not fair.

We heard it first from our mothers when we were five, we have resisted believing it all our lives because – well, it just wouldn’t be fair for life to be unfair. But it is unfair.

It is not just that wealth is enjoyed unfairly – everything else is as well –

  • health,
  • happiness,
  • good marriages,
  • good children,
  • grandchildren,
  • and yes, even pensions.

Nothing about life is distributed to us on the basis of fairness- considerations made by a higher power.

And of course, it has to be that way or else the world would not be real, and no one would ever need to get out of bed in the morning.

But the burden of the day can be cruelly unfair. We are not talking only about the unfairness of front lawn size, we are also talking about the unfairness of who gets to eat today and who does not. There is nothing fair about that.

Life is not fair; so the question is, what do we do about it?

Jesus spent a good deal of time bringing God’s love and care to people who were at the bottom of the fairness barrel – feeding them, healing them, accepting them as people – regardless.

And he taught us to think like he did, (does), love like he does, extend care to others as he did – but this time the lesson is not about that. It’s about us. It’s about what is going on in our heads as we live this unfair life under the scorching sun.

Back to the story: if we are identifying with the workers who were hired first, let’s follow their story.

Life not gone “to plan” for fairness

First, they had a plan and they were willing to get out of bed early, get themselves down to the day-labor market, and get to work.

– By the way, this was real for many of Jesus’ followers who were landless; day-labor was how they survived.

They had a plan and they believed they knew what to expect. Yes they would have to work hard. Yes it would be heavy and and hot. It would not be an easy day – but they would get paid.

And they knew how much it was correct to expect. The daily wage for a laborer was not a mystery to labor or management.

And their plan worked. They were hired, they labored, and they were paid in full – just as planned.

But of course they were miserable. Why? Because everyone else got paid the same amount – for far less work. The plan was for fairness, but it ended up feeling unfair.

This is a simple situation of envy; soul-killing envy.

Suddenly this day that had gone so well, completely to plan, is now a day to regret, not one to celebrate.

It is not a day of joy, but misery.

It is amazing to consider that 2,000 years after this story was told, humans have not changed at all. We want all the breaks and the advantages that the lucky few get.

  • We want the good job, not just any job.
  • We want the promotion – let the other guy get passed over.
  • We want the compliment,
  • the prize for being the best,
  • the one that the others talk about.

Moral Hypocrisy – Dr. DeSteno

And we think we deserve it. In a fascinating study of human behavior conducted by Dr. DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University, we see that moral hypocrisy is what we do best.

It went like this: you tell a person that he has two tasks to do, one is hard, one is easy, and that another person will be brought in as well, so each of them has one of the tasks.

How should the tasks be assigned: let the first person simply choose who gets the hard and who gets the easy task? Or let a computer assign the tasks randomly?

Ask which way is fair; most people felt that the fair way would be the random computer way.

But when the time came for the tasks, and when given the choice of using the computer or just choosing one – (note: the other person would never know how the tasks were assigned), of course most people took the easy task for themselves and assigned the more difficult one to the other person.

Then afterward, when asked to reflect morally on the way the tasks were assigned, there were all kinds of rationalizations given for choosing the easy one over the difficult one.

We are guilty of what is called the self-halo. We are the ones who deserve easier, more, better, larger, whatever.

And so when someone else gets what we think we deserve, we are angry.

Jealousy is a soul-killer now just as it has been for as long as we have walked the earth.

Who is guilty for unfairness?

There is something deeper operating here. Who are the long-laborers upset with at the end of the day? Not at the other workers who were paid the same wage for less work, but at the Landowner.

The source of the unfairness, is God. Who else could give someone else:

  • the straight teeth,
  • the parents who stayed married,
  • the genetic code that keeps them cancer-free,
  • the family with the good income?

God is on the hook for this unfairness, right? How will he defend himself?

It is not easy to admit that you are mad at God – until you see it laid out so clearly in a parable.

And this is also the beauty of a parable: you get to see the story from another character’s perspective.

This parable is a dialogue between two speakers: we have heard our side – the jealous long-day workers. Now we get to hear God’s side.

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Envious because God is generous?

God’s generosity: characteristic, not mistake

To think that God’s generosity is his mistake is to miss the essence of his character: God is gracious.

The fact is, that everything we have is gift – not pay-back.
Everything good we have received is not a reward for labor, but a sign of God’s generosity.

This is what Jonah knew about God, and resented, like those laborers. Quoting the phrase used repeatedly throughout the Old Testament that describes God, Jonah says,

I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

Yes, he is. And that is not only why he has had mercy on the Ninevites, Jonah; that is why he has had mercy on you!

All is gift, all is grace

I may have born the burden of my days in the scorching heat but-

  • Who gave me life?
  • Who gave me health and strength enough to work?
  • Who gave me skill to do a job?
  • Why did I get to this moment and this good place?
  • Why do I have health insurance?
  • Why do I have the luxury of retirement?
  • Why was I born here and not in Darfur?

Not because I deserved it. Only grace alone.


And so my response can only be one: gratitude. Gratitude is the opposite of and the antidote to jealousy.

Gratitude is the balm that heals the soul that jealousy tries to kill.

Gratitude means that the calculations we do are not the calculations of the long-day workers.

They had their fairness plan:

  • they knew how much they were owed,
  • how many hours were in a working day,
  • they calculated their own worth to the landowner
  • and they expected his fair pay,

– and were miserable miserable when they got exactly what they were worth.

The grateful person, by contrast, calculates at the end of the day. Counting a list that begins with gratitude:

  • thankful for life itself,
  • thankful for work that needs to be done,
  • thankful for the strength to work,
  • thankful for the income to keep body and soul together,
  • thankful for rest at the end of a work day,
  • thankful for a God who gives and gives and gives on the basis of his generosity, on the basis of grace,
  • thankful that he has graciously forgiven me

– for all the times I have been:

  • prideful,
  • arrogant,
  • indulged in moral hypocrisy,
  • and jealousy,
  • and accused him of being generous to others more than to me.

Life is not fair.
We have not gotten what we deserved.

Instead, we have been given so much more than we could ever lay claim to. We have received everything by God’s generosity: by grace.
Now is the time for our response of pure gratitude.


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