Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 20)

Text: Matthew 20:15-16
Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?
Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”


It’s not fair

It’s not fair!  This is not right!  What’s reasonable and sensible about this? We’ve heard variations of this recently over the whole issue of border closures and who should be allowed to cross into our state especially where there is a need for compassion and sympathy. It’s clear as we talk about these things, everyone has a different opinion and good reasons to explain what is fair and what in not fair. What the leaders of our state see as fair to protect the whole community, others see as unfair because they are eroding the individual’s freedom.

On another note, how many times have I thought those words, “It’s not fair” or heard something similar spoken by those sitting around the bed of a young father dying of cancer, or at the funeral of teenager suddenly taken, or by those hearing the news of a child plucked from life by a tragic accident.

The Bible is full of examples of seemingly unfair situations.  Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Job, the people of Israel and many more Old Testament characters were dealt unfair hands. It seems that God has a completely different sense of what is fair and unfair compared to how we would define what is fair and unfair.  Jesus made this blatantly obvious when he turned upside down what was normally considered to be just and fair and sensible. 

On one occasion
Jesus was watching the rich making such a big show of dropping their bags of money into the temple treasury. Everyone was impressed at their generosity. But when Jesus saw a poor widow come in and drop two small coins into the offering bowl, Jesus claimed that she had given more than all the others put together. Logic tells us, “That’s not fair!”

Or what about the father who went overboard welcoming home his disgraced runaway son when he returned home after wasting all his inheritance and then turning on a massive feast?  There was no feast for the faithful and dutiful son.  That’s not fair!

What about the thief on the cross next to Jesus?  He had lived his life with total disregard for God and basic human decency.  And what does Jesus do when the thief makes a last-minute confession?  He promises that he would be saved and enjoy the good life in Paradise.  Now that hardly seems fair!

Today we heard about Jonah and how angry he was with God. The people of Nineveh were truly wicked people and didn’t deserve the love and mercy God was showing them. In his opinion God wasn’t being fair. He was so angry and disagreed with God’s idea of fairness so strongly, he said, “Lord, I am so angry, angry enough to die”.

Do you get the picture?  A theme we find throughout both the Old and New Testaments is that God’s idea of fairness is very different to ours. In fact, we could shout, “That’s unfair” as we turn over page after page.  And our Gospel reading is a classic example of unfairness. 

Jesus tells about a farmer who had a bumper crop and hired people to work for him.  Some clocked on at sunrise, some at morning smoko, some at lunchtime and some at the afternoon coffee break.  The farmer even hired some just an hour before knock-off time.  Everyone was happy to be working but things changed at pay time.  Those who had worked all day received the same pay as those who had worked just one hour. 

This story offends our sense of fairness.  It makes no sense to us at all. Why should these latecomers receive exactly the same as the hard workers?  The latecomers didn’t deserve the same pay as those who had worked all day and that’s how any decent boss should have paid the workers. 

But if we look closely, we see that the farmer agreed to pay the workers whatever was right and fair.  The workers were all happy with this no matter when they started.  A problem arose when those who worked the longest didn’t agree with the boss’s definition of what was fair.  No-one got less than they were promised. They couldn’t accept that the boss had the right to be generous to whomever he wished.  It was his privilege to be kind-hearted to those who had been employed for fewer hours.  This story offends our sense of fairness.  But there is a theme here.
Two small coins are worth more than a heap of money,
one sheep is of equal value as 99 sheep,
a rebellious son is loved as much as the son who has always done the right thing.
a man who works one hour work is treated as one who works all day.

This whole business about what is fair and unfair gives us a glimpse into the heart of God.  God doesn’t dish out to us according to what we deserve.  If he did that then Jesus would never have come to this earth as God-in-the-flesh and endured all that he did for our sake.  What is fair and unfair doesn’t come into God’s way of thinking at all and like the landowner he gives generously way beyond what we deserve.  He gives generously because that’s the way he is.  He gives generously according to our need and is not put off by the kind of people we are.

There is no hiding the fact that sin is so deep-rooted in us that it takes control of what we say, do and think.  We rebel against God and his ways.  We find it difficult to stop ourselves hurting others.  But because our God is the kind of God he is, he doesn’t weigh up our lives to measure whether this person deserves mercy and this person is beyond all help.

The word ‘deserve’ doesn’t apply to the way God thinks of us.  Rather than give up on humanity God sent his Son for all people.  Jesus died for us all.  Again, this is something terribly unfair – he is the sinless one and yet he died because of the sin of everyone else. God gave us his Son rather than give up on humanity.  The death of Jesus was unfair but that’s how God's grace works.

To summarise what this parable tells us about God –
He loves each of us deeply and profoundly.
He is extremely generous to each of us regardless of whether we think we deserve or have earnt his love. This generosity of God goes beyond anything we can imagine.  We try to get our heads around how gracious God is toward us, but I don’t think we will ever fully appreciate the greatness of his love for us in this life.

This parable leads us to ask several questions.
Firstly, how aware are we of this amazing love and generosity of God?  The workers were so focussed on the amount of work they had done and how much the other person was paid, that they failed to see and celebrate the generosity of the boss and that everyone was able to go home with enough money to feed their family, even those who were employed late and were perhaps worried about what they could bring home to the wife and kids.  This parable urges us to reflect on the goodness of God in our lives in so many ways.

There are times when we are faced with the unfairness of life.
There is pain, grief, distress, worry, upset, that can get us all tied up inside and yet all the time we have a God who lovingly urges us to lean on him, trust his goodness, have faith in his love for us. Life at time ‘sucks’ but God’s love stands by us forever.
Circumstances and situations will lead us to say that life isn’t fair, or maybe question how a loving God can be so unfair. There were times in the history of the people of Israel when this is precisely how they felt.  But their feelings deceived them.  God kept on reassuring them,
“Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

We can never pretend that the problems, pain and trouble of our life don’t exist, and the Bible never makes light of human suffering with words that reduce the impact of what happens to us in this life. 

But it does give us the assurance
that we aren’t travelling alone;
that God’s love gives us a strength beyond our own strength;
that God’s knowledge and wisdom about our circumstances far exceeds anything we can comprehend and we trust in his love which is so high and deep and wide that it will hold us up above the waves in the wildest storms;
that we have the Spirit who reminds us that all disappointments and trouble are temporary and a prelude to eternal life with God.

The parable about the generosity of the landowner and the story of God’s mercy to the Ninevites is a timely reminder of the love and goodness of God in the most trying times. That leads us to our second point.

These readings call us to look at ourselves and wonder how God sees us.  The Jonah reading is a good one for this.  When God saw Jonah sitting outside the walls of Nineveh, what did he see?  A very angry and upset man.  Remember Jonah was happy to receive God’s grace after his own act of rebellion when he boarded a ship to escape God’s call.  Somehow he felt entitled to God’s grace, but not the people of Nineveh.  God made several attempts at changing Jonah’s heart, but in the end, there is no response from Jonah. Our laughter at Jonah’s stupidity and moodiness is silenced when we realise that this is not just a story about Jonah, but this is a story about how God sees us.

It’s a sobering thought. These texts today challenge us to consider this – how can we be better conduits, better channels of God’s grace to others.  Paul puts it like this, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5) or “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12). Being God’s love to others is no small task but it is one we are called to as people who have been made new in the blood of Christ. 

God’s grace changes us;
it affects how we respond to others;
it makes a difference how we treat those with whom we disagree;
it enables us to be more understanding, more compassionate, more forgiving, more patient.

God’s grace also enables us to go back to our Father when we have messed up and like Jonah, he will give us as many chances as we need to be his grace to others.

The Lord fill us with his grace that we may all the more be his grace to others even when we think it’s not fair.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

20th September 2020

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