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"Work, Wages and Fairness" (Matthew 20:1-16)

Matthew 20:1-16

Rev. Alan Taylor

Pentecost 15, Proper 20, series A
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Sun, Sep 21, 2014 

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This morning’s Gospel reading is a parable about fairness and God’s goodness.  The parable resonates with us because it deals with things that you and I are so familiar with, namely work and wages and fairness in the workplace.  The passage was just read a few moments ago so I’m not going to read it again here.  A brief summary though is in order. 

In short, the master of a vineyard hired people throughout the day to work in his vineyard.  Those hired early were promised a certain wage.  Those hired later in the day would be paid whatever was right.  At the end of the day the master paid those who were hired last first.  They were paid the same amount as those who had been hired first.  Those hired early in the day grumbled that the master was being unfair to them.  No doubt you and I would probably agree with the disgruntled employees.  How is it fair to pay equal wages to people who work disproportionate hours in the day?

As we delve into the parable this morning it is important, first, to note that this is a Kingdom parable, evidenced by the way it begins.  “The kingdom of heaven is like…(Jesus says).” The point being, while the parable is very practical, in the sense that it draws out of all of us a general sense of unfairness in the work a day world, the ultimate application is heavenly.  In other words, it deals with the way things are in the Kingdom of heaven.  Specifically, it deals with the grace and goodness of the vineyard owner, who chooses to be generous to all whom He calls to work in his vineyard. 

In the Kingdom of heaven God turns everything upside down.  None of us are judged or given eternal life on the basis of fairness, or, on the basis of what we think we deserve for that matter.  Rather, we are forgiven and given eternal life, not because we are good, but because God is good.  In fact, because of His goodness and the atoning death of His Son, God gives us the exact opposite of what we deserve.

In the case of the parable, those who labored long in the vineyard received exactly what the master promised them.  At the same time, those who came into the vineyard right at the end of the day received from the master, out of His goodness, the same wage.  While those who worked the longest thought they were being treated unfairly, the master had only chosen to be equally generous to those who came into the vineyard late. 

Again, it’s the way things are in the Kingdom of heaven.  Some labor long before they enter the glory of heaven.  Others labor but a short time.  In the end, on the last great day, the day of the fulfillment of all things, the Day of the Eschaton, Jesus will come and embrace all those who worked in vineyard.  “‘Come (He’ll say), you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

“The first will be last and the last are first.” On the day of Jesus’ coming, those who believe they deserve more, receive less, while those who believe they deserve less, receive more.  Ultimately, it all has to do with humility and repentance, which are both worked in the hearts of the faithful by the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, who was given to us in Holy Baptism and who comes to us continually through God’s Word and in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. 

The upside down nature of everything in God’s Kingdom is perhaps best illustrated in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The Pharisee said, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The second thing to note about this parable is that, while it is a Kingdom parable, it does have an added application in God’s kingdom this side of heaven.  I said earlier that most of us relate to this parable pretty well because it has to do with work and wages and fairness in the workplace.  As to the last point, the parable exposes something bad in all of us when it comes to the subject of fairness.  “Fairness,” like beauty and so many other things, “is in the eye of the beholder” and because of our sinfulness, our eye, as Jesus says, is bad. 

A case in point is the recent upheaval around the country regarding the $15 an hour minimum wage debate.  A woman protesting for a higher wage was quoted in the New York Times.  “I earn $9.50 an hour as a home-care aide in Cleveland.  She said the $350 I take home weekly is barely enough to support myself and my 11-year-old daughter. “I work very hard — I’m underpaid,” she said. “We deserve a good life, too. We want to provide a nice future to our kids, but how can you provide a good life, how can you plan for the future, when you’re scraping by day to day?”

Regardless of what you think about the issue, there are people on both sides who would argue their position from the standpoint of fairness.  Obviously those who want the wage raised see a $15 minimum wage as the only fair solution.  Those who don’t want the wage raised see the $15 minimum as terribly unfair, in part, because there are many other skilled workers in America who earn just slightly more than $15 an hour. 

I really don’t want to go any further with the minimum wage issue.  I bring it up simply to demonstrate the fact that “fairness is in the eye of the beholder.” For the Christian, the issue of fairness is extremely important because, unless it’s looked at reasonably, and faithfully I might add, it can wind up threatening to warp our perception of God’s goodness and providence in our lives. 

How does that happen, you might ask?  Well, life, as you know, isn’t fair!  That little truism is perhaps no more evidenced than when people who are devout and faithful to Christ suffer, while those who worship false gods or not god at all, prosper.  In the ancient world, Christians were martyred while self-indulgent Caesars rejoiced and delighted in their deaths.  In the modern world the situation is scarcely different.  Christians in Mosul are forced to flee their homeland or die, while crazed fanatics pillage their land and property in the name of their god.

The unfairness of life is written in the annals of history time again.  The godly sometimes suffer, while the ungodly prosper.  When that happens, the temptation arises for Christians to wonder why God lets such things happen.  Or, to put it another way, the temptation arises to question God’s will and ways. 

This parable speaks to us when we face the temptation to question the fairness of God.  God is good!  Which is to say, no matter how unfair things in the world seem to be, God is generous and good to us even though we don’t deserve His generosity and goodness.  The contrast between God and us couldn’t be clearer.  Our “eye is bad.” We aren’t always able to discern the things of God.  We aren’t always able to see good when evil seems to abound.  But, we can, by God’s grace, believe that God is, in all things, for us! 

Friends, the evidence of God’s generosity toward you is strikingly clear.  His Son was pierced for your transgressions and He was raised from the dead for your justification.  As a result of His generosity, you are now an heir of the Kingdom of heaven.  Though last, you have been declared first.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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