In the name of Jesus, Amen. My text for this afternoon is our Gospel lesson, Jesus’ rather unnerving story about the workers in a vineyard getting paid equally for unequal work.
All of us are born with an instinct for what’s fair. We’re all natural-born scorekeepers. Without ever being taught, we know when we’re not being treated equal. Even little kids are experts at fairness. And we hate for things to be unfair, especially when we or someone we love is on the receiving end of unfairness. And that unfairness leads to jealousy and anger, and then we can’t see straight, and that’s the way it usually works. Unfairness is just plain bad.
Very often, however, whenever we bring up the issue of unfairness, it’s not because we’re super interested in some sort of existential justice out there. It’s almost always because we are promoting our own self-interests. We never hear, “My company has treated itself terribly unfair in overpaying me.” You’ll never hear that, but you will hear, “He got a bigger piece. I was here first.” And sometimes our complaints are justified. Perhaps you could say that unfairness is one of the issues our country is grappling with today, albeit quite poorly. But just as often, when I complain about unfairness, I tend to cut myself a great deal more slack than I cut out the other guy.
On the surface, we don’t like things to be unfair. And because of that, we’ve tried to develop a system where laws are written to make things fair. Tax codes are devised to even out the burdens, and constitutions, and bylaws, and bills of rights are penned to even out the playing field, and that’s good.
But into this debate of fair and unfair, Jesus tells this very unfair story about workers in a vineyard all working a different number of hours, but unjustly, each worker getting paid the same in the end.
Now, just for starters, because it does need to be said, this parable isn’t about the work-a-day world. What St. Paul said still stands. A worker is worthy of his or her hire, and workers are to serve their employees mindful that they work as people who are serving God, because it is serving the world that God made. It’s kind of the Christian teaching of vocation. But when it comes to the Kingdom of God, Jesus is revealing something different. He’s telling us that something strange is breaking in on this world. Something that looks terribly unfair on the surface, but it’s also something that kindles hope. It kindles a comfort for those who find that they don’t stack up very well when they’re compared to all of the spiritual over-producers out there.
And what’s breaking in on this world, this very unfair thing, so to speak, is the gospel. That’s right. God’s good news gospel is inherently unfair. In fact, it can’t be the gospel if it’s fair. The true gospel of Jesus is about the incredible gift of God’s free generosity, and it has nothing at all to do with fairness. Fairness isn’t interested in generosity. Fairness is about requirements, legalities, obligations. Fairness is about something someone must do whether one wants to or not. God, on the other hand, isn’t much interested in dealing with us fairly.
It can’t be the gospel if it’s fair. The true gospel of Jesus is about the incredible gift of God’s free generosity, and it has nothing at all to do with fairness.
Now, don’t make this dreadful mistake of thinking that God is aloof. He’s very clear about what would be fair. He understands fairness clearly. He wrote the code for it, and that code still stands firm. But in the end, God seems much more interested in dealing with us graciously; generously giving us something we don’t deserve in the least. And he’s always been like that. An unfair God.
Do you remember the story of Adam and Eve in the garden after they’d sinned? God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring.” God’s talking to Satan there. “I will put bitter hostility between you, Satan, and the one who will come from a woman. He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel. Satan, you’re going to get him in the heel, this one who comes from the seat of a woman, and you’re going to get him in both of his hands too, and with a spear stuck in his side, and a crown of thorns to boot. But when he comes crashing down, he will crush your head. And when your head is crushed, there’s absolutely no recovering from that. But from his wounded heel, he will rise again.”
That’s the first gospel promise in the Bible. It’s the promise of a savior, but God didn’t promise Adam and Eve a savior because he had to. Neither did he promise them a savior because Adam and Eve somehow in the end deserved it. He promised them a savior simply because it was his good pleasure to be generous and gracious to them. Not fair but gracious. And that’s the biggest difference between the gods of whomever and the Judeo-Christian God. You could say all religions have a God who’s terribly fair. You can count on it. Christians have a God who’s not fair, and you can count on that too.
Now on the surface, that sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? A God who’s not fair. That doesn’t market very well out in the world, but it’s true. Christians have a God who isn’t fair, because graciousness doesn’t always take into account what’s fair. But I’ll submit to you that God’s unfairness is a wonderful thing, because fairness means one more thing. Fairness means just desserts, proper compensation, wages, getting what you deserve.
Now we, I, tend to cut myself a bunch of slack when it comes to what’s fair. What I deserve. I always round up when it comes to that equation. But the law, God’s code, so to speak, knows nothing of slack. It’s what God, through St. Paul, calls the wages. And the good, fair, and proper payment reimbursing us for what we’ve actually earned by our doing is death. So we’d better think twice before we ask God to be fair with us. God’s fair justice would destroy us forever. His unfair mercy is what saves us.
And so the fact that the gospel is unfair is very good news indeed, for in God’s unfairness is his love towards you. You are declared righteous freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. The redemption, the purchase price being Jesus’ bloody work on the cross. We didn’t come by that declaration of not guilty. We didn’t come by that fairly, because we earned it somehow. We came to it because in the end, God is gracious, for by grace, you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
That’s the difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard. The first laborers, who had labored the longest, wanted to be dealt with fairly, on the basis of their own merits. But mostly I think they didn’t want the slackers to get the same pay they received. The last workers, those who were only in the vineyard for an hour, at the end of the day, if you look at the text, they weren’t even offered compensation. They weren’t even given the promise that they would be paid whatever is right. The landowner simply said, “Go into the vineyard.” And they went, trusting in the landowner’s goodness. And in doing so, they received more than they ever expected or deserved.
That’s the way it is with God. God’s not interested in us trying to earn what he’s giving away for free. Look at that last verse or two of our gospel text for today in Matthew 20. “To the first workers, the master says, ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? Who are you to accuse me?’ The master says. ‘I have given you what we agreed upon. So now take your money and go, and when you have a kingdom of your own, you can run it the way you want to run it. But this is my kingdom, and I will govern it with grace and generosity, love for the last, and the lost, and the lowest. That said, I’d love for you to stick around, but your hearts are going to have to change, because I’m generous, and that’s never going to change.’”
If you give up trying to deal with God on your own terms and instead rely on nothing but his goodness, you’ll receive from God much more than you ever expected or deserved.
Those who want to deal with God on the basis of what they have to offer him will, with total fairness, be sent away empty. Why? Because even the best we have to offer God is, well, not exactly what we think it’s worth. If you give up trying to deal with God on your own terms and instead rely on nothing but his goodness, you’ll receive from God much more than you ever expected or deserved. With Jesus, it’s not first come, first served. No. Repentant thieves and hookers enter the kingdom of heaven while unrepentant religious types get excluded. Remorseful believers find themselves at the front of the line while self-righteous lifers find themselves at the end. Those who come before God with pride and self-sufficiency will be last and outside the kingdom, and broken spirits who come to God knowing they’re last, and lost, and least, and lowest, and deserve nothing at all, those who come to him as beggars will find themselves at the front of the line, strangely the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
That’s the way it is with Jesus. He who was and is the greatest made himself to be last of all on the cross of Calvary, as he suffered unfairly in your place and mind on account of our sins. He was treated unfairly so that we would be treated graciously. He was the one who did all the work in the vineyard, so that those who bring up the end of the line end up receiving an incredible gift at the end of the day. It’s interesting, when Jesus told this parable, he mentioned times: Early morning, third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour, 11th hour. It’s just kind of interesting that those times correspond to the Friday we call Good. Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate early in the morning at dawn. He was crucified at the third hour of the day. Darkness covered the land at the sixth hour. Our Lord died at the ninth hour, and he was buried at the 11th hour, just before the end of the work day, right before sundown.
So can you see that? Jesus is the true laborer in the vineyard. In fact, he’s the only laborer. He’s the only one who works. Jesus accomplished everything before we were even brought to faith. We don’t need to add anything. In fact, there’s nothing we could possibly even add. All we have to do, as if it’s us doing anything anyway, is simply cling to his mercy, and open our hand, and freely receive the denarius he earned for us, he earned for you by his work. By faith today you come clutching in your hand the denarius Jesus earned for you. He’s given it to you for free. It’s yours not because it’s fair, not because it’s owed to you, but simply because it is his good pleasure to be generous towards you and me. But know this: having that denarius in your hand, it’s going to mess with your brain, because being a receiver of his gracious, good pleasure, that very same good pleasure is going to compel you to be generous toward others. Again, not because they deserve it, and not because it’s fair, but because it’s been given to you to share.
Then again, I guess you could begrudge God his generosity, stomp your feet, and say, “Unfair,” but be careful. You just might get exactly what you bargained for, and pardon my French, but that’ll be hell. In the name of Jesus, Amen.