Sunday, November 16, 2014

Unfair Justice

Matthew 20:1-16
November 16, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Matthew 20: 1-16

1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, "Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard.' 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9 When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

It just isn’t fair.

There’s no other way to say it. It isn’t fair that someone who works from sunup to six pm gets a day’s wage, and someone who works one hour gets the same wage. That isn’t fair. Maybe you can make a case for the people who came to work at nine in the morning. That’s still a pretty good day’s work, maybe worth a day’s pay. Maybe even the people who came to work at noon, and worked until six.

The people who heard this story, when Jesus first told it, would have identified most strongly with the workers who started early. They’d have known that a denarion, a day’s pay for a laborer, was just barely enough for living another day – enough to eat, to get by. There was no such thing as the eight-hour day; no 40 hour weeks. You started working when the sun came up and stopped when it was supper time. So after you had put in twelve hours in the hot sun, you’d be understandably put out that someone who worked one hour was getting exactly the same pay as you.

“Dangit!” you’d think – “I should have slept in, had some breakfast, done some washing, then started work this afternoon.” It isn’t fair that an employer would pay everyone the same, no matter when they started working. Jesus knew it when he told the story.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells this story to the disciples just after a young man has come to him asking “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus tells him to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and come and follow him. The young man went away grieving, and Jesus said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples are troubled by this. Who then can be saved? they ask Jesus. He tells them that all things are possible with God. Then Peter, still working this out, says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

And then he tells them this story.

They’ve asked a sincere question of him – “What’s in it for us?”
And he has answered with this parable.

Jesus keeps talking about the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. It’s like this, he says, or like this other thing. The young man wants to know what good deed he has to do in exchange for eternal life. Peter wants to know what he and the other disciples are going to get in exchange for all they have given up, in payment for all they have done for him. The disciples have been with him from the first; they came with him right when he called them, and they’ve stuck with him. They haven’t had a day off or a vacation from following him. They’ve left their homes and families and gone with him wherever he went. They’d like some assurance that the work they are doing is worth something. They’d like to know that their sacrifices matter. They’d like to know that this kingdom of God he keeps saying is at hand really is going to materialize.

They haven’t yet grasped what is more apparent to us now, in retrospect, about the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom. Jesus keeps talking about it, but they can’t quite make sense of it. Is the kingdom at hand, here, now? Or is about to be realized, when he takes over in Jerusalem, throws out the Roman occupiers, and establishes himself on David’s throne? Or is it a kingdom still to come, far off, in the afterlife, in actual heaven? What the disciples haven’t understood is that the kingdom is here and now, whenever and wherever people do the will of God. And the kingdom is also future, on that day when there is a new heaven and a new earth, when God redeems and renews all creation.

So when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” they pay close attention, but it doesn’t make any sense to them.

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes out to hire workers. Landowners don’t go out to hire workers for their vineyards. They send their stewards – their managers. When they go hire workers, they get all they need and then they’re done. They don’t keep going back to the market place, picking up losers and sluggards and sinners, bringing them all back to work in the vineyard without paying any attention to the time. Landowners don’t pay everyone the same – at least not landowners who are fair! A fair man would give a greater reward to those who work more, and a lesser reward to those who do less.

If God were fair, everybody would be rewarded, according to the number of good deeds they do. Then we could go ask Jesus, like the young man in the story, “How good do I have to be, to be part of the kingdom of God? What kind of work do I need to do to earn salvation from you? How much do I need to give, or give up, to know the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus answered him and told him to give up everything. And that isn’t fair either.

Because God isn’t fair.
God is just.
And God’s justice isn’t like human justice.

A few years ago, I read a story about a woman whose son was murdered. Her boy was only twenty, his killer only sixteen. It was a street fight, and at the end of it, her son, her only son, was dead. The boy who killed him was tried as an adult. He went to prison. Justice was served, she thought. “He was an animal. He deserved to be caged,” she said at his sentencing. ‘If my son would have taken your life for the same reason you said you took his, I would expect him to have to pay the costs. So I expect you to have to pay the costs.’”[1]

But the mother was a Christian, and after some years, she went to visit the boy who killed her son. He didn’t want to see her at first, didn’t want to look again into the face of the grieving woman he had seen in court. Didn’t want to face the reality of her grief. But Mary persisted. And eventually, O’Shea met with Mary. She said that forgiveness was necessary, that it did not diminish what he had done. Eventually, O’Shea came to think of Mary as the mother he had not had. And Mary began to think of O’Shea as a son. When he was released from prison, Mary helped him find an apartment. Next door to her. He looks out for her, now that she is retired from her job as a teacher’s aide. And she looks out for him.

What struck me about this story, as I read it online again this week, were the comments that people made. Most of them, like you’d expect, said, “What a wonderful story.” Many of them said, “I could never do that.”

But some of them said, “What is wrong with her? How could she do that?”
How could anyone forgive the person who killed their only son?
How could she love someone who did that?
How could she reward him by helping him that way?

Of course we know what is wrong with her. She met the one who said “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” The one who said “love your enemies and pray for those who curse you.” She met the God who is not fair, but whose justice restores the broken heart. She met the one who, when asked, “What’s in it for me?” answered, “Everything. Everything is in it for you.” She met the God who is not fair, who does not give everyone what they deserve, or reward us according to our merit.

The owner of the vineyard goes out to seek workers, and if they are willing to come, the Lord of the harvest will pay them – not according to what they deserve, but according to his own generosity. It just isn’t fair.

It makes no sense whatsoever, unless you know something about the mind of God.
It isn’t fair that God would love us just because we are alive. It isn’t fair that Jesus would heal and restore the sick and the broken. It isn’t fair that the worst, most horrible, heinous sinner in the world receives at God’s throne of justice the same grace and mercy as the best Christian you’ve ever met. God’s justice doesn’t take us to court, determine our guilt or innocence, then either punish us or let us go.

God’s justice restores what was broken,
fills what is empty,
finds what was lost,
and rejoices.

God’s justice looks at a world of wayward, self-centered people and says, “I think I’ll come and be one of them.” God’s justice in Jesus Christ proclaims release to the captive, sight for the blind, healing for the sick, rest for the weary. And when those blind, sick, restless people killed God’s son, God’s justice offered forgiveness, offered love, offered life. Not for what they had done, not for what they could do, but simply out of grace and love.

What are you going to do with a God like that?
What kind of gifts can you offer a God who gives everything?
Just your time, maybe.
Just your life, maybe.
Just your love, maybe.
And it will never be enough.
It is just not fair.

And thanks be to God for that.



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