Whatever is Right

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This really isn’t fair.I think back to childhood and the kid that cut in line in school.Or I think of that individual that shoots across three lanes to cut in just before the exit on the road.It isn’t fair!

Matthew 20:1-16

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

This really isn’t fair.

I think back to childhood and the kid that cut in line in school.

Or I think of that individual that shoots across three lanes to cut in just before the exit on the road.

It isn’t fair!

Maybe you were the one doing the cutting in line or sliding across three lanes to the exit. I’m not trying to be the judge right now. I have certainly had my share of poor choices and mistakes.

The thing is, we have very clear ideas in our mind for what is and isn’t fair. We have been taught this from a very young age and it is very useful. Ideally, this helps us consider how to treat others fairly on a daily basis as well. Without some of this general framework, things would get super messy, super quickly.

When we hear this story from Jesus, it is quite natural to think, that’s not fair!

I even heard of one very regular church-attender who would skip Sundays when this text was preached. She related to the ones who had worked all day in the vineyard and was so disturbed by the idea of late-comers receiving the same that she couldn’t stand it.

Her reaction may be stronger than most, but we see the realities of this story coming alive for us as well today.

We tend to rank ourselves and others on a scale of works and the way we speak and act reflects this. From radicals destroying life as they determine who is and is not worthy to our simpler actions of judgement, we frequently try to decide who deserves the best and who falls beneath that. We have heard the comments of, “There is a special place in heaven” for that person or “a special place somewhere else” as we judge. We draw our fairness into hierarchies regarding God’s eternal judgement. That is not how fairness is supposed to work.

These are real issues for us and this story has something to say to each of us.

With whom do you most relate in this story? Do you feel like the person who has been working since the break of day, watching others receive the same wage? Do you feel like you are that one who worked for one hour to receive far more than what was expected? Are you somewhere in between?

For people who say this isn’t fair, you are absolutely right. This isn’t fair. This isn’t a very good business model either. But Jesus isn’t trying to describe a good business. Jesus is describing the kingdom of heaven. The landowner doesn’t say they will be paid what is fair. The landowner says he will pay whatever is right.

Paying whatever is right, the landowner pays what each person needed for living that day. The daily wage of the time really covered the financial needs of the day. The people who had waited in the marketplace for work all day clearly had the same needs as anybody else. Receiving a fraction of that would have left them without despite their waiting, hoping, and looking for that wage for living. Is it fair for them to be without?

Still, this system of payment from the landowner really isn’t fair, is it? The ten-hour worker and one-hour worker receive the same thing? But this story isn’t meant to just be about a vineyard and workers. This story is about the kingdom of heaven.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is like and thank God it isn’t fair. Instead, God gives what is right. The landowner says, “I will pay you whatever is right.” The Greek word used here for ‘right’ is ‘dikaion’ which means right, righteous, and just. The landowner will pay whatever is just. God gives what is right and just. God’s justice, thankfully, looks a quite a bit different than our own ideas that tangle justice and fairness together.

Giving what is fair would still send people away in need.

If the kingdom of heaven were fair, each person would get exactly what they were due.

For a moment, it might sound nice to us to receive what seems fair for our work. We might think, ‘I’ve worked hard, I deserve quite a lot.’ This is what that individual who skipped church for this text wanted to hear. She looked at her life, seeing the good works and her drive to follow as a dedicated believer of Christ. She located herself in this story as the full-day laborer drenched in sweat with calluses on her hands and wanted to hear that her reward for this work would be greater than that of the next person.

‘Tell me there is a special place in heaven for me!’

However, she is seeing this through her own eyes. She isn’t looking at her own need being the same as the next person’s. Both of them are sinners in need of what God will give at the end of the day. She very well may have done many more good things in her life than lots of folks, but both the one with work-worn hands and the one who hardly broke a sweat are given what they need because they are welcomed in by the one in charge. The kingdom of heaven is more than big enough. The gift won’t run out.

As the sweaty, tired workers question the landowner, he says, ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

‘Are you envious because I am generous?’ In the Greek, you could literally translate this to say ‘Is your eye evil because I am generous?’ This is what envy is: the green eyed monster. Our view becomes evil. We can become inwardly turned to say that we could better determine how the resources and payment should be divided. Let me be in charge! We think we know how to make things fair, but we need to have our vision on our generous God who makes things not simply fair, but right and just.

Our eyes are turned away from the generosity of God because we are wrapped up in our own ideas of fairness. Instead we are called to see that the kingdom of heaven is a place where our God freely gives precisely what is needed and welcomes in all people to receive these gifts. Instead of hearing this with envy, we are called to hear this in joy and gratitude toward our generous God.

We are called to be grateful for what we are given, but we are called into really challenging examination here as well as we honestly look at this story in our life.

First of all, as we place ourselves in this story, what is our work like in the vineyard/out in the world? Are we working hard all day long? Is our work useful? Are we doing this work in gratitude for being given the opportunity or a sense of obligation?

Secondly, how do we interact with other workers alongside us? Do we let our differences divide us? Do we welcome those who have joined in the work far later than us? Do we help others learn the work with us? Do we let others teach us?

Finally, what is our view of the one we are working for? How do we react to this ridiculous generosity shown by our God who holds all things, created all things, and brings justice to provide what is needed for each of us?

Each of these questions involves turning away from mere fairness and looking to God’s justice.

We each can find our own issues here. As we examine ourselves, we can see our own shortcomings as we work on this earth serving the Lord. We don’t need to acknowledge these shortcomings in shame, but can rather look to the opportunities to grow from our areas of weakness. Turning away from our own ideas of fairness and how things should be, we look to how God makes things to be right and just, inviting all to receive what God gives. We get to share in this as we are called to work in God’s kingdom every day.

As this wonderfully diverse group of people in need of God’s salvation, we are called to work and to receive the not what we deserve but what God freely gives. As we go out, let us trust the one who calls us into that work and trust that our God rightly and generously gives exactly what each of us need in the kingdom of heaven, both right now and forever. Thanks be to God. Amen

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