Matthew 20:1-16 and Jonah 3:10 - 4:11
Our God is indeed gracious and merciful. Our God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Those familiar words and words like them form prayers we repeat throughout our worship, are contained in the texts of the hymns we sing and even frame our liturgy. We lift them up because, aren’t these the things we love about God, the things in our relationship with God for which offer our thanks and praise? Isn’t this the gospel that we yearn to and need to hear – that God is full of mercy; that God loves us; and that God’s grace is bountiful and big enough to forgive all our sins?
While all of that is true, God is all of these things and more, as our scripture texts illustrate this morning, one thing that our God is not, is fair. And somehow, despite all those things that I just listed and all the other attributes of God we could name, deep down inside we want a God who is fair. More to the point, we want a God who is fair as we judge fairness.
I was reminded of this recently. When I visit my son and his family which includes our grandson in Pennsylvania, I usually spend a lot of my time, most of it, in fact, playing with 4 year old Alex. We play all sorts of games. While the other adults are talking, preparing a meal or otherwise engaged, I become this child’s favored playmate – a role I really enjoy.
While I was on a trip up north on business not long ago, however, I decided to stop by to say hi and to load up my car with some things I needed to bring to Easton. I didn’t get to play with Alex that day, despite his repeated requests (which are really more like demands, truth be told) of, “will you play with me now?” My repeated answer was, “I’m afraid not this time, Buddy. Next time I come, we’ll play together again.”
How to explain to a four year old the very real demands of adulthood and limitations of time? As I was preparing to leave, I found Alex sitting on the couch next to his mother. He wasn’t in the mood for a hug or a kiss or a tickle. As I turned and walked away, I heard the lament in his voice as he quietly told his mother, “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair!” Alex was disappointed. He expected Grandma to behave in the way she had always done – as his playmate. I had disappointed his expectations. I had scrambled the usual order of things. We can all probably relate, and empathize with Alex and join his lament at times.
Back in the day when John McEnroe was a big name in the tennis world, I used to love to watch him play, less, to be honest, because of the tennis being played, and more for the entertainment value of those matches. John was known for his firey temper and bad behavior. It was not unusual for fist and voice to raise, feet to stomp, and expletives and tennis rackets to fly when John was displeased. And what set John off the most was what he felt were unfair calls on the part of the umpire or line judge.
As I think about it, what probably attracted my attention and held my interest in these performances was that even though I thought John’s reactions to perceived unfair calls and plays, and his frequent misbehaviors were outrageous, infantile, and even downright shameful, I got it. I understood what it was like to want to flail around protesting what was unfair.
John was only doing, on the public stage, what the inner child in me wants to do when I feel disadvantaged, disillusioned, and frustrated because things don’t go my way and injustice reigns. John’s fury mirrored what I feel deep down inside when someone else gets what should be my rewards, or their rewards are simply out of balance with who they are and what they have done.
When I watched those matches and rooted for John McEnroe, maybe what I was really doing was living out my own protest to the injustices and unfairness in my own life vicariously through John’s antics. “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair!”
Both the story of Jonah and his reaction to God’s mercy toward the city of Nineveh, and again in the gospel text today, we read echoes of this same indignant response to God’s mercy which seems unbalanced and unfair. We see echoes of the gut-level response we might feel when undeserved mercy and grace are shown to those we deem unworthy. And the stories and indignation resonate with us.
In Jonah’s case, God’s grace was dispensed to the city of Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, detested enemy of the people of Israel. These are not the favored people of God, as Jonah’s people are. These are not decent, peaceful neighbors of the Israelites. Ninevites don’t follow the Law as received and shared by Moses. They are not worthy of God’s notice let alone God’s grace.
Yet, God has chosen to show this city mercy. When they heard God’s word, spoken through Jonah, they repented and mended their evil ways. Jonah’s reaction was to become angry and morose. It’s bad enough that God issued this merciful reprieve to the city, but the fact that God used Jonah as the vessel through which God’s word was delivered and the city saved is more than Jonah can bear. He would rather die than see this great city of the enemy nation be saved. It’s not fair, LORD. It’s just not fair!
In the gospel lesson, we are confronted with more seemingly unjustifiable mercy. When we read this parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, our “fairness meter” just goes flat. The story doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t play out the way it is supposed to. The laborers who have worked all day get paid the same wage as those who have worked only an hour? It doesn’t matter that they got paid the wage they agreed to, which they thought sufficient and fair when they were hired. The laborers deem the landowner’s generosity frivolous, and unjust. They should get more! It’s not fair, LORD. It’s just not fair!
Deep down inside we know that this story is consistent with the kingdom of heaven as Jesus has been illustrating it throughout his parables and indeed, throughout his ministry. We should know by now that the generosity of God, which knows no bounds, doesn’t operate in the same way as the world around us. In this parable once again, Jesus is scrambling the usual order of things, and challenging the usual assumptions about who is in and who is out, who is first and who is last, who receives mercy and who does not, who is valued and loved and who is not. In the kingdom of God all who believe are welcome, all are forgiven, all receive grace upon grace. The lesson Jesus imparts may be a tough pill to swallow – unless you hear with a renewed heart and mind.
Eric Barreto, professor at Luther Seminary, says that we hear this text through the lens of our 21st century Western culture, and we interpret it as a parable about fairness in the kingdom of God.
We live in a culture where we are taught from the cradle that hard work will yield just rewards. You have to work hard for what you want. Nothing comes easy. Conversely, the spoken and unspoken lesson that we learn well is that the “have nots” are in dire straights because they have just not tried hard enough, not worked hard enough, not lived well enough to deserve the same kinds of rewards as those of us who have slaved away to earn what we see as our just reward.
Conversely, Barreto says, people of two thirds of the world that is undeveloped, people who live in lands where survival is a struggle, people who live on the fringes, hear in this parable a word of promise and grace. For them, this story is the story of a God who loves so much, whose mercy is so large, whose desire for relationship with the creation is so intense, that it turns the world upside down. For people who are open to receive it, this parable is not about what is fair and not fair. Instead, this parable is a story about a love so strong that it pushes through boundaries and grants the gift of grace to the least, the last, the lost, the little and the lifeless.
God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love – for all. In baptism we each receive the grace of God that is freely given to all. The truth is, that as Martin Luther wrote, in the presence of God’s mercy, we are all beggars.
Indeed, in the presence of God’s mercy, we are all a mess. God doesn’t give any of us what we deserve. Rather, God gives us what we need. We need God’s grace. We get offended by God’s divine distribution of grace because, my friends, we forget who we are. We forget that we are beggars. We forget that while some of us may clean up better than others and some of us may be better at hiding our sin than others, we are all like the Ninevites, and the last-minute laborers. We all fall short of that to which we are called. We all mess up. We all disobey. We all are utterly dependent on God’s mercy and grace.
But God’s generous gift of grace scrambles our expectations, scrambles the status quo, and scrambles our sense of fairness and justice. God’s gift of grace redeems us all. God’s grace makes forgiveness and reconciliation possible. God’s grace means there is room at the table for each of us, time and time again, no matter where we’ve wandered, no matter who we are.
And that, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is a game-changer, because the truth and the good news of this gospel is that God is not fair. Thanks be to God!