It’s Just…. not Fair. Matthew 20:1-16

It’s just not fair!!!!

That’s what we want to scream out as we watch this story unfold.  In the Kingdom of God, it doesn’t seem to matter if you’re an early adopter working all day long or the last one in the field…you get the same reward.

It doesn’t matter if you work your hands raw, or just drop a few grapes in the basket at the end of the day.   The wages are still the same.

And, it doesn’t do you a lick of good to complain about it, or to point out to the landowner, to God, the unfairness of it all, he’s just going to go ahead and do what he wants to do anyway.

It is maddening!

In fact, the landowner in this parable seems to invite the griping.  He sets up the pay line so that the folks who broke their backs all day long get to see that the slacker late-comers get paid the same as they do.    He seems to invite the complaints, the belly-aches, and the foot stomping!

What is the point of that?

This is a parable of the Kingdom.

The whole point here is to help us see that the way things work in this world is not the way things work in the Kingdom that God is bringing in upon us.  And that, my friends, is meant to annoy us.

Why?

Because we are so in bondage to this world and to the way it works!

We are so ingrained in the concept that things ought to be fair, and we so want to hold that firm belief that you get what you pay for, and that you get what you deserve.

Isn’t that the truth?

Much as we want to believe in the concept of grace, when push comes to shove, we really don’t want to believe in actual grace in all things.

We want to believe in grace for us, but for that person over there, for that no-good low -life, who never worked a day in his life .. that bum….well, he should get a little straightening up done before he is eligible for the grace of God!

We want to believe in grace when it comes to us undeserved, when we hold our hands out thankfully to receive it.   But we tend to hold out a little bit for others, withhold that free gift until they can “appreciate it” better.

Sometimes we do that intentionally.   We form opinions about the worthiness of people to receive something based upon their looks, or upon their social status, or upon their history with us.  “They deserve some consideration, they’ve been nice….”

“Cut him, cut her, a break; I know them…..”

And there it is; that predisposition that we have to want to put ourselves in the place of God.  That desire that goes all the way back to the fall in the garden at the time of creation where we thought it would be good to take a bite out of eternity and become as God ourselves, discerning good and evil… so that we could decide such things and take some of the pressure off of the almighty.

“I’ve got this one God, I’ll decide who should get what….”

Sometimes we hold back that desire for God’s Grace to permeate this world unintentionally. We do that by clinging to old forms of understandings, by not being open to seeing the world the way that God sees this world, or by choosing the comfortable status quo over the challenging possibility of a God who is doing a “new thing.”

“This can’t be the way God wants it!”  We say, and find ourselves right back in the garden tugging at the fruit again.

Either way, we find ourselves pulled up short when God goes ahead and does something that seems completely and utterly outside of our expectations.

Like people lined up to get paid, we cannot help but look down the line at what someone else has, or is getting, and jump into comparison mode.

God places in our hands all that we’ve been promised, but immediately our minds still want to jump to, “we have to be getting more then….”  And that is precisely the moment at which God’s Grace catches us off guard, and even becomes offensive.   We see grace extended to the place where we would not expect it, or have it go, and we find ourselves in unison exclaiming “It’s just not fair!”

The punch line to the parable is God’s observation to our objection:  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Actually the translation of “are you envious because I am generous?” is a bit difficult here.   What is being translated is an idiom, a phrase that has metaphorical meaning which is always a little tricky.

We all know that “pulling a person’s leg” has nothing to do with someone physically grabbing a lower extremity.  It is an idiom, it means you are telling someone an untruth in a good natured way.

We know a bunch of idioms and we use them every day.  “The devil is in the detail” we say.  Or, “It’s not rocket science”… neither of which have anything to do with demons or rockets but have to do with implementation of a project, discovering or overcoming difficulties.

So the literal wording in Greek for this idiom is, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

It has nothing to do with eyes, but it has everything to do with perception.  How you perceive the action of the land owner, of God?  What does the action of God do to you?

It is “the usual daily wage” that becomes the problem when you come right down to it.  Isn’t God allowed to be generous with what is his?  What should a person get for a “daily usual wage?”

The apostle Paul in Romans 6:23 reminded us what the “usual daily wage” should be for us.   Paul writes, “for the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

If we, any of us got what was “fair” in this world for our thoughts, actions, and desires… we would not be so eager to receive the wages.    It’s not (after all) really the wages that we want, it is the free gift!

So when you think about that and begin to look at this parable again through the lens of Christ, the great giver of the free gift, you see something peculiar start to take shape.

You begin to pick up all the “gifts” there are in this parable that is supposedly about workers and wages.

It is a gift that there is a vineyard at all.  A gift that a creator God put in place the pieces of this world that we carve out and call our own, but that are clearly a gift of the creator God.  A creator God who so delighted in creation that he called forth produce and told us all to be fruitful, and to have dominion, and to tend his garden.

It is a gift that there is a place for landowner, and for worker.

It is a gift that God calls workers, at every hour, early, late and in between.

God wouldn’t have to do that.

God could leave us to “our regular wages.”

God could leave us to “stand around on our own.”

God could say, “you should have gotten up earlier, been around when I was here the first time, paid more attention to the signs and seasons and the time of harvest so you would be ready when I called.”

But, God doesn’t do that.

Instead, according to this parable, God goes out again and again, calling and inviting and seeking out, and bringing in…all he can.   That is a gift.

And finally, when the grumbling starts, when the workers begin to see what each is getting, God doesn’t take back or withhold.  God doesn’t even really scold, but simply points out, “friend I am doing you no wrong…. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?

That too, is a gift; a gift of a gracious response to a grumbling and disgruntled people.    That phrase, that tone, does not sound like a vindictive God who strikes down or punishes when we disobey.

That sounds more like something my grandmother would say to us when the plate of cookies was set out and our grubby little hands grabbed for the biggest ones, and she would reach in and start handing them out one by one to whomever she chose.   “Am I not allowed ot do what I choose with what belongs to me?   And here you are, I give it to you freely.”

It is just, and not fair.  Just that those who look to God for all good gifts find that God is ready to supply.  Just that a person can earn at any time enough to have food on the table, security in the home, and provision for family.

It is just, even and especially when it’s not fair!

If you try to capture God into your scheme of thinking, into your politics, your sense of how things ought to go in this world, your own sense of fairness… God just will not play along with that.  Things unravel quickly for you, for God is not so much interested in a sense of fairness based on your perception on how things ought to be.

No, God is intensely interested in this world, and setting the world right with the gift of the Kingdom so that it becomes what God believes it ought to be.

This is why God sent his own Son to break the bondage that we feel and experience of how the world currently works.

It is justice, and not fairness, that God is after.  It is the ability for all to make their way in this world, to be invited into the landowner’s vineyard to participate, and to find a place where they have value and worth, and the reward that God has in mind for all.

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“On the List” Matthew 18:15-20

jesus_BlueShirtDo me a favor grab a pencil or a pen and a sheet of paper.  You’ll need it in a minute or so.   This Gospel lesson from Matthew 18 is not one of my favorites for a number of reasons.

First of all, it starts off with conflict, and like most folks I try to avoid conflict as much as possible.   What a bang-up start to your worship experience today.  “If another member of the church sins against you….”   Part of me wants to avoid thinking about that.   If I don’t think about it, maybe it will go away.  

But another part of me wants to yell, “Wake up a smell the coffee!”  Of course someone is bound to do something that hurts your feelings or ticks you off!  That’s what happens in community!

So, okay, pen or pencil in hand, just jot down quickly the names or initials of anyone in this community, this church, who have “sinned against you…”   Be honest now!   Someone here has ticked you off, made you mad, done something that either knowingly or unknowingly offended you.  Take a few moments now to let that offense sink in and ruminate a bit.  Oh, and it’s perfectly fine if my name appears on the list.

Amazing what power that has, isn’t it?  You know, I usually can’t bring to mind anything right off the top of my head that someone has done to help me out or done for me out of kindness.  I have to stop and think a bit, bring things to mind.   But if someone ticks me off, BANG!  That I can bring up on the radar without a blink!  It stays raw, close to the surface.

In my reading on this Gospel lesson today one commentator noted that a big church in Matthew’s day would have consisted of around 50 people.  They were more like an extended family than a large organization.   I think that’s important, because far too often Matthew 18 gets pulled out as some detailed process for dealing with conflict, and we assume within a large organization.  That is the second reason why I’m not too fond of this Gospel lesson.   It just sounds way more methodical than I am used to hearing Jesus speak.  We put this process in our constitutions.  Here is the procedure, direct communication, if that doesn’t work then gather the data, take the witnesses, if that fails then there are due processes for removing a member from the assembly.  We try to put this process in Matthew 18 into some kind of official procedure as if it could be neat, sterile and painless.  We treat it as if it would solve problems.

It does not.

Again, Matthew’s “church” is not much bigger than a typical small congregation, an office workplace, or a family reunion.  That means everyone pretty much knew everybody else, if they wanted to get to know them.   Take a look around, and note the dynamics of those places where you circulate with about 50 people in them.

You’ve got the overcommitted, and those on the fringe.

There are those who jump in and do a bunch of things and who sometimes in the process step on other people’s toes.

There are also those who hang around the edges to keep from getting too involved in the “politics of the church” or “office politics” or “family squabbles.”  

You can also note the absences.   Who isn’t there anymore, or who hasn’t been here for a while?  Who has made their way to another fellowship, looking for something else, or looking just to get away from a conflict here?   That’s Matthew’s “church.”   So, for as much as we like to think that Matthew 18 is some kind of sterile, non-anxious process that solves problems, it is not.

I am a weird person. I think most Pastors are.  

See, I just expect everyone to show up on a Sunday morning, or to be involved.   I expect you all to get along, to resolve your differences along the way, to think the best of one another and to care about each other enough to do the hard work of direct communication.  Yes, I do live in this fantasy world!

Oh, I expect you to have your list too.   I’m not naive about that.   I know what goes on around here, around every congregation I’ve ever served, every workplace I’ve been in, and every family with which I’ve had the pleasure to spend time.

I know who won’t work with whom.  I observe who holds on to grudges, who keeps points, who likes to throw things back in a person’s face and bring up past history when it suits their purpose so to do.  

I know who likes to operate by the letter of the law, (so long as strict adherence to the “rules” benefits their interest) and who tends to let procedure and policy details slide when that suits their needs.

I know who has been wounded, who won’t stick their necks out again, who won’t show up if this or that person is going to be there, or who won’t sit at the same table with someone else.

I go to church, to my workplace, week after week, and I expect people to just show up and somehow to make it work, because (as the author Brene’ Brown puts it,) “Sometimes the bravest and most important thing to do is just showing up.”

In reality, I often think that it’s a miracle that anyone shows up at all!

This is the reality of community.  We get on each other’s nerves.  That’s what happens when we love each other intensely and have a vision for what this place, whatever the place, can be.

When you live in community you vacillate between the highs and the lows.   There are times that we would give our own kidney for some, and times when we won’t give the time of day to them.   There are times when we can’t stand one another for this point or that.  We develop deep passions for what it is that is near and dear to our hearts — our gifts, talents, and abilities; and sometimes let those passions override the wishes of others or make us lose sight of one another’s goodness and giftedness.  

We make judgments about our fellow members of this community based upon our own passions, labeling the other then as either hostile against us, or condemning them for their disinterest in what we find to be important, nay; essential!   “This is what it means to be:________________.”    Fill in the blank with whatever you find identifying and of importance to you.

Now take another look at your list.  Think about how much better a place this would be for you if the names on that list would change their ways, or would just see things your way, or have your passion, or would behave, or perhaps would leave and never came back.  

Oh, and while you are doing that, just know that somewhere across the room or across the space of the internet someone has your initials, or your name.. .. or my name perhaps…written down  and is looking at it at this very moment thinking the same.

Now do me one more favor.   Next to the name or initials you have written down, write, “Disciples” and circle all those names.

That’s who they are.

They are just trying to follow Jesus as best they can, as imperfectly and flawed as they are.

And now write another name next to them.

Write “Jesus.”

See, this is the part of Matthew 18 that we tend to quote in isolation.   “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am there among them.”   That’s a verse often quoted that brings to mind people in accord, holding hands, praying, seeking closeness.   We imagine then some idyllic setting, where because Jesus is there everyone gets along.  The “magic kingdom” Christianity of our dreams.

But in reality, Jesus gives us this reminder of his presence in the midst of the hard reality of living in real community, and the steps you have to take in real community, where in fact we do get grumpy, happy, dopey, sleepy and all the rest.

Jesus-at-Disney-article1

You will get on each other’s nerves.  You will make your “list”, and end up on someone else’s. You will experience the full range of emotions, both positive and negative, in the midst of community.  You will at times feel anger, resentment, shame and you will struggle to follow God’s call in the best way you know how.  That will put you at odds with others trying to do the very same thing.

You will do all of that, but this Gospel story ends with the assurance that you will do it with Jesus in your midst, wherever two or three are gathered.  It doesn’t make things all better, but it does change the context, and maybe the conversation.

You’ve got your list now. You have your names, the fact that they are also disciples, and the reminder that Jesus is in the middle of this. What you do with it, is up to you, which brings me to the last thing that I’m not fond of about this Gospel lesson.

There is no ambiguity in it.  Matthew 18 makes clear to me what I have to do with those on my list, and you as well. What we do, whatever we do, with Jesus standing right there beside us.