Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 20)

Text: Matthew 20:8-10
“When evening came, the owner told his foreman, "Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those who were hired last and ending with those who were hired first.'  The men who had begun to work at five o'clock were paid a silver coin each. So when the men who were the first to be hired came to be paid, they thought they would get more; but they too were given a silver coin each”.
Grapes

Our generous God

Apparently it was the custom in Jesus’ time for those men who relied on work on farms or labouring jobs with tradesmen that they would go to the central square in town early in the morning and wait for someone to come and choose workers for the day.  Sometimes there was a real urgency to harvest grapes and grain before bad weather rolled in and destroyed the lot.  And of course the landowners would pick the youngest and strongest men to work in their fields. 

Getting work was important.  It was a matter of survival.  The men who were given work first thing in the morning were certain that at the end of the day they would have a day’s wages to spend buying wholesome food for the wife and kids at home and everyone would go to bed with full tummies.

For those who were left standing in the town square things were less certain.  Waiting and hoping and praying for some work was nerve wracking.  Landowners and others offering work would come and go all day and each time those men in the square would hope that they would be picked.  How frustrating it must have been, knowing that the well-being of their families depended on a stranger, a landowner, who may or may not choose them to do some work and who didn’t know or care much about the consequences of not having work on the men’s families. 

It’s not that the workers in the town square were lazy, in fact, they longed to be in the fields under that hot sun working for someone and at the end of the day being paid a wage which would feed and cloth their family.

If they were still in the town square when the sun went down at the end of the day they would have to go home and say to their families that they had nothing to give them to eat that night.

In Jesus’ story just as they were about to give up hope someone comes and hires them and tells them that they will receive whatever pay is fair.  Something is better than nothing and a small amount might be just enough to get the family through to the next day.

But then - the landlord does something completely crazy, completely unexpected, completely and totally generous, something beyond their wildest dreams. He gives them a full day's wage even though they haven't earned it.  He gives them enough to live on.  He gives them enough to take home to their families and if they are careful this will be enough for tomorrow as well.

We know that those who had worked all day were unhappy with this kind of generosity.  The landowner explained they had no right to be unhappy because they were paid the agreed wage and besides, what right did they have to question his generosity. 

This kind of generosity flies in the face of everything that we would consider good work practice – both trade unions and employers’ associations would be up in arms.  It hardly fosters good relations among the workers and between workers and their bosses.  But this isn’t a story about what is fair, just and right – it’s a story about generosity that is unbelievable.  And Jesus says that is what the kingdom of heaven is like. This is what the generosity of God is like.

Jesus, beaten, whipped, mocked and nailed to a cross is evidence of the generosity of God.  The Son of God had come from heaven to earth, not because he was looking for a nice place to have a break from heavenly chores, but because he was part of a divine plan set in motion when the first man and woman disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden.  God became human, born in a stable, laid in a manger, raised in an out-of- the way country town, Nazareth, was misunderstood and rejected, falsely accused and wrongly sentenced to die on a cross. 
Why?  Why did Jesus go to such extremes? 
Because of his extravagantly generous love for each one of us. 

There is nothing fair about the way Jesus was treated. 
There was nothing fair about his trial.
There was nothing fair about the way this totally innocent man was executed as a criminal.
There is little doubt that the man who could command the wind and waves to stop, walk on water and raise the dead could have given his executors (and that includes us) what they truly deserve but instead he is able to say with such generosity of spirit, “Father, forgive them.  They don't know what they are doing”.

This generosity of God has confused people for centuries.

In today’s Old Testament reading we find Jonah sitting on a hill overlooking Nineveh.  He is very unhappy, even angry.  Why is he so upset?  After all the people of Nineveh had given up their wicked ways and God had decided not to punish them for their evil ways. 

Jonah thought this so unfair.  He considered himself a God fearing man always doing his best to follow God's ways and he slipped up just once – just once he disobeyed God and ended up in a storm, thrown overboard and then in the smelly belly of a big fish at the bottom of the sea.  And now here are the Ninevites – wicked through and through doing all kinds of R rated evil things and they get off scot free.  Where is the justice in that? 

That day Jonah learnt some valuable things about God's generous love not only for him but for all his creation.  The Ninevites might have been some of the most perverse people on the face of earth and they may have only just turned to God in repentance and worship but his love for them was no less generous than his love for the often cranky and self-righteous Jonah.

Just before our Gospel reading Jesus is asked by Peter, “Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him?”  Peter suggests seven times but Jesus is far more generous.  His answer implies there is no limit to the number of times that forgiveness is to be given. 

That sounds extremely unfair. By our human way of reckoning, there must be a limit to the times we forgive another person. There must be a time when we say, “That’s it. You’ve hurt me for the last time. Just watch me give you back some of what you have dished up to me!”  Jesus totally shatters our human standards of fairness and justice by giving each one of us his love and grace - without us having to work for it or deserve it. He sets a new standard for our relationship with others. 

There’s more to forgiveness than counting how many times we should forgive. Let’s not forget that God's generosity toward us is totally undeserved and unconditional, so it follows that we extend the same kind of generosity toward others. 

This can be expressed in any number of ways.

This happens in reverse as well.  When we are tired and worn down and depressed and feeling alone I’m sure we would appreciate someone being generous toward us and patiently taking the time to talk with us and help us see the brighter side of things.

It’s nice to talk about generosity in this way and how our lives ought to reflect the generosity of God toward us but we all know how hard it is to do just this.  As the workers experienced in the parable, the biggest barriers to generosity are envy and selfishness.  It’s that part of us that wants to be first and foremost over and above everyone else.  And it is just at that moment that we look to the generosity of God to forgive us again, renew us once more and redirect our attitudes to be more Christlike.

The generosity of God toward us is summed up in one word ‘grace’.  That’s what Jesus’ parable is all about and that’s what Jonah experienced that day outside Nineveh – the grace of God.

The men who received a full day’s wages for only a half-day’s work or less were surprised and no doubt appreciative of the landowner’s generosity.  This unexpected gift was a source of hope for the men that would bring happiness to their families and hope for a better tomorrow.  The generosity of God is what gives us hope when it seems that only gray skies and dark clouds colour our days.  It is this hope that changes the grays and blacks into the bright colours that only the grace of God can bring into our lives.

 

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
18th September 2011
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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