That's Not Fair!

Text: Matthew 20:1-16
Date: Pentecost XIX (Proper 18) + St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist Day + 9/21/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

Peace be to you and grace from Him who freed us from our sins.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

As a preacher myself, I don’t get to hear a lot of other preaching as you would probably guess. And when a preacher does get to sit and listen to a sermon preached by someone else, you can imagine the temptation to criticize the sermon along the way (I wonder where he’s going with that, I would have said such and such, I would have said it this way or that, I wouldn’t have said that at all). Preachers need to learn how to listen to sermons just like everyone else—as a workshop of the Holy Spirit working through and in and around the particular words preached to speak to people in His own way.

Last week I got to listen to a sermon on videotape. The preacher was filling in for someone else and I don’t know his name. It was Father’s Day. So the sermon, based, I think, in the Old Testament reading for the day, was basically God’s design and advice for how to be a good father. The further the sermon went, however, I became increasingly disturbed because I began to lose hope that he was actually going to get around to preaching the gospel. As practical, helpful and understandable as it was, he never did preach the gospel. As close as he got was God as the example of fatherhood. I even began to feel a little guilty that I’ve never preached a sermon as practical and as helpful as that. But that’s because I’ve always and still believe that I am called to preach the gospel. The gospel is not just good advice or models of virtue given for us to imitate. The gospel is the word given only for people who have and admit that they have screwed up, blown it, failed, who have sinned and lost, or nearly lost, all hope.

So I suppose one could take today’s reading of Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard and design a sermon on fair employment practices or management-worker relations. Couldn’t you imagine someone doing that, especially with the explosive news in these days of the housing and mortgage markets and the bailouts and bankruptcies of Wall Street? But again, as practical as you could make it, it is still possible to go that route and never preach the gospel. Jesus did not say, “So now, your life as a Christian is going to be like this.” He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like” this. He’s not as much describing you as He is describing an aspect of God’s rule. That narrows the scope dramatically. We are not talking primarily of employment practices or management-worker relationships in the world. We are talking about the kingdom of heaven using an earthly analogy to show how different things are in God’s rule.

The Jewish leaders grumbled about Christ’s gracious offer to sinners. When they saw Jesus having table fellowship with tax collectors and “sinners” they complained. But Jesus’ kindness to them in no way negated the same grace extended to the Pharisees. They were jealous. The tax collectors and sinners, who were considered last and least, were nevertheless the first to receive God’s gracious offer, while those who considered themselves first in the kingdom were the last to receive it, if they received it at all.

In the parable, the master of the house went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. The contract was written and they all agreed to the wage of a denarius a day. As the day progressed the master hired others about the third, sixth and the ninth hours of the day promising only that he would give them “whatever is right.” And there were still others hired for only the last hour of work.

What would be a “right” wage for those who did not work the whole day? Well, obviously, we rightly think, they deserved only a prorated wage of three-quarters or half or one-quarter or one-twelfth of a denarius. But when payday came around, the master began with those who worked only one hour and gave each of them a whole denarius!

Now, of course, the first guys to be hired may have been impressed with the master’s generosity…at first. But that didn’t last long for, of course, the second thought was, “we must be going to get more!” “Hooray!” But when it came their turn, each of them also received only a denarius. That’s when the picket line started forming with the complaint, “That’s not fair!”

Now the punch-line to this parable is telling. The point is, clearly, that the first were not wronged. They got what they had agreed to work for. But the master is free to be generous to whomever he will. The telling thing is in the word the master uses to address the first-hour workers. “Friend,” he says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” That word translated “friend” appears only three times in Matthew’s Gospel. First here, then in chapter 22 when the king of another parable addressed a man at the wedding banquet who was not wearing his wedding clothes, and finally when Jesus addressed Judas who was about to betray him, “Friend, do what you came for.” Some “friends,” eh? The word seems to describe a mutually binding relation between the speaker and the hearer, which the latter has disregarded and scorned.

What’s really going on here in the spiritual realm, in kingdom of heaven talk? Well, first, God never promised to give us what we think we deserve for our efforts. Whenever we grumble against God we reveal our loveless and unmerciful attitudes and demonstrate that we are still thinking the lower thoughts in the way of the Law and not God’s higher thoughts in the way of the Gospel.

It is possible to think you know the gospel and still not “get it.” For instance, the person who has been baptized and instructed in the faith, but begins to sin against the Third Commandment, thinking, “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” That person hasn’t “gotten it” yet that the only way for faith to remain faith and alive is by not despising preaching, but to continue to gladly hear and learn and to remain in connection with God’s means of grace. As I implied at the beginning of the sermon, amazingly, even some preachers can know all about the gospel and still apparently not “get it” as they seem to forget it in their preaching!

The Gospel-way is to know that God is generous to all. You either have salvation through the forgiveness of all your sins or you don’t. There’s no prorating God’s grace—everyone who will, receives the same: 100%. No matter how long you have been warming the same pew (or preaching from the same pulpit) year after year, you do not have any more grace than the newly-converted, whether that be a newly-baptized infant, the newly-confirmed youth or the older adult who has only recently come to conversion and faith. The only question is whether you hold on to that gift by continual repentance and faith or if you let go of it, either by pride or neglect.

Not only the grumbling Pharisees, but also even Jesus’ own disciples, and you and I are always in danger of making distinctions God hasn’t made and of reverting back to the lower ways of the Law. Rather, let us be among those of whom the Apostle Paul writes when he says, “only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that…I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). When Jesus says, “the last will be first, and the first last,” the question is not as much who are the last and the first as it is, “isn’t it wonderful that God is gracious to all?”