Proper 20 (Sept. 18-24)
Texts: Matthew 20:1-16;
Ex. 16:2-15; Phil 1:21-30
LIVING IN THE WORLD OF FORGIVENESS, PART II
[Begin by showing contemporized video dramatization of this parable from “Power Tools” confirmation curriculum. St Louis: Concordia / Family Films, 1994. It’s a modern telling about a car wash owner recruiting teens to work at his car wash.]
“That’s not fair!” he said. Do you agree? What do you think?
You know, this video acts out our gospel lesson today. Jesus tells his disciples a parable, a story, about a vineyard owner, about a man who grows grapes and needed help from people to pick all those grapes. So it’s a vineyard owner instead of a car wash owner; and money called a denarius instead of a dollar; but otherwise listen how close this story is to the tape we just watched:
[Read Matthew 20:1-16.]
Now, how did Jesus introduce this story? “For the kingdom of heaven is like…,” he said. This story, he says, tells us what heaven is like. But how can that be? We said that this owner was unfair to pay all his workers the same, whether they worked all day, or just an hour. Is Jesus saying that God isn’t fair?
Well, the other possibility is that our measure of fairness is not the same as God’s. So even though our idea of fairness says that the owner of the vineyard, or God, is not fair to give everyone the same reward, maybe God is asking us to think about fairness altogether differently.
And there’s another possibility, too. What if we are looking at this parable in the wrong way. We would like to think of ourselves as the workers who worked all day and really earned the best reward. Or at least we’d like to try to be like that. But maybe it’s wrong to do that. Because, maybe, Jesus is the only one who fits that category. Maybe we need to realize that only Jesus came as the ideal worker for God. Only Jesus has worked from sun up till sun down as God has wanted him to. That makes us all the rest of us workers who would deserve less, at least by our way of thinking about fairness.
So thank God that God has a different way of doing things. Jesus did most of the work on the cross, but we all get the same reward as he did. We all get to be raised from the dead to live with God forever. And so maybe that means we can begin living in a different way, right now, too. Maybe we can start living by a different idea of fairness.
For example, let me try a different ending to this video:
When evening came, the owner of the car wash lined everyone up to pay them and started with those who only worked the last hour-and-a-half. He placed in each of their hands a crisp hundred dollar bill. When all the kids saw that the owner was giving everyone the same amount, they all cheered, even those two who worked all day, and they thanked the owner for his generosity. Each kid went home smiling, happy for one another and praising God.
What do you think? Is that an unlikely ending? Maybe. Impossible? No. Because Jesus did just that. He did most the work for us on the cross and cheers for us when we get God’s life and love, too. When we keep our hearts and minds focused on Jesus, we can feel good for others, too.
Let’s pray: Dear Jesus, when we see someone else get good things, maybe better things than us — like when our brother or sister gets a nice present — when we see that, our temptation is to yell, “That’s not fair!” But you teach us a different way. You teach us to shout, “Great! Good for you!” and to be happy for them. Help us to be grateful for the good things we have and to be happy for others with their blessings. Amen.
There’s one more matter I’d like to briefly address with this parable. And I dismiss the children not because it is a matter ‘above their heads,’ too difficult for them to understand, but because this has been running long for them. (Of course, this might be running long for us adults, too, but it is an important matter.) My question is this: why is it that God offers us a different sense of fairness? What’s wrong with our sense of fairness? In short, what is God saving us from?
If the children were still up here, the answer is so simple, I think, that they could give us the answer. I’d ask them about the times when they think something is unfair. Around our house that most often involves their toys. Someone has a toy that they want. “That’s not fair!” they cry. And if there sense of fairness continues unmet, what happens next? They can tell me. Sure, they argue; they fight. So what is God saving us from? Our violence. The hurt and pain we cause each other. The roots of all that comes from the clash of our desires for having the same things. It begins with toys as children, and it elevates to all kinds of things when we grow up. And we even go from words like “fair” to words like “just.” Our getting what we deserve is a matter of “justice.”
Well, God came to save us from all that. God doesn’t give us what we deserve. That would be the death we multiply greatly through all our ministrations of “justice.” No, God doesn’t give us what we deserve. Out of sheer grace, God gives us life. Out of the overflowing divine love, God gives us an abundant new life. And God gives this to us precisely by inviting us out of our sense of fairness. This new life isn’t just something that happens when we die, it’s something that can begin to happen now, as we die to our old sense of fairness and rise to living in God’s grace.
Think about it. This is not easy, folks! It’s tough to give up this sense of fairness and justice that dictates everything around us. What’s the American dream? To work hard and get what you deserve, right? But that’s what we’re talking about here. God sent Jesus to save us from that. For what does that get us? Being weighed down under all kinds of resentment for what everyone else has, right? It’s keeping up with the Joneses. It’s running the old rat race. The advertisers know how to play into this. They show us all the glamorous people who we should want to be like, who we deserve to be like. We work hard. We’re law abiding citizens. We deserve those nice things. We deserve that nice house, that nice car, and on and on. But does this really make us happy, folks? Does all this keeping up with the Joneses make us content? Or does it weigh us down with a load of resentment, a load of debts we keep with one another, and then comes the anger, or depression, and, eventually, even violence. We strike out and hurt someone else. Not always with our fist or a weapon, harming them physically. But also with our words and with our actions, harming them emotionally, spiritually. It’s like Adam and Eve, and their sons Cain and Abel: jealousy and violence, right from the beginning. It’s like the people of Israel in our first lesson today, grumbling with resentment for the good things in Egypt they left behind.
No, God came to save us from this by offering us a new way to live, a whole new world to live in, the world of gracious forgiveness, a world free of debt. It’s not what we deserve, but through Jesus Christ it is what we get. It is what God offers us. Again, it’s not the American dream: to work hard and get what we deserve. No, God’s dream is for Christ to do the hardest work so that we don’t get what we deserve. What we do get is a fulfilling new life of serving God and serving one another. We get a life of joyfully sharing God’s grace with others.
To close this morning, I’d like to put one word on this: stewardship. We are coming up on the stewardship time of year, the time when we make pledges of time, talent, and treasure to God’s work here in the church. But, to some extent, we do ourselves a disservice by limiting stewardship to one time of the year. This year, in fact, our stewardship plans include a monthly stewardship mailing all through next year, our attempt to lift up the fact that stewardship is an everyday, all-year-round activity. It is what we have been talking about this morning. It is the new life that God graciously gives us, a lifetime of responding to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 21-22, 1996