A Sermon preached on September 21st (Pentecost XV) at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenJonah 3:10-4:11, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
“That’s not fair!” If you have children, or were a child once, and I think that should cover all of you, you will have heard or said that phrase more than once. Children are very concerned about fairness and if one child is treated differently to the other in what seem to be similar circumstances the cry, “that’s not fair” will soon be heard. Elder children can be particularly upset of their younger sibling is allowed to do things that they had to wait years before being allowed to do. They do not like being trail blazers for their siblings!
Although neither Jonah nor the anonymous laborers in Matthew’s Gospel actually say “that’s not fair,” you can almost hear them doing so. Jonah certainly doesn’t think God is fair nor do the laborers think that of the landowner in Jesus’ parable. Why not?
At this point in his story Jonah has survived being thrown overboard, swallowed by a large fish or whale, and walking through the capital city of one of Israel’s greatest enemies – the Assyrian empire – shouting out loud “in 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown.” Not something to be recommended! He is extremely annoyed with God because God has spared Nineveh despite his promise to the contrary. How dare God not destroy the home of the empire that overran and completely destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel? What was God thinking of? Well, God was being God. Nineveh had repented, both the rulers and the poeple had turned from their evil ways – we might even say that Nineveh had already been overthrown: overthrown in evil and rebuilt in goodness. For God justice, mercy, and love override every other consideration, especially a promise of destruction. The little episode with the bush is a sort of living parable. When Jonah answers yes to the questions “is it right for you to be angry about the bush,” he is acknowledging pity and mercy as valid motives. Then surely, God says to him, if you can feel sorry for a bush – and for yourself –I can feel sorry for a city of 120,000 inhabitants and as many animals? Jonah’s reply is not recorded, I fear there wasn’t one and that he just sat there, pouting and sulking!
And what about the day laborers? Surely they have a very good reason to feel unfairly treated. The first group had worked all day, from 6 until 6, in the blazing sun, and yet they were being paid exactly the same amount as the group that had only worked for an hour. And so they grumble and complain because they feel unfairly treated. No, the landowner replies, you got what you were promised, I took nothing away from you. Are you perhaps envious because I am generous?
This parable is what is called a midrash, which was a method Rabbis used to interpret the Torah by “filling in the gaps in the text,” often with the help of a story. Jesus uses it a lot, he was after all also a Jewish Rabbi or teacher. In this case he is interpreting his own earlier saying in Matthew 19:30 that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” And in the parable the last to arrive do get paid first, while the first to arrive are not only paid last, but also only as much as the first. Who might the different groups of laborers be? There are two possible interpretations, and perhaps both were intended.
On the one hand the first group or groups clearly stand for the Jewish nation, they were God’s first chosen people, and they had both worked, and suffered, in God’s vineyard for generations. But despite this, those latecomer, Gentile believers, that’s us by the way, the followers of Christ are going to gain equal access to God’s kingdom. God will show them the same mercy and love as Israel without in any way taking away from the promise God had made in God’s covenant with the Jews. And if we remember that part of Israel’s calling was to be a light to the nations, it is precisely because they had worked in God’s vineyard for so long that the promise was being extended. So they really have no reason to be surprised. Unless of course they had hoped, and that was what Jesus was warning them against, for some form of privileged position in the new age.
That leads to the second parallel interpretation. The parable is also a warning to the disciples. They too were the first ones chosen by Jesus to be his followers. Yes, Jesus might also be saying. You were chosen first but that will not give you a special position or privileges. If you do your job well, and as he will command at the end of the Gospel, go into the world to make disciples of all nations you will not be the favored few for long.
Or let’s take Maren as an example, as a living parable. In a moment she will become a Christian through the Sacrament of Baptism - as an infant - and so she will be a Christian all her life. But that doesn’t mean that she will have a larger share in God’s kingdom than someone who makes that choice at the very end of their life.
Why are we so concerned about this idea of fairness? For one thing we somehow worry that there might not be enough of God to go round. We fear that there are limits to God’s generosity. Well there aren’t, that’s what the two readings tell us. God’s generosity is great enough to cover even the sworn enemies of God’s own people and God’s generosity is great enough for everyone who asks for it, whenever that may be. Grace is without limit.
Envy, jealousy, and concern for privilege also play a role. Surely we deserve more because we have been serving longer, surely there must be some advantage to being the prime movers and not the latecomers. No there isn’t and can we really be sure that we are in the first group of laborers? Perhaps we are the ones who need God’s mercy and generosity! There is a reason for the question in our Baptismal liturgy: “Do you put your whole trust in Christ’s grace and love.”
We do not serve God, whether we are the first, or the last, or somewhere in between for reward. The promises you will repeat today when we recite the Baptismal Covenant together, promises that include proclaiming the Good News by word and example, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, or striving for justice and peace, are made as a reaction to God’s generosity and to the love and compassion and mercy we receive. If we accept God’s grace in the spirit of the inhabitants of Nineveh or the last group of laborers, as an extraordinarily generous gift and as much more than we deserve, then this generosity will overflow. And instead of grumbling and sulking we will want to share and pass on what we have been given: in imitation and out of gratitude
Is God fair? No, thank God. Fairness is a very human concept. God is just, compassionate, merciful, generous, and loving – and those concepts and qualities are so much better for us all than fairness.