Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), “Better than fair”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. “BUT IT’S NOT FAIR! SHE GOT MORE THAN ME!!!” “BUT IT’S NOT FAIR! HE GOT THE PROMOTION I DESERVED!” “BUT IT’S NOT FAIR! LOOK HOW PERFECT AND EASY THEIR LIFE IS AND LOOK AT MINE!” “BUT IT’S NOT FAIR! I’M ALWAYS LAST!” “BUT IT’S NOT FAIR! I DID MORE WORK, BUT THEY GOT PAID THE SAME!” “BUT IT’S NOT FAIR! THEY DIDN’T EVEN STUDY AND GOT A BETTER GRADE THAN ME ON THE TEST!”
I’m sure you can add to this list. Nothing can make us feel greedy, grumpy, whiny, jealous, or even just plain angry than perceiving some sort of unfairness. Truth be told, our eyes don’t always see the full picture. Glossy magazine or internet ads push all our buttons for lust, jealousy and greed. Our friends or even a stranger’s postings and photos only show us a “picture perfect slice” of their life. Our constant comparisons leave us dissatisfied and resentful. We cry “foul” all the time, but we make pretty poor umpires or referees, because we always take our own side in the game, and rarely see the whole picture. Often a change in our own effort could even things out or get us ahead, but there’s always the “X factor” of things that just are out of our control.
An interesting little note is on the translation of this verse in our parable of the laborers in the vineyard: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matt. 20:15). Translated literally: the second question is, “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” How much complaining and grumbling stems from our “evil eye”, filled with discontentment, misinterpretation, lack of facts, or jealousy? The master in the parable, or God, wants us to have a “good eye” that rejoices in His generosity and goodness. More on that in a minute.
But in the first place let’s just get over the fact that life just isn’t fair! The Bible says as much! Quoting from the New English Translation, in Ecclesiastes 9:11
11 Again, I observed this on the earth: the race is not always won by the swiftest, the battle is not always won by the strongest; prosperity does not always belong to those who are the wisest, wealth does not always belong to those who are the most discerning, nor does success always come to those with the most knowledge— for time and chance may overcome them all.
We can and should do our best to create equal opportunities for people, so we don’t set anyone up for failure. But outcomes in life are subject to time and chance, and not everyone gets rewarded evenly or fairly. The sooner we get over the fact that life’s not fair—the sooner we can turn off “complaining mode.” God still wants us to trade out that “evil eye” for a “good eye” that is generous like His. How do I make the best when life’s unfair?
On to the meat of the story: workers are hired at different times of day by the master, and yet they all get paid the same. The complaint seems to be that the master created the unfairness by his method of payment. Now just because life is unfair doesn’t give us permission to be crooked or unfair. But as the master closely examines the facts with the worker, he shows that he violated no agreement and was not in any way unfair to the first workers. He paid exactly what was agreed upon. It was simply His free exercise of generosity to the rest that made them grumble. That “evil eye” or “begrudging his generosity” made them sore at him. The first workers were the only ones who got an agreement up front for one denarius: a standard day’s wage. They accepted it willingly as fair. All the late arrivals, who started at the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 11th hour didn’t know what they were going to be paid. They were simply told to go and work and would be paid whatever is right.
Here's where our “fairness” gets to calculating. “Ah, I see, they worked for three quarters, or a half, or a quarter of a day—or even 1/12th of a day—so they should be paid that fraction of a denarius for their work.” That would be FAIR in our minds. Or if the one hour workers got a full denarius, shouldn’t the rest be paid 3, 6, 9, and 12 denarii? Or at least something more? How else can this all be worked out fairly?
But what’s Jesus’ point? What is the payment and who do all these workers represent? It’s about the kingdom of heaven. Whether you come to Christ’s church, and join His vineyard early or late…whether your faith awakened early as a small child, or believing in Jesus mid-life, or even believing at the last hour of life, on your deathbed…the reward of heaven is the same! You don’t get double bonus triple awesome life in heaven because you were an early believer, or a cut-rate reduced-value fraction of heaven because you were late! God doesn’t scale the gift up or down because of when you arrived! There’s no place for an evil, jealous, or unkind eye. Rather, our eye should be good as He is good, and see and reflect His generosity.
Look at the story from a different perspective. None of you, that I know, are day laborers, waiting in the marketplace daily to be hired by a random employer for one day’s work and day’s wages. But you have bills to pay and maybe a family to provide for. As a day laborer, your daily pay brings daily bread for the table. Being a day-laborer doesn’t leave you with much margin. What an awesome master and employer in the parable, out of His goodness and generosity supplies each worker with the full measure of what they need for their body and life and their family. He’s no miserly Scrooge that cuts wages to save a dime. Really, what an awesome God we have, who doesn’t give us what is fair, but far better than fair!
What’s better than fair? GRACE! God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense! If we want what’s fair from God, we will get what we deserve—eternal punishment in hell. That’s the wages our sin earned. Remember that verse? “The wages of sin is death!” Be careful what you wish for when you demand your fair share! You just might get it! Yes: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord!” GRACE is far better than fair! God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. God gives far more than we could ever ask or deserve. No one really “earns” eternal life by working in God’s vineyard. Heaven isn’t an “earned reward” or “getting paid our dues” for anything we’ve done in Christ’s church or by working with Him in His kingdom. It’s the gift Christ earned and freely gives to whoever will come and receive it! To work for a good and generous master is a privilege and a thankful duty.
God, I want good eyes! Generous eyes! I want to see with Your goodness and love, and to rejoice when my neighbor is blessed, and not be concerned whose blessing is greater. I want to rejoice in Your goodness and grace wherever it appears. Lord, put me to work in Your kingdom, for my family, for their good. Put me to work alongside neighbors and brothers and sisters and let us encourage each other during the heat and burden of the day. Let ours be a joyful work, a loving life that is lived with satisfaction and support, not jealousy, rivalry, and resentment. Give us good and generous eyes because you are good!
Jesus, you said: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23). Jesus, let Your light fill my eyes and fill my body so that I am healthy and full of Your light! Jesus, let your light fill my eyes so that they shine with Your goodness in charity, in generosity, in acts of kindness and encouragement to others. Let others see in our eyes Your love, and be attracted to Your light, and come and work in Your vineyard. Jesus, let Your light fill our eyes so that we rejoice in the goodness of life and lift others out of idleness into the joyful work of Your kingdom.
Jesus, I confess that my sense of “fairness” often ends up looking like stinginess or resentment. Light up my eyes so they are not clouded by self-pity or jealousy, but that they rejoice in all Your blessings, great and small—for myself and others. Light up my eyes to see my neighbor’s need, and find ways to love, defend, and protect them. Help me to be as generous with the free gifts of Your kingdom as You have been generous with them to me. Light up my eyes, so that I see a life and a kingdom that is better than fair—it’s built on Your boundless generosity and goodness for a hurting world—Your grace for a world in need. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.