The unfair mercy of God

Sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s not fair!” I would protest.

I am the oldest of three boys, and as is typical for siblings, and perhaps especially older children, I was hyper-aware to perceived unfairness.  It is almost this primal preservation instinct, that we have to compete in order to gain the things we need to survive. Of course, I was not arguing for something crucial for my survival, it was always something comparably trivial. 

This often happened when the two of us would fight, and we would both be punished. “But I didn’t start it!” I would say. “It takes two to fight,” they would reply. “But it’s not fair!” I would protest. “Life isn’t fair” would come the reply. 

These words would come to me regularly, “Life isn’t fair.”

As a child I never really understood what they were getting at, but as an adult I understand, and I am learning more and more with each passing year. We like to think that the way that we do things is fair. If you do the right things, you will be successful. If you are good at your job you won’t find yourself unemployed. Except this isn’t the way things work. Fantastic workers find themselves unemployed. People with college degrees find themselves in living a homeless shelter. People who live within their means can still find a foreclosure notice come through the mail. But we live in a society that has the illusion of fairness, and we hold up fairness as the peak virtue. But life isn’t fair, as my parents reminded me so often. Life isn’t fair.

And here we have a story which, if we are honest, rubs us the wrong way. It is a story which is unfair, incredibly so.

Jesus begins his parable with, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who went out early in the morning to the town square, the marketplace, the place where day laborers gathered to wait for work. 

This story reminds me of John. John was a day laborer. Every day he would get up at four in the morning so that he could catch the bus, if he was able, or walk the few miles to the agency so that he could be there at five to try to find work that day. He would never know if there would be work, some days he would work. Other days he would go home without work. It is a true hand-to-mouth life. In many ways, this is not that much different today as it was then. Day laborers would gather at a central location and hope that someone would come and hire them.

So this landowner needs helpers, so he goes and finds some to work. The day goes on and he sees that he will need more workers and so he goes back, and finds people who had still not been hired, and so he hired them as well. He does this again, and again. He goes back in late in the day, one hour before the work day was done and finds more people there. “Why are you here?” he asks. We cannot see the world “idle” and think lazy.

These people needed work so badly they stayed there in the off-chance that someone would come and hire them. “Why are you here?” he asks them. “Because no one has hired us,” they reply. So he hires them and they come to work in his vineyard.

As is typical, by the time that the day is over, it comes time to get paid. It would have been typical to begin with the people who were there first, and pay them first, as it is only fair. But the landowner does not do this, he starts with those hired last, and he gives them a Denarius, a full day’s wage. I can only imagine how excited the people down the line must have felt. Perhaps they were calculating in their head. Maybe I would get five, six, maybe even ten denarii. 

He moves to those who had been there a few hours, and gives them also a denarius. I can imagine at this point people would begin to wonder exactly what is going on.

By the time that he came to the first to be paid, and he gave them also the day’s wage.

But it’s not fair! they protested. They only worked an hour and we worked all day in the heat and the sun, and you paid them the same as us! The landowner reminds them that he paid them what he promised, and that he chose to pay others the same. After all, they too have families to feed and mortgages to pay. 

You see, from the perspective of those trying desperately to find work but no one hiring them, but for the last hour of the day, this landowner was being merciful. But from the perspective of those who had labored all day, he was being unjust. They had worked longer, they deserved to be paid more. It isn’t fair. And it is true, it isn’t fair.

And I think that this is what bends our noses about this passage. Even though the first ones hired were paid what they were promised, no less, this fundamentally isn’t fair. People should get what they deserve, and what they receive should be in proportion to what they do, right? 

***

 This parable, like so many others, functions as a mirror for us. When we think we are on top we plead for fairness, but when we think that we are an underdog, we plead for mercy. When I’ve put in the long day under the sweltering heat, I want fairness, but when no one wants to hire me, and the weight of providing for my family weighs on my shoulders and I stay out, desperately hoping that someone will hire me, I prefer mercy.

I wonder, where might you see yourself in this parable? Are you one of the first laborers hired who worked long hours under the hot sun. Perhaps you are the one who found themselves fortunate enough to be hired, even as it seemed as though there might not be a place.

Perhaps you compare what is given to you with what is given to the others and find that you are left wanting. Perhaps you are so overwhelmed with gratitude at the mercy of the landowner.

Perhaps you can see yourself in both groups of workers. In fact, this is often the case, that we can find ourselves in not only one character but several, and from those different perspectives we can see things a bit differently, and we can learn more about what it says about who we are and who God is and who we are in relationship to God.

***

The most shocking lesson that we learn from this is that God isn’t fair. We like the idea of a fair God. We like the idea that we can choose what to do, or not to do. We like the idea that God will give us what we deserve, and reward us in proportion. But God is not fair, and this is a good thing. Why is it good? Because if God gave to us what we deserve we would be in trouble, we would never enter the kingdom of heaven, we would be lost. God is not fair, and this is the best news that one can learn. God is not fair, but God is merciful and gracious.

This landowner did not have to pay everyone a full day’s wage, but he chose to. Those who worked the longest were not cheated or shorted, they were given what was due to them. But the wideness of the landowner’s mercy showed when he gave to everyone what they needed.

The kingdom of heaven is like…a vineyard where God calls so many people and provides for their needs. This is a marvelous view of the kingdom of heaven, isn’t it?

But this is not just for that some point in the distant future. Indeed, Jesus preaches that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and we know that the kingdom of heaven began with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and is slowly unfolding, slowly continuing its progress of renewing and redeeming all of creation until the final consummation, when all things will be made right.

So, Jesus is not telling this parable to tell people about heaven, Jesus is telling this parable to help them understand about their lives here and now as well, and what God desires of their lives. And so I wonder as well if there is a third role in which we can find ourselves, that of the landowner.

Jesus was not about saving souls but redeeming lives. Jesus is not interested in getting people into heaven when they die, but about transforming creation to reflect the original created order, and perhaps the land owner is a role for some of us to consider, to not be so concerned about fairness, but about mercy and grace. As a culture we are obsessed with fairness, because this is what we think to be the highest virtue — and we cannot even do this. But for followers of Christ, fairness is not the goal, fairness is the beginning point, fairness is crawling. Mercy and grace — this is what it is to walk. Mercy is fairness-plus-plus.

So, sisters and brothers, let us remember that God is merciful beyond comprehension, thankfully not dealing with us the way that we deserve, but dealing with us out of God’s immense love for us and for creation, giving us far more than we deserve or can earn. And let us remember that we, as the church, are called to be a foretaste for the kingdom of heaven, and that we, too, are called to show forth mercy and grace, and through our actions, others can see God.

 

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