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The Gospel Is NOT Fair (Video and Manuscript)

Preached September 21, 2014, at the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, VA. , this sermon makes clear the truth that neither God nor grace are fair.

In western culture and it’s evangelical religion, a prevailing myth is that God’s aim in redemption is balancing and settling accounts.  The God whom Jesus reveals, however, is not at all concerned about those thing.

You can read the manuscript on this page, as well as watch the video.  A podcast can be downloaded at the church website:  Patterson Avenue Baptist Church  If you find a post helpful, inspirational, or even a bit controversial, PLEASE SHARE via social media.  There are several links on this page to make such SHARING much easier.

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The Gospel Is Not Fair!

Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

 “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

 “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

SO THE LAST WILL BE FIRST, AND THE FIRST WILL BE LAST.

062_A_PhotoIn the passage immediately preceding the one read for this morning, a man runs up to Jesus and asked: “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus almost dismisses him: “Why do you ask me about what is good?  You know the commandments.  Keep them!” That’s not enough of an answer for the man. “I have kept the commandments since I was young.  Am I missing something?”

Jesus replied: “Yes, you still lack one thing. Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor. Then come follow me.” The text tells us that the man walked away filled with sorrow because he was a man of tremendous wealth.  Jesus shook his head and said to the disciples:  “It will be hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

 

Now the disciples were not sure what to make of all this. They had been watching and were very disturbed.  They had been taught (as most of us have also been taught) that God had especially blessed rich men.  In fact, this is why they were rich:  God has blessed them! So the disciples looked at one another, not sure what to say.  They probably pondered this thought in their minds:  “If a wealthy man could not receive salvation, then how could they as poor man have any hope?

They asked Jesus: “If a man like this can’t be saved, who can?”

It reminds me of a scene from the movie Fiddler on the Roof?  In the movie, Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman living in Russia, sings of all the things he would do if he “were a rich man.”

Hearing him, his wife remarks: “money is a curse.”

Immediately Tevye shouts toward heaven: “curse me God, curse me.”

054_A_PhotoIt’s almost as if Jesus was saying to the man, “Your money is a curse.” That made no sense to the disciples.  It doesn’t make much sense to our ways of thinking, either.  Jesus turns away the rich man.  I am pretty sure most pastors today would not do that sort of thing.

Peter’s next comment reveals what was going on inside their thoughts. He says, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

“What’s in it for us?”

“What will be our reward?”

 

 

Jesus replied,

“At the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

Well, now we’re talking, right? “Don’t you worry one little bit Peter.  Everyone who has left family, and friendships, and good paying jobs, and large investment portfolios, well they will get it all stuff back a 100 times over.  But wait, that’s not all.  Those who leave everything to follow me will also inherit eternal life.”

It sounded like to Peter and the others as if their ship was just about to come in. It sounded like easy street was just around the next corner.

But then there is one final sentence that should give us some pause. Jesus says, “The first will be last, and last will be first.” What in the world does Jesus mean by that?

To answer that question, we need to launch into Jesus parable from Matthew 20 where Jesus speaks of the advent of God’s kingdom. He ends the parable with the same conclusion sentence he had just spoken to his disciples.  He says:  “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

When we read this parable, we get an almost visceral feeling about the unfairness of it all. We are hard working types of folk.  We are early to bed, early to rise types of people.  We get up, brush our teeth, go do our jobs, laboring industriously throughout the day.  Those lazy co-workers get under our skin.  You know the type.  They always arrive late.  They spend far too much time by the water cooler.  They take longer than necessary lunch breaks and they early before the work day is finished.  Those folks bug us because we know those lazy bums are getting paid the salary (or better) they you are getting paid.

If we read this story from the perspective of the hard worker, something’s not right. It’s just not fair.

It’s like the story of the prodigal. The younger son had wasted his inheritance on wild and reckless living.  The older boy had stayed home, on the farm, working loyally in the family business.  When the prodigal comes home, Father throws a party for him.  What about the older boy.  We find him sitting and sulking outside the party complaining that Father is not fair.

It’s like the story of the time that a Canaanite woman – a woman from the wrong religion, the wring racial heritage, and the wrong side of the tracks – get’s treated by Jesus to the same blessings as his Jewish disciples.  It’s just not fair. Over and over and over again, in parable after parable and encounter after encounter, we receive from Jesus the clear message that the God he came to reveal and the gospel he came to proclaim is just not fair.

In my first church after seminary, which was located on Virginia’s Northern Neck, there was an unofficial “group” in the congregation who could trace their lineage back to the seventeen individuals who had established the church way back in 1778. They called themselves the “first families.”

I discovered that they had their own separate meetings apart from the business sessions of the congregation. When an issue came up – especially related to the “historic old building” – these folks would decide what needed to be done and inform everyone else of their “decision”.  The church organist (the lady who did not like my Flintstones tie) was a part of this group.  She came to me before a business session to tell me what the group expected to be done about the stone fence’s state of disrepair.  She told me who they expected to do the repairs, where they expected replacement bricks would be purchases, and how much money would be spent.

I thanked her for her input and suggested that she bring up her proposal during the business session.  I told her that one member of the “Buildings and Grounds” committee – a man new to the congregation – had also done some research and had some good ideas.

“Well, he’s a ‘come here,’” she said.  “He doesn’t know the history and heritage of this church.” “I understand perfectly,” I said.  “But he’s a member of this church and he has one vote concerning such matters, just like you.”

Poor gal was incensed.  She’d been a part of that church for seventy plus years.  Her family was among those who were charter members  from 1778.  How could this newbie in the church, this “come here,” be shown the same amount of deference as she and her “first family” friends.

I’ve run across that from time to time.  I’d bet some of you have as well.  People who think that their history, or their longevity, or their wealth and influence, should somehow makes their idea more important and valid.  Those others have come to the game late and bring less to the table.  It does not seem fair that they should carry as much influence.

Jesus teaches – the scripture continually reveals – that the God he came to reveal is not fair. The gospel is not fair.  The message is not that some get more than others.  The message is that God’s grace is generous to everyone.  You see, nobody deserves a thing…but everyone involved get’s all there is to receive. Let’s look at Jesus parable.  Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner.  It’s very early in the day (at sunrise) and the landowner hires day-laborers to work in his vineyard, offering to pay them a generous daily wage.

On the Eastern shore, day laborers would start gathering behind a local gas-station, looking for work. People needing somebody to work in the field, or paint a house, or cut the yard, would pull up behind the station, usually driving a pickup truck, and would select a few or the laborers to climb in the truck and be ready for a day’s labor.

That’s sort of what’s happening in the text. The day laborers have gathered early in the morning.  They get hired first.  Then later, around 9a.m., the land owner sees some other folks hanging around, so he invites them to work, agreeing to pay “whatever is right.” The same scenario is repeated at noon, and 3p.m., and even at 5p.m.

At the end of the day the workers were all gathered together to get paid. Those who’d only been in the field for an hour, those who’d been working all day, and all those somewhere in the middle.  The land owner paid them all, beginning with those who had only worked an hour, moving to those who’d been in the fields all day.

And get this: he paid the ones hired last, one full denarius, a whole days wage! Well, those at the back of the line see this and imaging that this is going to be their lucky day.  Their ship is just about to come in.  Easy street is just around the corner.  They’ve been working all day.  Certainly there are going to get more than those who’ve only work for about an hour.

Then comes those who’d been working since 3p.m., and noon, and 9am. You know what he does?  He pays them all the same day’s wage. Then comes all of us folk.  We’ve been toiling from sun up till sun down.  It’s finally our turn.  We’re about to be rewarded handsomely for our work. But we get paid the same as all the others. These last workers complained to the landowner, “What’s up with this! The last worked only one hour, but you have paid them the same wage as those of us who worked through the scorching heat of the day.  It’s just not fair.”

The land owner replied, “Didn’t I not pay you exactly as we had agreed? I have done no wrong; I just chose to give to the last the same as I give to you.  Are you envious because I am generous?”

Then Jesus repeats the lesson he’d spoken in the passage preceding this: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

What in the world was Jesus thinking?

We’ve been conditioned by society, culture, and our evangelical religious heritage to believe that God is concerned about balancing the books, settling up, and being fair.

In this story, Jesus makes it clear that the God he represents is not concerned with those sorts of thing. The God he called Abba is not interested at all with our secular notions of justice, equity, and fairness.  In God’s economy, those who arrive late get paid the same as those who toiled the entire day.  In God’s scheme of things, the Gospel is just not fair.   God is not interested in fairness.  God is interested in be generous.

Now if we think we are at the back of the line, with more perspiration dripping from our brow because we’ve been at it longer than anyone else, that doesn’t seem fair at all.

But what if we are not where we think we are? I mean, what if we are really at the front of the line.  What if we’ve only be at it a little it?  What if we really haven’t done anything at all? Maybe we haven’t done nearly as we think we have.

Maybe we’ve played our religious games and engaged in our religious enterprises, and observed our religious traditions, but really, we’ve been doing it all for our own benefit – to get noticed, to earn blessings, to achieve brownie points – as if somehow what we DO is more important than who God is?

But God, don’t you see, we have obeyed the rules, observed the regulations, and participated in the rituals.  And God, we’ve been at this longer than anyone else.  We arrived early and stayed late.  We have earned you grace.  God, it’s just not fair.

Folks, we do not earn grace.  We do not achieve brownie points with God by the things we say and do.  We don’t not complete a certain number of prescribe chores to obtain the salvation of God.

The God Jesus came to reveal and the grace he came to embody is not fair. But I will tell you what:  our God is generous beyond our wildest imaginations.  And that’s great news, because in the reality of the kingdom of heaven, we are all at the same place in line.  We all stand in line needy of God’s grace and goodness.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Depending on where you are in line that can sound like powerful good news, because if God is not fair, then there is a chance we will get paid more than we are worth, that we will get more than we deserve, that we will make it through the doors even though we are last in line–not because of who we are but because of who God is.”

Grace is not fair. The Gospel is not fair.  God is not fair. It’s all better than that.  The grace gospel of God is abundantly generous.  So generous, in fact, that all of us and all the world is included in it benefits.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

 

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