September 21, 2014 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Have you ever had those moments when you hear yourself teaching your children the same lessons that your parents taught you, which makes you stop and think, “How did I ever grow up to become my parent?” One of the lines that I heard often as a child seems to come up a lot in our house right now, and I’m sure it’s one you know as well: “Life’s not fair.” She got a bigger piece of cake than I did! I’m sorry, son, but life’s not fair. Why does he get to use the iPad longer than I do? Well, honey, because life’s not fair. But, daddy, you promised that you would let all of us have a turn. I’m sorry, kids, I know I did, but life just isn’t fair. Considering how much I hated hearing that when I was a child (and how much I still hate hearing it today), I’m surprised how often I say it to my own children. But you know what? Life isn’t fair, and that’s one of those lessons we all have to learn the hard way.
But what happens when life gives us more than we deserve? No one ever says, “Life’s not fair,” when something good happens. “I got an A on my term paper even though I threw it together at the last minute. The boss gave me credit for all of your hard work. You’ve been playing golf all your life and have never had a hole-in-one and I got one the first time I teed it up. Oh well, life’s not fair.” No, we point to the unfairness of life when we’re not happy with the way things turned out—when we got the short end of the stick. That’s because we go through life expecting to get what we deserve, and, when we get less than what we are owed, we whine about it until someone reminds us that life isn’t fair. But, when we receive an unexpected, undeserved windfall, what do we do? We usually go quietly about our way, hoping that not too many people noticed.
That’s the message behind the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The question isn’t whether life in the kingdom of heaven is fair. It’s not. The question is whether we’re grumbling about it or sneaking away when no one is looking.
You don’t have to read the parable very carefully to realize that Jesus is using our sense of fairness against us. The owner of a vineyard went out at six o’clock in the morning and hired some laborers to work on his property, agreeing to pay them a denarius—the usual daily wage. Then, he went out again at nine o’clock and at noon and at three o’clock, and hired additional workers, each time promising to pay them what is right. Finally, at five o’clock in the evening—one hour before quitting time—he went to the marketplace and hired everyone who was still standing there. But when it came time to pay the workers, he gave all of them the exact same amount—a denarius, the usual daily wage. As we would expect, those who worked all day wanted to be paid more. They were furious. “How can you make them equal to us?” they asked. “We did all they work. We deserve more than they do!” Now, Jesus doesn’t tell us what happened to the workers who were paid first, but I’d bet they slipped away as quickly as they could, hoping their angry colleagues wouldn’t find them. And my question for you this morning is this: what sort of worker do you think you are—one who started first thing in the morning or one who showed up at the last hour?
Of course, the parable assumes that the hearer thinks of himself or herself as one who worked all day. It wouldn’t be a very interesting story if it didn’t play against our sense of fairness and hook us because we think we deserve more than those Johnny-come-latelies who show up at the last minute. You’re dang right we deserve more! We’ve been here from the beginning. We’ve been serving the Lord our whole lives. Although we’d rather not talk about those years when we were in college…or in our twenties…or those Sundays during football season…you’d better believe we deserve more than those lifelong heathen who only recently started going to church. They’re only here because their new wives expect them to be.
But that’s not how the kingdom of heaven works. That’s not how God works. Instead, in the person of Jesus Christ, we discover that God loves the sinner as much as the saint…the prostitute as much as the Pharisee….the drug dealer as much as the DEA agent…the abuser as much as the victim. And we don’t like that. It’s ok for Jesus to show his love for the societal outcast as long as it’s the kind of outcast we’ve never met. But we don’t like it when people who have spent the majority of their lives as deadbeat dads and child molesters undergo a last-minute change of heart and then get to sit next to us in heaven. They don’t deserve it. They should, at the very least, have to spend eternity in a lower state of paradise—the public housing section of heaven, perhaps. But they don’t. They’re right there with us.
And, if that were all this parable had to teach us, it would be enough. One of the greatest struggles of being a Christian is accepting that God grants repentant sinners of all stripes a full share in his kingdom. We could spend a lifetime striving to grasp the concept of God’s indiscriminate love. But accepting that others receive a full share is only half of the lesson. The other half—the much harder half—is learning to accept that we are just as undeserving as they are.
What’s more infuriating—that the lazy-good-for-nothings get paid as much as those who worked all day or the fact that those who worked all day only got as much as those who barely worked at all? In the parable, all of the workers were paid the same amount. In other words, no one was compensated on the basis of the work he did. No one was singled out for doing a good job. No one got a pat on the back or a thank you for what he did. Why? Because the intrinsic value of the laborers is based not on what they contributed but purely on the fact that the master called them to work. It’s hard enough for me to accept that other people get a full share in the kingdom, but I also must accept that I don’t deserve the kingdom any more than they do. That’s the double-edged sword of grace: anyone gets in because no one deserves it.
Our place in God’s kingdom is a gracious gift; we didn’t earn it. Whether we were called at six o’clock in the morning or at five o’clock in the evening, we are all invited into the vineyard. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how long you work. That isn’t fair, but thanks be to God that it’s not. You belong in the kingdom not because of what you’ve done but because God has made a place for you. That’s good news. If you’re grumbling at the master because of what other people are getting, you’ve missed the point of God’s love. No, they don’t deserve it, but neither do you. Would you rather have it any other way? Amen.