Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2-15
Rev. Sue Joiner
From the time the kids were little, the “F” word was banned at our house. That’s right. No one was allowed to say, “that’s not fair!” To this day, you rarely hear those words in our house. It seems strange that humans place such value on fairness when the Bible tells us over and over that God is not fair. God is always forgiving people and picking the least deserving person for the most important job. But we persist with our idea that everything should be fair and we are quick to get riled up when it isn’t. Do any of you notice and grumble to yourself when someone gets served before you even though you were there first? What about when someone is chosen to lead that really doesn’t deserve it? It isn’t fair that some things come easier to some of us than others. A group is reading the book Hotdogs and Hamburgers and learning about the world of illiteracy for children and adults. It isn’t fair that reading came so easily to some of us while others struggle mightily and never learn to read. I was thinking about how Scott Peck began the book The Road Less Traveled with the words, “Life is Difficult.” That was the first sentence. If we can accept that reality, we can spend less energy fighting it and work with it as it is. So, I’m thinking we can begin this morning with the words, “Life isn’t fair.” What if we don’t expect things to be fair? Maybe that frees us to savor the gift that life really is.
There seems to be another question in the readings today, “How much is enough?” In the parable, the landowner hires the laborers early in the morning and promises to pay them a denarius, the daily wage. Granted, it was not big money, but it was enough for a day. When the laborers who showed up at the end of the day got paid that same amount, the morning workers felt cheated. That morning, they were happy to have work and by the end of the day they are angry that they only got paid a daily wage when they had worked all day. The reading from Exodus raises a similar question. The people are hungry and they begin to complain. In their hunger, they grumble that they were better off in slavery where at least they had food. God hears their complaints and promises to feed them, but they are only to take what they need each day. In both of these texts, people are complaining about not having what they want and in both of these texts, God gives them what they need. Or as the Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”
What would it be like to live on only what we needed each day? We pray “Give us this day our daily bread” but we want to have food in our refrigerators, money in our bank accounts, and stuff in our homes. Both of these stories ask us to consider how much is enough. That’s not the question we want to ask. We want more. We look at our neighbor and feel envy. They have something we don’t. Here’s one of my favorites. I will get back from a trip that I loved only to hear about a trip someone else took and feel jealous. A few minutes ago, I was happy with my experience and now I find myself wanting someone else’s. Now that the Apple iPhone 6 is out, we have a whole new generation of envy cropping up. What would happen if we spent less time comparing ourselves to others and more time feeling grateful for what we do have?
It’s funny where we place ourselves in these stories. When we hear this parable of the landowner, we may find ourselves saying, “that isn’t fair!” They shouldn’t get paid the same thing. Have you ever gotten something you don’t deserve? The placement of this story is important. Just prior to the parable, Peter says to Jesus, “Look we have left everything to follow you.” He wants to know what kind of reward they will get for this. It can’t be true that they will get the same as anyone else who comes in off the street at the last minute. Jesus tells him that, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” He ends the parable we heard this morning with the words, “Those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.” In just a few verses after this parable, the mother of James and John comes to Jesus to ask that her sons sit on his right and left side. Jesus tells her that she has no idea what she is asking. He knows a brutal death is coming and being on his right and left side won’t be pleasant.
I suppose the line that really got me in this story was, “are you resentful because I’m generous?” Yes. Yes, we are. If we work hard, why should others be rewarded for working so little? You have seen it. Someone works so hard and is barely noticed while another who does very little gets great accolades. It is interesting how often we hear this story and assume we are the ones being cheated for working hard and receiving the same pay as the ones who worked so little. Grace is hard to swallow, especially when it happens to someone else. Somehow, we like to think that people get what they deserve.
Fred Craddock, once told a story about the time when he was a seminary professor and was invited to a student’s church as guest preacher. On this particular occasion, he arrived early and was spontaneously asked to teach an adult Sunday School class. Responding graciously to this request, he discovered that the weekly lesson was based on Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (found in Luke 15). Since he had been so spontaneously recruited for this task, Craddock decided to be equally spontaneous in the way he approached this overly familiar Bible story. He invited the class to imagine that the story ended differently. In this version, the prodigal son “comes to himself” and decides to go home and throw himself on his father’s mercy. As he gets close to the house, he hears the sound of music and dancing. He asks one of the servants what is going on and the servant says, “Your father has killed the fatted calf and is holding a great feast for your older brother, because he has served him faithfully for so many years!” Suddenly everyone heard a loud thud as a woman in the class smashed her fist on the table. After an awkward moment of silence, the woman looked around at everyone and said, “It should have happened that way!” (J. Lynn White, Biblical Preaching Journal, Summer 2005, p. 32)
What if we stepped back into this story of the landowner and found ourselves in a different place? What if we turned the lens upside down and found that we were the ones hired at the end of the day? We waited all day and wished someone would hire us and had nearly given up when the landowner gave us work. We were so grateful to be hired that we would take anything we were given. When we received our pay for the day, it took our breath away. Really? How can this be? We know that we don’t deserve what we got, but we are so thankful for it. Has anything like this ever happened to you? It is humbling and astonishing and gives us a taste of God’s amazing grace. It is not ours because we earned it. It is simply given and we can just open our hearts to receive it.
Barbara Brown Taylor says, “God is not fair, but depending on where you are in line that can sound like powerful good news, because if God is not fair then there is a chance we will get paid more than we are worth, that we will get more than we deserve, that we will make it through doors even though we are last in line—not because of who we are but because of who God is. God is not fair; God is generous and when we begrudge that generosity it is only because we have forgotten where we stand. On any given day of our lives, when the sun goes down and a cool breeze stirs the dusk, when the work is done and the steward heads toward the end of the line to hand out the pay, there is a very good chance that the cheers and back-slapping, the laughter and gratitude with which he will be greeted will turn out to be our own.” (The Seeds of Heaven pp. 79-80)
I don’t know where you stand in this line. But I sure find myself wanting to remember that it’s not someone else getting what they don’t deserve. I am getting what I don’t deserve and that is good news. God’s generosity and grace are staggering if we allow ourselves to acknowledge them. How will we respond to this generous God?