it’s not fair

We talked about grace this week, and how it’s really not fair at all. The text was Matthew 20:1-16. Audio is below and text is after the jump.

This simple little story is rich with meaning. Listen.

There was a farmer. His fields needed work. So he went to hire some help.

Even here, in the very beginning there is something of note. Who is the primary actor in our story? The landowner, this farmer. All the other people in the story react to what the farmer does or doesn’t do. The farmer is the instigator.

This is how it is with us and God as well. God’s the farmer, the instigator, the catalyst. Sometimes we get this mixed up. We think we need to prod God into action, or do God’s work, or tell God how things really should be. This story’s a good reminder that’s not the case.

So the farmer goes to the corner in town where day laborers wait for work. He recruits a few, offers a fair wage, to which they agree, and puts them to work.

And now we have the central question of our story—what is fair? And is God fair?

I’d wager that most of us were told at an early age that life’s not fair. And yet we long for fairness. We try to be fair with each other, with our children, with people over whom we have power, with our friends, with ourselves. And we want life, and God, to be fair as well.

These day laborers agreed to a fair deal.

Mid-morning the farmer sees more people looking for work. He hires them. Again at noon, he calls another crew looking for work. And again mid-afternoon, and even one last time just before quitting time.

The farmer loves putting people to work. No matter who, no matter when, this farmer wants to bring people in. Before our prayer of confession we sometimes say that our God is a God who never stops longing for us to turn and follow. Another way to say that is: our God is like a farmer who keeps hiring workers all day long. The invitation to the Christian life is not a one time thing. It’s offered again and again and again and again.

This means no matter where you are on your journey—new to faith or hesitant or a long-time skeptic, no matter how old or young, no matter what you’ve done or regret, no matter what baggage you carry, God’s welcome includes you.

The end of the day comes, not long after that last batch of workers showed up. The farmer has his manager pay the folks, beginning with the last to arrive. And lo and behold, even though they’ve just worked an hour, they still get paid for a full day.

Can you imagine how excited they were?! What kind of crazy boss pays a full day’s wages for an hour of work? They weren’t paid for what they earned. They didn’t get what they deserved. They got so much more. They were expecting the farmer to be fair, and instead he was extravagant. This, friends, is grace.

At this point you can hear the guys at the back of the line, the ones who were called first, who’ve been working the longest, getting excited. They’re thinking, wow! This farmer’s going to pay us so much more than we thought. If he’s paying those guys for a full day, I bet we’ll get like four or five times that.

But then their turn comes, and they don’t. Instead they get what they’d agreed to at the beginning of the day. Which is not fair. Not even a little bit.

And they do exactly like we would. Fuss. Complain. Grumble.

How quickly we move from grace to grumbling.

We all know how this feels, to work really hard and not get as much reward as someone else. The crippling part is in the comparison, isn’t it?

Had the manager paid the first workers first, they would have headed home none the wiser and much happier. But instead they see what’s on others’ plates, and their own looks meager by comparison.

There’s no faster route to feeling  self-righteous or discontent. It was a comparison that sparked this story in the first place.

Right before this the disciples and Jesus were hanging out when a rich young man came up and asked what he needed to do to receive life. Jesus told him to give away everything he owned. The man went away sad because he had many possessions. Peter pipes up right away and says, in essence, “What about us? We left everything for you. Aren’t we better than him? What are we going to get?”

Jesus tells him, yes, you will be rewarded.  But, lest Peter’s head get too big, Jesus tells this story, as if he’s saying, I’ve got a warning for you, too.

This man needs to walk away from his possessions. Perhaps what you need to walk away from, Peter, is the sense that you can earn your way to life. Jesus calls all of us who would be disciples away from this way of thinking that says life, with a capital L, is fair, that it is something we can earn, and if we do really well then we deserve more than our neighbors who aren’t quite so good.

This kind of comparison is poisonous. For one thing, it feeds our pride, and not in a good way. It makes us feel entitled and self-righteous. For another, it blinds us to our own short comings. If we’re busy counting how many times we’ve taken out the trash, we forget entirely to look at the state of our heart while we do it. And third, and maybe most destructive, it blinds us to the blessings that already surround us. We get so caught up with what’s on someone else’s plate that we miss the chocolate cake sitting right in front of us. We are so busy keeping score, we fail to notice the beauty of the game. Ultimately it separates us from our neighbors and our God.

That’s what happened in the story. Before it was time to get paid, I bet the early laborers were really glad the later ones showed up. Many hands make light work. And I bet they were really grateful to have good work at a fair wage. They were connected to both God and neighbor.

But then, those other folks had a stroke of unbelievable good fortune. And all of their own good fortune seems to turn to dust right before their eyes.

The farmer, though, doesn’t give up on them. He hears the grumbling, and this same farmer who went calling for workers again and again calls them back. He even names the chief complainer, “friend.” This is our God who never stops longing for us. Even as we grumble against grace, our God calls us “friend.”

And then the farmer asks two questions. The first is a theological question about God. Can’t I do what I want with my money?

We’re back to the first part of the story. Is God in charge or not? Can God do what God wants, or not? Is God, actually God? Or is God bound by our ideas of fair, earned rewards?

This question is fundamental to the Jewish and Christian understandings of who God is. God is fundamentally free—ultimate freedom, tempered only by love. Any theology that says that with God, B must follow A, confines God to a box that is too small. And so God can pay whomever God wants whatever wages God wants. It’s worth noting that this divine freedom is the key problem with the argument that God must send some people to eternal punishment.

The second question the farmer asks is an anthropological question, a question about us. Are you envious of my generosity?

It’s a convicting question. We’re caught sputtering about fairness. Why should someone else get more than me? Or the same for doing less?

Yes, sometimes God’s generosity does make us mad. The farmer’s question reveals the truth of our hearts, and that can be humbling. But this question is also an invitation.

We are invited deeper into the mystery of grace. Grace is fundamentally not fair. Not even a little bit.

The forgiveness of sins is not fair. Punishment is fair, not forgiveness. The chance for a new life is not fair.

No. The good news is that it’s far more than fair.

The truth is we cannot earn God’s favor. In fact, there’s very little that’s really worth having that we can earn. We can’t earn life, or love, or family, or friends. We can’t earn a baptism—that’s the beautiful truth of an infant baptism. We can’t earn the beauty of a morning walk by the water, or the raucous laughter of friends gathered at a table. We can’t earn the bread or cup we receive at this table. It’s a gift. All of it. Every last drop.

And thank goodness.

Because, though at times we feel like those first workers—concerned with what we think we’ve earned or deserved, we’re just as often those last workers.

We fall short. We mean to be kind and gentle, but we’re not. We mean to pray each morning, but we hit snooze. We mean to be generous, but it’s so hard. We intend to say yes when the Lord calls, but then things get in the way.

Some feel this falling short keenly. We’re well aware of how broken we are, how often we fail. Some of us feel constantly late to the game, uninvited, not worthy. All of us have at least part of us that feels this way some of the time.

The question from the farmer invites us to turn loose our grip on what we think we’ve earned or should earn, and instead open our hands to the bounty God already offers. The question invites us to identify not only with the early workers, but also the ones late to the field, the ones who’ve received much more than deserved.

As we talk about being consecrated, set apart, this fall, this is the kind of holiness for which we’re set apart. We are not called by God to be special people who act like we’re better than the rest of the world. Rather, we are called to be consecrated for grace. We are called to trust in and witness to a God who never, ever stops inviting people in, a God who loves even the yuckiest, hardest, most embarrassing parts of our hearts, and the most sinful and broken people among us, a God who didn’t stay apart from us, but took on human form and came and walked around with us. We’re called to witness to wild, extravagant grace that is not the least bit fair, but is the best news in the world.

Ultimately we’re all in the same boat. If we’re busy trying to prove we’re in a better boat, or trying to earn our way to the front of the boat, or some other nonsense, we aren’t seeing the truth. And as long as we stay attached to that way of thought, we’re serving a master who is not God.

We all stand in need of God’s grace. We all stand on that corner looking for work, waiting to be called. We’re all a mix of beauty and brokenness, faith and failure.

And the good news of the gospel is that God loves us all. Every last one of us. Even the people we can’t stand. Even the people who don’t deserve it. Even us when we don’t deserve it. Even us. God’s love extends even to us, reaching out, calling all in, covering us all with grace.

That’s the scandal of the gospel. It’s not the least bit fair. But it is good. Tremendously good. Unimaginably good. Divinely good. So good that it can save, yes save, even sinners, even us. For this, thanks be to God.

by Sarah W. Wiles
November 6, 2011
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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One Response to it’s not fair

  1. Carolyn Joy Wiles says:

    Thank you for the reminder that we are graciously included in the mystery of God’s good creation and love.

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