Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost 
(Proper 20)

Text: Matthew 20:1-16
"Listen, friend,' the owner answered one of them, "I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day's work for one silver coin. Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?' " And Jesus concluded, "So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last" (verses 13-16).
 

It isnít fair!

In a Charlie Brown cartoon, Lucy is walking home from school with Charlie, carrying her report card in her hand. She turns to Charlie, and, in self-righteous indignation, complains: ďIt isn't fair Charlie Brown, it just isn't fair! I studied for a whole week for my final maths test and Sally only studied for two hours the night before the test and she got an A, but I only got a C. It just isn't fair!Ē

The movie Amadeus is the story of the great musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The movie portrayed Mozart as a rather eccentric, almost schizophrenic-genius who, without question, was a very gifted musician and composer. Another composer, the devout Salieri, despised Mozart and considered him immature, flippant, arrogant and obnoxious. Why should Mozart be such a gifted musician and composer when he didn't deserve it? After all, Salieri was the Lord's servant, in obedience to his Saviour Jesus Christ, why shouldn't Christ give him this gift instead of Mozart? He was a better person and he deserved it.

In a moment of despair, Salieri feels that his Lord Jesus Christ has forsaken him, so he removes his crucifix down from the wall and burns it. Salieri could not live with God's love and grace. He wanted fairness and justice; he wanted from God what he thought he had worked for, earned and deserved.

How many times have we said or heard others say, "It isnít fair!"

I know I said it just the other day when I read about a young man who came to the rescue of a girl whose life was in danger. The attacker was wielding a samurai sword which he used to permanently maim the young rescuer. Even though the young manís injuries were extensive, the attacker received a very light sentence. That isnít fair!

The Bible is full of examples of seemingly unfair situations.
God chose Jacob the conniver and cheat over his dutiful brother Esau.
He chose a runty shepherd boy above his strong and handsome brothers.
He gave Solomon, the result of the kingís adulterous relationship, the ultimate in wisdom and wealth.
Job, a pious and good living man, suffered the loss of everything he owned Ė his property, his stock and his children.
Jesus chose to have dinner with a thief and cheat named Zaccheus instead of the religious people Ė the Pharisees and temple officials.
After watching a widow drop two puny coins into the temple collection buckets, Jesus belittled the more hefty contributions, saying that this widowís pennies were worth more than a rich manís millions.
Or what about the feast that was prepared for the disgraceful, runaway son when he returned home after wasting all his inheritance? Nothing was given to the son who had worked hard and faithfully while his brother has gallivanted around having a good time.
After a life of wickedness, the thief on the cross alongside Jesus made a last minute confession and Jesus promised that he would be saved. That hardly seems fair!

Do you get the picture? A theme that comes through the Bible is that God is unfair. In fact, we could shout, "Thatís 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. Thefarmer 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. Why should these latecomers receive exactly the same as the trusted regular workers? The latecomers had been lazing around the market place for most of the day; they had done nothing to deserve the same pay as those who had worked all day. No employer would in his right mind would pay the same for one hourís work as he paid those who worked twelve hours.

Philip Yancey (1) sums up like this, "Jesusí story makes no economic sense, and that was his intent. He was giving us a parable about grace, which cannot be calculated like a dayís wages. Grace is not about finishing last or first, not as something we toil to earn, a point that Jesus made clearly through the farmerís response:

"Listen, friend," the owner answered one of them, "I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day's work for one silver coin. Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?"

The farmer didnít cheat anyone. They had all agreed to work for a set wage. Everyone got what had been promised. The problem was that some of the workers could not accept that the boss had the right to be generous to whomever he wished. It sounds unfair and humanly speaking it is.

What Jesus is trying to get through to us is that if God were fair, if God paid us according to what we deserve, we would all end up in hell. Principles relating to what is fair and unfair do not come into God's way of thinking. God doesnít use accounting methods to decide what we deserve. In fact, the word deserve does not apply to way God thinks of us. Jesusí story is about the generosity of God. God is generous, full of grace, and forgiving. He gives gifts, he doesnít give according to what we deserve.

He gives generously because of who he is and not because of who we are. We are sinners, rebels against God, our behaviour repulses God. We canít help ourselves when sin takes control of what we say, do and think but because God is who he is, he does not give up on us. Jesus died for us. Again, this is something terribly unfair Ė he is the sinless one and yet he dies 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 thatís God's grace at work.

Philip Yancey calls this the new maths of grace. When we go shopping, all our purchases are added up and what to pay. If God did that, we couldnít afford all that we owe. God doesnít calculate what we deserve but is generous and forgiving. But Jesusí disciple, Peter, was a bit of a mathematician. He knew exactly that 153 fish were caught in the miraculous catch of fish. And it was Peter who came up with a mathematical formula relating to how many times one person should forgive another. "How many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me?" he asked Jesus. "Up to seven times?" Peter thought that he was being extremely generous. The Jewish teachers taught that three was the maximum number of times that a person might be expected to forgive. So when Peter suggested seven he thought that this was a good formula for grace. Twice as many the recommended times plus one.

Little did he realise that if God only forgave him seven times that he would be in deep trouble. Considering how many times we sin against God in one day, to be forgiven seven times by God wouldnít even get us past morning smoko. To put a limit on the number of times we forgive another person shows that we are working according to what the other person deserves and not according to the grace that God has shown toward us. "Not seven times", Jesus answered, "but seventy times seven". He is saying that forgiveness is not something that can be counted with an abacus or a calculator. Because God has been gracious to us, it follows then that we should be equally gracious toward those who sin against us. C.S. Lewis put it this way, "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you." (2)

That sounds extremely unfair. By our human way of reckoning there must be a limit to the times we forgive another person who is repentant and sorry for the hurt they have caused. There must be a time when we say, "Thatís it. Youíve hurt me for the last time. You donít deserve my friendship." As someone once said, "If they donít deserve it, then I donít owe it". But according to God's new maths of grace, there is no limit. 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.

Thereís more to forgiveness than counting how many times we should forgive. Letís not forget that God's forgiveness toward us is totally undeserved and unconditional, so likewise shouldnít our forgiveness toward others be the kind that is gracious and does not depend on how sorry the other person is or what he/she does to make things right again? To forgive a person because he/she has first given something to us is not based on the new maths of grace.

God is generous with his forgiveness and we are called on to practice this kind of divine forgiveness in our daily lives. It calls me
to step over all my arguments about who is right and wrong,
to overcome that part of my heart that feels hurt and wronged,
to conquer the need to get revenge either by actively doing something to hurt the other person or by avoiding any contact with them,
and to rise above that part of me that wants to put conditions on the one whom I am asked to forgive.
This is a hard thing to do because we have ingrained in us the merit system. You get what you deserve. Yancey says, I never find forgiveness easy, and rarely do I find it completely satisfying. Nagging injustices remain, and the wounds still cause pain. I have to approach God again and again, yielding to him the residue of what I thought I had committed to him long ago. I do so because the Gospels make the clear connections: God forgives my debts as I forgive my debtors. The reverse is also true: Only by living in the stream of God's grace will I find the strength to respond with grace toward others.
(3)

Striving to let divine grace shine through us into the lives of others is a difficult task for us sinners. In fact, it is an impossible standard because God requires perfection, meaning to love as he loves. The more we realise this, the more we come to appreciate the gift of God's grace and the easier it is for us to be grace-filled to others. John sums up all that I had said like this,
"This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven. Dear friends, if this is how God loved us, then we should love one another" (1 John 4:10,11).

 

(1) Philip Yancey, Whatís so amazing about grace? chapter 5 ĎThe new math of graceí.
(2) Quoted in Yancey page 64
(3) Whatís so amazing about grace? page 93

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
22nd September
, 2002
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com 

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