Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost
RCL, Year A, Proper 20: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
“It’s not fair!”
If we could tally how many times we’ve said, heard, or thought that, I wonder if we’d be able to count high enough.
Parents of young children in particular know what I’m talking about. Just like apples don’t fall far from the tree, our kids say the same things we did when we were their ages. “Sissy got more than me!” “But Jack has one of those and I don’t!” “I’m the only one in my class who’s never been to Burger King!” It’s almost as if a sense of justice as fairness is woven right into our DNA.
As another way of talking about fairness, many of us think of justice in terms of giving people what they deserve. If you’ve done something bad, for instance, you should be held accountable. Which often translates to mean that you should pay for it – if not in cash, then by having something bad happen to you in return. This kind of justice, notes one theologian, “is when a bully gets bullied, or when a cheater gets cheated, or when a liar is discovered.” Furthermore, if you work harder than someone else, you deserve more compensation than the other person. And if you’ve done something good and praiseworthy, you deserve to be rewarded for it.
Doing what’s fair and getting what we deserve: that’s how our society tends to think of justice. But today’s Gospel reading seems to be challenging our taken-for-granted view, at least when it comes to that fulfillment of God’s purposes Matthew calls the kingdom of heaven.
In the verses prior to today’s reading, Peter asks Jesus a question. He’s noted that he and the other disciples have left everything to follow Jesus. And he wants to know what sort of compensation they will receive for the sacrifices they’ve made. “We’ve left everything to follow you,” Peter says. “What do we get out of it?” (Mt. 19:27, The Message). That’s a question of justice. And in response, Jesus tells the parable of the kingdom we hear today.
Early one morning, a landowner hires laborers to work in his vineyard for “the usual daily wage” (Mt. 20:2, NRSV). The landowner does the same for other idle but willing laborers at 9:00, 12 noon, 3:00, 5:00, and right up to closing time. Everybody who wants to work gets a job with the promise of a living wage.
But things go sour at pay time. Those who worked all day long receive the same pay as those who worked for only one hour. To those who worked long hours in the heat of the day, equal pay for unequal work seems blatantly unjust. In our society, those angry workers might haul the landowner into court, suing for fair compensation. And could we really blame them? Doesn’t it seem right that those who work the hardest deserve the greatest reward for their labors? Doesn’t it seem fair that if you work for only 1 hour you don’t deserve the same pay as someone who’s worked for 12 hours?
And yet, in response to the angry workers who feel unjustly treated, the landowner replies: “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt. 20:14-15, NRSV).
According to Jesus, the generosity of the landowner best exemplifies justice in the kingdom of God’s sovereign, saving rule. And so Peter’s concern for what he and his fellow disciples are going to get out of following Jesus misses the point. It’s not about what we do and what we get in exchange for what we do. It’s about what God does. And what God does can’t always be squared with our merely human conceptions of justice.
Could it be that God cares more about being generous and merciful than about giving people what’s coming to them? Is it possible that there’s more to the Gospel than insuring that people get what they deserve? A couple of examples from other parts of scripture suggest that the answer to these questions is “yes.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Jesus touches on the impartiality, generosity, and mercy of God’s justice when he says: "This is what God does. He gives his best – the sun to warm and the rain to nourish – to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty" (Mt 5:45, The Message). And so Jesus counsels his disciples to “Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you” (Mt 5:48, The Message).
And then there’s God’s response to enemies. Surely it’s only fair that they get the retribution and condemnation they deserve. Jonah certainly thinks so. How dare God forgive those pagan Ninevites! But instead of responding by cursing or killing them, the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that God responds to enemies by sending Jesus to die for them (cf. Romans 5:8-10).
Seen in the life and death of Jesus, God’s kingdom justice turns our taken-for-granted understanding of justice on its head. God’s kingdom justice doesn’t always seem fair because it means giving people precisely what they do not deserve. And that, my friends, is called grace. We can’t earn it, we never deserve it, but it’s there for us all the same. And why? Because the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ looks upon each and every one of us with tender mercy and compassion.
God’s justice is not about fire and brimstone. It’s not about whisking the elect to the safety of heaven while the rest of humanity and creation get left behind to suffer the tribulation of chaos and violence. God’s justice is gracious and merciful. God’s justice is about mending what is broken, healing the sick and wounded, overcoming despair with hope, reconciling the estranged, and consummating the marriage of heaven and earth. That is God’s gracious will for you and for me and for all of creation
God reveals this gracious will to us most fully in Jesus. For in Jesus, we see that no matter how far down into the pit we may have fallen – no matter what we’ve done or left undone – we get the same response from God as the most virtuous of the saints: an invitation to a place at the table in God’s kingdom, a place where we belong, a place where our wounds are healed and our relationships restored.
We can’t earn it or do anything to deserve it, but the invitation is there all the same. And if we accept and act upon that invitation, it will transform our lives.
So regardless of how little or how much we’ve done in giving of our time, talents, and treasure for the spread of God’s kingdom; regardless of what kinds of sins we’ve committed in thought, word, or deed; regardless of whether we’ve been in church on Sundays for most of our lives or are showing up for the first time in a long, long time – we’re all in the same boat. We’re all in desperate need of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. In Jesus, God invites us all to receive that love, mercy, and forgiveness, and to let the truth sink deep into our hearts and into the marrow of our bones that each and every one of us is precious in God’s sight. Indeed, God invites us to dare to believe that we are worthy enough for Jesus to give his life so that we may live.
May we respond by accepting that invitation, and then by living as generously and graciously toward others as God lives toward us.
 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Apostles’ Creed for Today (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 67.