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).
Jesus teaching

God's idea of fairness

The movie Amadeus is a story about 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.

Salieri recognised that Mozart was a genius but why should God give such genius to Mozart 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 takes his crucifix down from the wall and throws it in the fire. 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.

The Bible is full of examples of seemingly unfair situations. 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. A bag of money is a lot of money and 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. How unfair is that! You would think that Jesus would praise the big givers. After all, if everyone only give two small coins how would the temple ever be able to pay its bills?

Or what about the feast that was prepared for the disgraced runaway son when he returned home after wasting all his inheritance? Nothing was given to the son who had worked hard and faithfully at home while his brother was out having a good time. Where is the justice in that?

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!

Remember the time a woman took a whole jar of costly perfume, costing over a yearís salary, and poured it on Jesusí feet. On his feet, mind you! This perfume could have fed so many hungry people and you would expect Jesus to stop and tell her to stop being foolish. And to use what God has given to her wisely. Instead he praises her for doing such a wonderful thing. Now that seems so wrong!

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. 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. 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 in his right mind would pay the same for one hourís work as he paid those who worked twelve hours.

You see there is a common theme that runs throughout the scriptures, especially in Jesusí way of counting things. In our way of reckoning one plus one equals two Ė always and only two. But God's maths is completely different.
Two small coins are worth more than a heap of money,
one sheep is of equal value as 99 sheep,
when a son runs away and blows all his cash, he is loved as much as the son who has always done the right thing.
Whether a person works one hours or 12 hours, it makes no difference to a farmer who treats everyone alike.

This story of Jesus about the farmer and his workers is not about fairness and justice Ė thatís clear. It is about the generosity of the farmer and also about his persistence Ė he wants every family to have dinner that night and goes back to the market place on numerous occasions to give every lazy lay about a chance to share in his generosity and to take home a dayís wages to feed his family.

This story is not about some people deserving more than others or a farmer who short changes his hardest workers. All the workers had agreed to work for a set wage. Everyone got what had been promised. The problem was that some of the workers couldnít 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 to be 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 the way God thinks of us. In every situation where Jesus interacts with people he is telling us something about the generosity of God. God is generous, full of grace, and forgiving. He gives gifts; he doesnít give according to what we deserve.

Jesus died for us. How terribly unfair that is. 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 the way God does things Ė we call it grace.

Philip Yancey calls this the new maths of grace. When we go shopping, all our purchases are added up and we are told 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.

Last week we heard Peter ask Jesus, "How many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?" Peter thought that he was being extremely generous.

"Not seven times", Jesus answered, "but seventy times seven". Forgiveness is not something that can be counted with an abacus or a calculator. For the follower of Jesus there is no limit to the number of times we reach out to another person in forgiveness.

Now that sounds extremely unfair. 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.

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.

Let me go back to the film Amadeus. Salieri didnít agree with God's sense of fairness. He argued that if God was truly fair, he would have given that same musical talent to someone who really deserved it. The parable of Jesus reminds us that God's sense of fairness is often quite different to that of the rest of the world. And it is just at this point that we get all in a twist.

It is easy for us to adopt the worldís sense of fairness as we go about living our Christianity in our everyday lives. In a worldly sense it is only fair that the successful people and the heroes are rewarded. In the ways of the world it is only fair that if bad things happen to you, then you are somehow personally responsible. If you waste your money, over spend on unnecessary things, then it is only fair that you just have to tough it out until the next pay.

Or to use Jesusí imagery in the Good Samaritan story. If you are stupid enough to travel alone on a road that is notorious for robberies and beatings, then you deserve what you get. Thatís how the first two passers by saw the situation. But the Samaritan doesnít see a fool lying in the gutter, he sees someone who needs kindness, care, understanding, comfort and help. He applied God's sense of fairness to the situation.

This parable challenges us to rethink what is truly fair. The farmer had quite a different sense of fairness to some of the workers and I dare say to the rest of the community in which he lived. The difficulty that confronts each of us is to align our sense of what is and is not fair with God's sense of fairness. When the world around us and our human nature shout, "Thatís unfair!" we are confronted with the question, "As someone who lives totally under the grace of God, should I be joining the shouts about unfairness or should I be more generous, open minded, accepting, compassionate and understanding, in a similar way that God is all those things to me."

Thatís not always easy. We will make mistakes. If we canít decide what is God's will in a certain matter, then I believe, it is better to err on the side of grace. As people who live in the light, we are called to look at events around the globe and what is happening in other peopleís lives and in our own with different standards of judgement than those that operate in the world. It may mean giving someone the benefit of the doubt. It may mean doing what goes against your own desires and personality and reach out to that person who needs to experience the grace of God through you, who needs to hear your words of apology, forgiveness, kindness and friendship. It may mean going against the crowd - standing up for those who are being poorly treated even though the rest of society believes that what they are getting is what they truly deserve.

As I said, I know we will make mistakes as we apply God's standard of grace in the everyday events of our lives but this is where God's grace really shines. Even though we mess up and even though we donít deserve it, God keeps on loving us and forgiving us in spite of our mistakes. We see that in the cross, in the water of baptism and as we take into our hands the body and blood of Jesus. It is just these things that fill us again with a fresh dose of God's grace that we can apply to the lives of others.

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

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
18th September, 2005

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