Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 24, 2017

2017.09.24 “Life is Not Fair (It’s Grace)” – Matthew 20: 1 – 16

Central United Methodist Church
Life is Not Fair (It’s Grace)
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 20: 1 – 16
September 24th, 2017

The Red Vineyards near Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1888

“The Red Vineyards near Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1888.” 

God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.  They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work.

        “Later, about nine o’clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.

        “He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock. At five o’clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, “Why are you standing around all day doing nothing? 7

       “They said, “Because no one hired us.’

       “He told them to go to work in his vineyard.

       “When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, “Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.’  “Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, “These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’

       “He replied to the one speaking for the rest, “Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we?  So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’

       “Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”– Matthew 20: 1 – 16, from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson


We have heard it, from the mouths of our children. Almost certainly, at some time or another, we have said it ourselves: “Life is not fair!”

Usually when we say this, we are comparing ourselves to others, which most often, brings no joy. We enjoy the car we drive, until we see our neighbor with a nicer or newer one. We are OK with our marriage, until we see the couple down the street, who seem to love each other more. We love our kids, but wish they were better-rounded and more accomplished, like our friend’s kids. We are OK with our grades, until we hear about friend – who studied less than us – who aced the test. As I said, comparing ourselves to others, rarely brings joy.

But then there are other times when comparing ourselves with others has nothing to do with it; sometimes life is observedly unfair. A car crashes into another stopped at an intersection; people – even children – die. Terrorists fly an airplane into a building; thousands of innocent people die. An earthquake or a hurricane strikes, not once but twice, and people lose everything, including those who lose their lives. Life is not fair. We say this to our children, we say it to ourselves, because it’s true.

However, while it is true, it is also true to say that most of life is grace: the undeserved, unmerited gift of God. For most of us, most of the time – especially to those of us born into the privileges of race and class and time and place – life is good. If only we could open our eyes to see it.

To help us open our eyes, Jesus once told a story, known as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. As Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms once said, “Whenever Jesus told a parable, he lit a stick of dynamite and covered it with a story.” That’s the way this story is.

He told it after Peter had said to him, basically, “Life’s not fair. A rich young ruler had come to him, asking to be his disciple, but after Jesus told him to first go sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, he went away sorrowing, for he had much. Jesus said, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for the rich to enter God’s kingdom? Let me tell you, it’s easier to gallop a camel through a needle’s eye than for the rich to enter God’s kingdom.” This shocked his disciples), who asked: “Then who has any chance at all?” (Seriously, how much stuff did they have?)

And Peter – who speaks for us – you can almost hear the whine in his voice – says: “But it’s not fair: we left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?” Jesus replied:

“Yes, you have followed me. In the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously, you who have followed me will also rule, starting with the twelve tribes of Israel. And not only you, but anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields — whatever — because of me will get it all back a hundred times over, not to mention the considerable bonus of eternal life. This is the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”

On that note Jesus tells this story, which begins not in church but out in a parking lot, because it is a scene we can still see today, if we look.

Early every morning, day laborers line up and wait for the trucks and vans to come by, to offer them a job for the day. Many are immigrants (though not all); all are willing to work hard for low pay. It might be landscaping, harvesting crops, replacing roofs or digging ditches, even the repetitive (and dangerous) work of meat packing plants. There are no benefits like health insurance or pensions; the work may even shortcut OSHA safety guidelines, such that should you get seriously injured or even killed, you’re on your own. But when 50 line up for work, and only 5 are needed, you take what you can get. People give these laborers a lot of grief, but they work harder than anybody, at jobs most of us would not want or do. Despite the grief they get, our economy would not survive without them, the crops would rot in the fields. Cesar Chavez, an early advocate of farm workers’ rights, once said: “I’m angry, that I live in a world where a man who picks food for a living can’t afford to feed his family.” Sadly, this is still true today.

Out there in that parking lot, the boss pulls up in his Ford F-350, and takes a load of workers to the field, promising them a day’s wage, a dollar a day.

But what’s with this boss, who seems more concerned that there are people waiting and not working, than how many are actually needed? He basically begins a shuttle service, going back around 9 to pick up more, back around noon, back around 3, even back at 5, around quitting time, to find workers still waiting. He said, “Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?” “They said, “Because no one hired us.’ “Let’s go,” he says.

At the end of the day, everybody lines up to get paid. Those hired last, who worked only an hour, get a dollar. When those hired early see this, they say, “Woo hoo, we’re going to get rich!” But then, those hired at 3 get a dollar. Those hired at noon get a dollar. Those hired at 9 got a dollar. Bringing up the rear, those hired at dawn, get a dollar. When they see this, they grouse to the boss, “These last workers put in one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’

To which the owner says, “”Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we?  So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money?  Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’

In other words, if you want a world that operates on bean-counting rules of fairness, you need to find another parable. In this parable, in my kingdom – everything moves according to generosity, and everybody gets enough to live.” “Here it is again, says Jesus, the Great Reversal: “The first end up last, and the last end up first.”

What does it mean? There are some things, this parable is not. It’s not an allegory, in which the late guys are the good guys (Christians), the early guys are the bad guys (Jews), and the boss is God. After all, the boss is generous like God, but is that the kind of boss you’d want to work for, get paid by? As Thomas Long says, “this parable is not a blueprint for labor practices or economic systems any more than the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a class on parenting or the Great Banquet a manual of table etiquette. Any company that paid people who work one hour a day the same as it paid full-time workers would soon have a hard time finding employees willing to show up at nine.”

What the parable may be, is this: it’s almost certain Matthew shares this parable to illustrate the tension brewing between Jesus and his opponents, and especially their failure to accept his radical sense of grace; hard to stomach for some, still today. We see it today when old immigrants (unless we’re Native American we’re all immigrants) hate new immigrants, we see it when Christians who like old ways of doing church hate new ways of doing church. As I said at the beginning, comparing ourselves with others rarely brings joy to anybody, especially when it involves trashing others.

What this parable definitely is, is this: a window on the kingdom of God. It allows us to imagine a world characterized by generosity and mercy, rather than ambition, greed, and competition. It parallels a father waiting for his lost son and who welcomes him with open arms, a king who invites guests to the wedding banquet from the streets, rather than let the table be empty. It is a world in which those who stand ignored, idle, and discarded by society are nevertheless of great value to God – worthy, regardless of their circumstances, to live with dignity each day. And yes, it is a world with implications for both the market-place and economic justice. As Thomas Long says: “After letting our imaginations dwell in the surprising generosity of this parable and of God, we can no longer look at that parking lot filled with farm workers who are paid unjustly and who are viewed as disposable, and rest easy.” (Thomas Long, “Imagining Economic Justice,” On Scripture, September 24, 2017)

But if we leave it at this, we miss the truth it offers us to live each day. Because when we hear this parable, more often than not we identify with the laborers working all day who feel taken advantage of, rather than the late-comers who received unexpected generosity.

Yes, life is sometimes unfair, but we have a choice to make, every day. Do we keep careful track of what we think we deserve but didn’t receive, or do we give thanks for all we’ve been received but don’t deserve? Do we live moaning about what we lack and what we want, or do we give thanks for the surprising abundance we have? Do we envy what others have and we do not, or do we delight in the wonder of all we have been given, including life itself? Do we choose to live in bitterness and misery, comparing ourselves to others, or do we choose joy, thankful for all the blessings God has given us? (David Lose, “Pentecost 16A: Choosing Joy,” In the Meantime, September 20, 2017))


Before he died on December 30th of last year at the age of 97, scholar of world religions and lifetime Methodist Huston Smith contemplated what he wanted his “last line” to be, to bring the curtain down, so to speak. After a lifetime not just of teaching but practicing the Great Religions of the world, Smith found he couldn’t settle on just one, but picked three.

His first was to echo the British author Elizabeth Pakenham (mother novelist Antonia Fraser, whose last words were “It has all been very interesting.”

His second was more an observation, that the older he got, the more – as he put it – the boundary between “me” and “not me” thinned and became transparent. So he could look back on the paths he had traveled and think, “This is me.” He could look at his wife of sixty-five years, Kendra, and think, “This is me.” He could feel his hip replacement and think, “This is me.”

But his third and favorite was borrowed from the martyr St. John Chrysostom, who while being drawn and quartered was said to have exclaimed, “Praise, praise for everything. Thanks, thanks for it all.”  Says Smith: “I savor the words in my mind, roll them on my tongue, and repeat them as my own: “Thanks for everything! Praise for it all!” Whether – at the end – he got to actually speak them, I do not know. Because, as the 13th mystic Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”  (Huston Smith, The Huston Smith Reader, 2012).

Life is indeed unfair. But life is also grace, pure gift, where apart from who we are or what we do, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, in parking lots, in fields, and marketplaces, as they are in the kingdom of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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