Sermon: September 21, 2008

22 09 2008


For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”


                                                            Matthew 20:1-16


            I just love this story.  It’s one of those stories that give us an inside view of the very day life of Jesus, the disciples, and the people to whom Jesus ministered.  You see, as we follow the life of Jesus, we discover that Jesus spent a good deal of His time walking the highways and the byways of Israel.  He spent a good deal of his time with the “common folk” of that time.  In this story we get an insight into what life was like for lots of these people.  You see, most of these people didn’t own businesses, have farms, or even regular jobs.  They would make their living by picking up work and jobs where they could.  During the harvest the men would go to the market place and look for work.  The owners of the farm would come there and hire men to go out and help with the work.  And that is the backdrop of this story in the Gospel of Matthew.  An owner comes into town at 6am and sees a bunch of men standing around.  He hires them to come out and work on his farm for an agreed to amount of money.  A little later in the day – about 9am – he goes back to the market place and hires some more men.  He does the same thing again at noon and then again at 3pm and finally hires a few more at 5pm – with only a hour left to work.


            At the end of the day he lined up all of the men that had worked that day and began paying them.  He started with the guys who had shown up at 5pm – worked only one hour – and gave them the equivalent of a full day’s salary.  Well, when the guys who had started at 6am saw this, they started rubbing their hands together in joy.  “Look at what he is giving those guys who only worked one hour in the fields.  Boy, if he is giving them that kind of money, can you imagine what he is going to give us.  We hit pay dirt today.”


            But when the owner of the farm came to them, he gave them the same amount of money as he had given the guys who had worked there all day.  Well, they were not “happy campers” when they saw what they got.  It wasn’t fair.  They had worked all day – born the heart of the day – worked hard from sunrise to sunset – all that they were getting for their trouble was the same amount of money as the guys who showed up at 5pm and worked only one hour.  That’s just not fair. 

            Now the response of the landowner was – “What did I do wrong?  I promised that I would give you a full day’s pay.  Did I do that?  Did I give you what I promised?  Well, then what are you complaining about?” 


            Their response was – “that wasn’t fair.”  The owner’s response was – “Life isn’t fair.”  And that is what we have been talking about for the last four weeks now.  Jesus asks the disciples who He is.  They tell Him that He is the Christ the Son of the Living God.  Jesus then says that that is right and do you know what that means?  That means that they will take the Son of Man out and kill him.  Well, that just doesn’t seem fair.


            Over the last two weeks we learned that when conflict arises that we are to be loving and forgiving.  Even to the point of forgiving those who hate us and would welcome the opportunity to destroy us.  Well, that just doesn’t seem fair.


            And now we have this story.  And the story just doesn’t seem fair.  God doesn’t seem to be fair.  And do you know what Jesus’ response was?  That’s right – well God isn’t fair.  What?  God is not fair?  That just doesn’t seem right.


            Well, if God was fair we would all be in a whole lot of trouble.  If God dealt with our world in a fair fashion, He would have wiped it out as a failed experiment and started all over again.  If God was fair with us, not a single one of us would have a chance for heaven.  Not one of us could sing songs about how Heaven is our Home.  Because what is fair is to cut us off.  What is fair is to condemn us to eternal punishment.  That’s what fair.   So thanks be to God who isn’t fair.  Who doesn’t give us what we deserve.  But instead give us love and forgiveness and compassion and understanding and care and concern.  Thanks be to God who showers us with plenty and presence and blessings.  And who now asks us to not be fair with those around us – to not give them what they deserve – but to give to them exactly what God gives us – love and forgiveness and compassion and understanding and care and concern.  God asks us to not be fair to those around us – but to give them plenty and presence and blessings.  God asks us to not be fair to those around us even as God was not fair to us.  To love and care and forgive one another – even as God loves and cares and forgives us.


Two little children in Calcutta, India, a teeming city of millions, most of them poor. Urchins, they would have been called in a Dickens novel. The boy maybe eight, the girl 12 or so. They might have been brother and sister. I don’t know.

They tugged at my jacket as I walked down a packed street. “Sir, sir, spare some money?” the girl asked. I tried to move on. Because of the crushing poverty, begging was practically an industry in Calcutta. It was 1988. I was 24, a struggling artist just out of Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. Like generations of young people before me, I traveled to India in search of something vaguely spiritual. I just wasn’t sure what.

The kids persisted. The boy thrust up his fingers. “Please, sir,” he said. His fingers were mangled stubs. The girl held her hands up too. They were the same. I wasn’t shocked. This was standard begging strategy, and I couldn’t give what I didn’t have.

“We’re lepers,” the girl cried. I didn’t know whether to believe them. I quickened my step. So did they. What did they want from me? I was just a scraggly young American with a backpack. There were many more prosperous-looking tourists all around. “Come and see where we go for lunch,” the boy said, keeping up.

I thought about how I must look to them. A fairly clean pair of jeans and a backpack must’ve seemed so affluent. “Okay,” I said, not sure why. Maybe my conscience had something to do with it. How could I turn them away?

They led me down a back street to a drab stucco building. The girl reached up and pulled on a bell. The door opened. A nun appeared. “Welcome,” she said. From within I heard voices—children’s voices. I was led into a room lined with about 20 cots. “This is our orphanage,” said a nun. “Some, like these two, just eat here.” Maybe it was the look on my face that said I was losing my heart to these kids. “Let me take you to meet the sister who runs our place,” the nun said.

She showed me to an unadorned room off the main quarters. It was empty, save for a plain wooden table, two chairs, a bare light bulb hanging over the table and a curtain for a door. One of the walls was inscribed with a prayer by St. Francis. A moment passed. I studied the prayer. There was nothing else to do. A nun wearing a white head shawl bordered in blue finally stepped through the curtain. She was short and energetic with a remarkable aura about her. “I’m Mother Teresa,” she said.  “What can you do for God today?”


 This week try to not be fair.






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