“It’s Not Fair!”
Pentecost 15, September 21, 2014
Matthew 20:1 16
“It’s Not Fair!”
The story is told of a socialist who once went to see Andrew Carnegie, he was a rich dude 125 years ago, he built Carnegie Hall in New York. Soon the socialist was yelling about how unfair it was with Carnegie having so much money. In his view, wealth was meant to be divided equally. Carnegie asked his secretary for a total of everything he owned and at the same time looked up the figures on population. He did a little arithmetic on a pad and then said to his secretary. “Give this gentleman l6 cents. That’s his share of my wealth.”
I hear a lot of talk these days about fairness. Now I am not going to say who, but someone in my house, when I tell that someone “No,” or “Not now,” this person will look at me and say, “This is not fair. This is so not fair. I know when I have kids, I am going to let them do whatever they want.” Uh huh. Whenever I hear that, I think to myself how likely I am to see that.
As a people, a culture, a society, we think fairness and equality are important concepts, that is after all a basic foundation of democracy. Of course what goes on at my house is no democracy. It is a dictatorship. In the gospel for today, Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard, and in examining this text, we will see that God and His children do not always agree on what is fair. This morning, we are going to discuss, “God’s Fairness.”
Today we are in Matthew Twenty. The text last week was the end of Chapter Eighteen in Matthew, where Jesus told the parable of the unmerciful or unforgiving servant. Chapter Nineteen continues with Jesus continuing to Jerusalem, teaching about marriage, and Jesus has his encounter with the rich young man. This brings us to Chapter Twenty.
Chapter Nineteen ends with Jesus telling the disciples that being rich, in and of itself, does not bring a person into the kingdom of God. This was the opposite of what the disciples had been told by the priests over the years. People in those days thought the more you were blessed in this life, the more you would be blessed in the afterlife. There are preachers that still teach this today. In a way, this does make sense, it is logical from a human point of view. But you will not find that teaching in the Bible. Jesus told His followers that God’s ways are not necessarily the ways of people, and Jesus went on to illustrate that with the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
There was a guy who owned a vineyard and it was harvest time. The grapes in Palestine had a very small window of good harvesting. They would normally be ready to harvest about the end of September, but it wouldn’t be long until the rainy season began after that. Once they were ready to be picked, they needed to be picked quickly. So at dawn he went into the town square where people would go when they needed work, and he hired all the folks who were there to go into his fields for a denarius. A denarius was a common day’s pay, approximately 75 dollars in today’s money. Three hours later he went back and saw more folks there and hired them all as well. At noon and at three he did the same thing. Even at 5, with only an hour of sunlight left, he went to the town square and found some folks who had not worked that day. He hired them and sent them to his vineyard, too.
Now he had only told the first group what he had in mind to pay them. For the rest, he said he would pay them “whatever is right.” So it was interesting that when night fell, and the workers came in from the field, the folks who were hired last, and who worked for really only one hour or so, were paid a full denarius. When the guys who were hired at dawn saw that, they figured they were going to be paid more than they were told. But the owner of the vineyard gave everyone the same. The first group grumbled, but the landowner correctly pointed out that he paid what was agreed upon, and he could pay the others whatever he felt like. If he was feeling generous, he could be generous. So again, Jesus tells how God’s will goes against conventional wisdom.
What do you think? Was the landowner fair? Is this fair? There are times in our lives that we think about such questions. When we were in school, we would ask if that test or that question was fair. When we played in the park or the school yard, we asked if the teams we had picked were fair. In our jobs, if we are criticized for our performance, we ask if the criticism is fair. When someone gets promoted ahead of us, we wonder if that was fair. You know what I mean?
But there are other times we ask the fairness question, only we ask it of God. This parable we discuss today was directed at the apostles, so that they would not look down on those who would be converted later, and at the Pharisees and Jewish leaders, as well. Jesus always could see through their arrogance. When we see God as the landowner in this parable, and all the workers as converts to Christ, the question is then asked, is God fair? Is it fair that people who are Christians for all of their lives and folks who are Christians for an hour before they “meet Jesus” all go to heaven? We all get the same? We ask that at other times too, don’t we? When we get sick, when there’s trouble with a spouse or a child, when we feel depressed, alone, directionless. In those times we can find ourselves confronting God and saying to him, “It’s not fair!” Or telling Him, “You’re not being fair!” Are we being fair when we ask that? It’s bad enough to wrong God when we sin, but should we ever think that we have been wronged by God?
So let’s ask it now. Is God fair? Let’s look at the parable again. God’s grace is poured out on the people He chooses and loves, equally. Whether a person is a Christian from infancy, adolescence, adulthood, or even converted on their deathbed, all receive the same reward: eternity in heaven. Is that fair? From the standpoint of human logic, we may say no. There is a tendency among us to look down our noses at those who become Christians later in life than we do. Everybody is getting the same here in this story not because they have done enough good works, but because they have a good Lord. It was reported that Jeffrey Dahmer was converted to Christianity before he himself was murdered in prison. I have heard people say that they do not want to think of him being in heaven. But we are wrong to think that way. And that’s what the parable is telling us this morning.
Let’s start to wrap up with this: Right outside New York’s City Hall Park, there is a statue of newspaperman Horace Greeley. Greeley thought people remained doubters, even when they had solid proof their lack of faith was wrong. One day Greeley decided to test his theory. He had a man stand on that corner and offer to sell 20 dollar gold pieces for the price of a one dollar bill. That’s right, $20 in gold for a $1 bill. It seemed like a deal too good to be true. That’s what most people thought. That’s why, for the entire day, the man kept calling out his offer.
Thousands of men and women, thinking the man imbalanced, gave him a wide berth and passed on by. Some laughed at the silliness of the proposition; others shook their heads in doubt. Late in the afternoon, about 15 minutes before the man was going to quit, a lady, with some embarrassment, approached the man. The lady paid her dollar and walked away with the double eagle.
Ten minutes later she showed up again, this time with two friends. Between them they bought eight more of the double eagles all the man was offering.
Christianity has been conducting the same experiment for 2,000 years. We have held out an offer that is, in human terms, simply too good to be true, that doesn’t sound fair. We have spoken to the lost and lonely, the damned and dying, the hurting and hateful, the despondent and depressed. We have called out to sinners and we have said, “Repent of your sins, with Jesus find forgiveness, healing and peace.”
And what has been the reaction? By the Holy Spirit’s power some have believed. But there are also many who have passed on by, others who thought it can’t be or it’s too good to be true.
God’s idea of fairness and our idea of fairness do not match very well, and thank God they do not. If God was fair like we are fair, He would have looked at us and our zillion sins, and said ok, you want hell, you got it. He would not have loved us as He does, or sent His son, or given us the scriptures, or Baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, or any of the other blessings we have. But He did. His fairness is way better than our fairness. He loves so much better than we love. He loves us so much He sent Jesus to die and rise for us, and He has clothed us with the righteousness of Jesus and looks at us as His forgiven children. Is that fair? No way, it’s better than fair. It’s grace, God’s grace. And grace is by nature unfair, because it gives the undeserving more than they deserve. We have not deserved what God has given us. From a human perspective, God is truly unfair. And thanks be to God, that because of His love for us, He is so “unfair.”