Pastor Jay Zahn
Worship Sermon Sept. 20. 2020
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Matthew 20:1-16 ~ Sunday, Sep 20, 2020
A mom shares, “After I told my boys that we were leaving in 5, I asked my younger son, Carson, to come downstairs and put on his shoes. From upstairs, ‘Why does Connor get to have extra time playing?’ pierced the silence. Mom-meeeee! (The longer last syllable intentionally dramatic.) It’s not fair!!! You never give me extra time! Carson bellowed. So Connor [his older brother] has to come down right now just like me. Or it’s not fair!”
The entire lovely message was delivered in one ear splitting whinny, squeaky, high-pitched shriek of a voice.
But it doesn’t end there. Now it’s Connor’s [my older son’s] turn. From the playroom, Connor pipes in: “It is too fair! Carson you always get more time with mommy when she reads you bedtime stories. Last night, you got more dessert than me! AND last weekend, you stayed on the playground when I had already gotten in the car! So I get to stay and play. It is too fair!” https://intentionalfamilylife.com/perfect-response-to-its-not-fair/
It’s not just young brothers who get revved up by unfairness. When we see some type of injustice, sense some type of unequal, unfair treatment, and we feel a violation of justice has occurred, we protest, perhaps only with the voice in our heads, but when things are bad enough we’ll protest out loud: “It’s not fair!” Sensitivities toward fairness and justice are especially high in our country right now. Ears attentively listen and eyes are peeled to detect injustice and call it out.
Fairness was on the mind of Jesus’ disciples in this morning’s gospel. As they thought about all they had to give up in order to follow Jesus, they were feeling like they had gotten the short end of the stick, that Jesus had put them into a compromised position. Not one to keep this concern to himself, Peter asks, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will be there for us?” Can you hear it in Peter’s question? “It’s not fair, Jesus! We spend long stretches of time away from our families, to follow you. We’ve sacrificed friendships to keep on following you. We left our careers to be your disciples. We’re doing all this for you, Jesus! What are we getting in return, Jesus? How are you going to make things right with us, Jesus?” Peter is kinda calling Jesus out for being unfair with his own followers!
Jesus answers Peter with a story of a situation in which hardworking, reliable people get shafted. But Jesus isn’t offering the story to soothe Peter’s sensibilities. No, in telling the story, Jesus is doubling down on Peter’s protest, setting him and the other disciples straight on the way things are in “the kingdom of heaven,” that is, the way things are when God sets the standards.
The story goes like this: Early in the morning, a landowner (who represents God in this parable) hires people to work in his vineyard for a denarius, the going rate for a day’s work in those days. This same landowner hires additional people at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and again at 5 p.m., telling each of these groups that he will give them “whatever is right.” When the hot workday ends, he first pays the crew who worked only a single hour a denarius too, the exact same amount he pledged to those who worked nearly sunup to sundown. When the full-day crew is at the front of the line and ready to collect their pay, they receive the same amount, exactly what they were promised. The full-day workers are resentful. We can understand why! They worked the longest, the hardest and through the hottest part of the day. It’s not fair that they get the same pay as those who just clocked in for 60 minutes, right?
Yet the story doesn’t end with the landowner buckling under the pressure of the protest, placing more pay in the palms of the day-long laborers. Instead he drops a truth bomb on their disgruntled hearts. He offers a pointed rebuke to one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give to the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (vv. 13-15).
The landowner literally says: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” What does that mean? The issue isn’t that the landowner has been unfair in what he paid them. The full-day workers know it, too. They don’t moan that they have been cheated. They complain: “You have made them [the one-hour workers] equal to us.” It’s critical that you catch this! They’re not complaining he’s paid them unjustly. They’re complaining that he paid them all the same! In other words, the problem really isn’t his payment of them but the desire of their eyes that believe they deserve more from him because of what he gave to others.
Jesus is using this story to help Peter and the other disciples see their problem isn’t with God’s measure of blessing but with their method of measuring what is fair. Jesus is addressing a problem that is prevalent to this very day. In telling this story, Jesus invites us to see ourselves in it and apply it’s message to ourselves. What prompts the problem (even at the moment of Jesus' first telling of the parable) is bigger than concerns over work and wages. It’s the way we count how God blesses us and others, making comparisons, and then complaining about what God chooses to give to others because we want those blessings for ourselves!
The bible has a name for this: Coveting! Covetousness causes real big problems in the lives of believers! When we feel upset because God gave someone else more blessings, bigger blessings, “better” blessings, the actual problem isn’t how God chose to bless but our covetous counting and comparing. That’s also true when others are blessed the same way and to the same degree we are but we feel they don’t deserve to be blessed equally with us. And why not? Perhaps we feel they are less deserving because they haven’t served the Lord as faithfully or as long as we have. Or it could simply be that we feel we are better people, that they are worse sinners than we are. Thus, in our eyes, they don't deserve the same as we get! Not that they should get nothing, but certainly not the same thing as us. How prevalent is this problem in your heart? How quickly do you count how God blesses you and how he blesses others and your heart cries out in complaint, “It’s not fair!”?
Responding to that very complaint, the owner of the vineyard asks those who have worked longest and (presumably) hardest for him, "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" Ouch! That hurts because it really hits us square between the eyes! When we find fault with God for the way he chooses to bless us and others (whether it’s in the way he chose to bless others differently than us or exactly the same as us), the real issue isn’t that God is being unjust. The problem is with our eyes and how we’re using them to incite evil in our hearts!
How can we fix eyes that are being used for evil? You focus those eyes squarely on the One who is righteous and good! That’s exactly where Jesus draws our attention. He doesn’t attempt to explain why God chooses to bless the way he does. Rather he calls our attention to God himself and this clear truth about him: just as the vineyard and the payroll belonged to the owner of that vineyard to manage and distribute as he saw fit, so also God's blessings are his to give away as he sees fit. But there is an even larger point that Jesus is making: when God gives his blessings, he doesn’t stop at doing what’s fair. He goes above and beyond. He gives generously. That point is abundantly clear to those who worked for only an hour, even if it was lost on those who had worked for 12.
Jesus focuses our eyes on God and points us to see his extraordinary generosity, with others, yes, but also with us! The story of the workers in the vineyard insists that in the kingdom of God, the realm in which God’s grace is the prevailing operational principle, there is nothing we can earn. In a very real sense, we are all “eleventh-hour workers,” regardless of what we may have done. In this kingdom, everyone receives the generosity of God’s grace, God’s unconditional love, and God’s unfailing mercy.
Our nature cries out “unfair” when we feel like someone is depriving us of what is rightfully ours, when someone else is getting something but its coming at our expense, when another is being given an advantage that disadvantages us. So we seek relief, protection, restoration under the principle of justice. Justice calls for an accounting and when everything is counted that each gets his just due. When we put in a full day’s labor we want a fair wage. And rightly so. Which highlights that the core issues in this parable isn’t injustice! The landowner promptly paid the 12-hour workers exactly what they had agreed to work the whole day for! They cried “unfair” not because the landowner shorted them but because he paid those who worked less than them, the same as them.
So the landowner must correct their unjust cry of injustice. He did nothing wrong. In fact, he had gone above and beyond what was fair. That’s what love does. Rather, Love surpasses the minimum requirements of the law, simply doing what is required. Love does what serves each person according to their need!
Maybe this will help, or at least I hope it does. Think about it like this: what would it be like to govern your relationships primarily by the law of justice, counting up every slight or injury done you by your family member or friend so that could repay them in the same ways? Keeping track of every time your child or parent disappoints you so you can hand them the tally at the end of the day? Logging every hurt you experience at the hands of those around you so that you can remember, keeping a record of your grievances and waiting for reparations to fully settle the score? Can you imagine living your life this way?
Justice might provide us a measure of protection from one another, it’s love, generosity, and forgiveness that actually enables real, deep, genuine relationships with each other. That kind of relationship flows out of the One who has always acted from selfless love, expressing the most lavish generosity, providing the richest forgiveness there is. Thank God Jesus did! For in Christ, we don’t get what we rightly deserve from God, banishment and punishment. We receive the kinds of things we could never earn or deserve: forgiveness, new life, real relationship, blessings without end! This is what the love of the Lord provides us!
Put this way, of course we want to live out of love. But, truth be told, that’s hard, as we seem almost hardwired to count our hurts and disappointments rather than our blessings. Why is it so much easier to live by counting rather than by unconditional love? This is a universal human challenge!
Thank God it’s not a challenge for him. Thank God that he is not fair in dishing out his love to us. He is generous. He is lavish. He is limitless! It’s a good thing too because we need so much of it and we need it each and every day! Because each and every day our eyes need the richest measure of love to help us look past the times a colleague slighted or said something hurtful to us and instead look for ways to be helpful to them. We need that kind of love to see beyond a person’s perceived rudeness and insensitivity so we don’t respond in kind, but with genuine kindness. God fills us richly, daily with his love to help us overcome those things that others do that hurt us so that we can look on them and see instead people who themselves are hurting, people who need our healing, help, and love. At each of these turns, we can choose: will we operate out of justice, or will we live out of generosity and love? I know this isn’t fair! And thank God it isn’t because what I described is exactly how God treats us, with confoundingly generous love. And because he does, we have confoundingly generous love to share with others who deserve as little as we have earned such love from God! God help us, God bless others and God bless us we generously share the love with others that he showers on us. Amen .