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That’s Unfair! September 18, 2011

Posted by sandhandrews in Sermons.
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Matthew 20:1-16

 Proper 20

September 17-18, 2011

Focus: God has graciously given everlasting life to all of His believers, without distinction.

Function: That the hearers live a more humble, faithful life to God.

Structure: Problem-Solution-Implication.


“That’s Unfair!”

            Have you ever read something in the Bible, and thought you knew what it was talking about?  You’re not alone.  I know I’ve picked up passages for the second, third, or umpteenth time and either learned something new, or learned that I had completely misread it before.  Our gospel lesson from Matthew today falls into that category, likely for many of us.

Here we have a prime example of why the pericope system isn’t always the greatest.  Just to clarify, that’s the way the church breaks up Scripture and puts it on the calendar to be read in worship.

At first glance, our gospel looks fairly straightforward.  The master of the vineyard is Christ, the hired workers are Christians, the pay is everlasting life.  The problem?  For the disciples it’s probably persecution.  With all they went through, they deserved more.  For us, it looks a little different.  It’s more about pride.  Some of us were baptized as children.   We’ve been doing this Christian thing for decades.  It doesn’t seem fair for that person lying in the hospital to confess faith just before dying and get the same reward as us.  Sure, we want to see them in paradise, but we deserve more than them, right?  Or even closer to home, if you’re family has been at this church for generations, it doesn’t seem right for new members to come in and have a say in running things does it?  And what if they take your pew, too?

Sarcasm in preaching can be dangerous.  Both of those attitudes I just mentioned are wrong and harmful to our community.  We should welcome new brothers and sisters with open arms into Christ’s family at any stage of life.  And if we don’t, Jesus’ parable certainly has something to say to us.  But that’s not why He said it.  To truly understand the parable, we need to dig a little deeper.

And that brings us to our Greek word of the day: gar.  It’s a favorite of beginning Greek students both because it sounds like a pirate grunting and because it’s a simple word with a profound meaning.  It’s English counterpart is the conjunction “for.”  It states the reason for something.  So when you don’t know Greek well enough, you’re really happy to see a gar.  It’s the text’s way of saying pay attention.  And our pericope starts with a gar…

So we picked up today where Jesus said “because,” or “for.”  Teachers cringe when they see those words starting a sentence.  Not only does the pericope start there, but so does the chapter division.  In English, we’ve learned to treat this as something separate.  But the context is pivotal.  Without it, the parable loses its meaning.

So what happened that caused Jesus to tell this parable?  He was teaching in Judea.  The Pharisees challenged Him about divorce, and they lost.  The disciples were rebuking children, another lost cause.  They should’ve learned that lesson the last time they asked about who the greatest was and Jesus showed them a little child.  And then there’s the rich young man who said he kept the law perfectly and wanted to know what that last step was to get into heaven, to put him over the top.  He lost, too.  They all thought they knew how things should work, but Jesus told them otherwise.

Finishing the rich man account, Jesus tells His disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  This left them all confused and I’ll pick up there, the end of chapter nineteen:

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”  But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?”  Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit 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 children or lands, for My name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.


That’s the context we need to truly understand this parable.

It’s a response to Peter’s question.  And for all those keeping track, that makes three straight weeks, spanning three chapters, that the sermon has been prompted by Peter’s questions.  “See, we have left everything and followed You.  What then will we have?”  Peter’s question is twofold.  There’s a sense that he is concerned about being saved. But there’s also a sense that the twelve expect to be rewarded more than others for what they’ve done.

Jesus actually responds to both of Peter’s concerns.  First, He responds positively to encourage him.  He tells all the disciples that they will have a role to play on the last day and that all who follow Christ will receive everlasting life, something far more valuable than what they gave up.

Jesus follows this positive directly with a negative, rebuking any thought that the disciples deserve more.  “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  He then begins the parable, and closes it with the similar line, reversed to read “so the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  Now those two lines don’t mean that the last will be great and the first will be poor.  Jesus isn’t telling Peter that he’ll get less than others.  Rather, seeing those two lines as bookends around the parable tells you that the parable is the key to their meaning.

Some of the easy conclusions about the parable are right.  God is the lord of the vineyard.  Christians are the workers.  And everlasting life is the pay.  It’s the easy-to-see problem that was wrong.  The problem isn’t unfair pay.  It’s not that they all received a denarius.

The problem, in business terms, is discussing your paycheck with your coworkers.  The problem is comparing yourself to other Christians.  The workers messed up when they took their eyes off the master and started looking at one another.  The Greek makes this really clear.  Where your bulletin reads “or are you envious because I am generous?” the Greek literally reads “or is your eye evil because I am good?”  It was the wandering of their eyes, the shift in their gaze, that caused them trouble.

The pay was never the problem.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but God never promised you a mansion in heaven, complete with a Jacuzzi, limousine and your own golf course.  He also never promised you a flashy title or a bunch of other really cool stuff.  We have no clue what that life will even look like.  But we do know that that’s the promise.  God has promised us life everlasting to spend with Him in paradise.  That’s the pay.  And the only reason we can even call it pay, is because Christ paid for it with His life.  When judgment day comes, all who believe in Christ will receive the gift of everlasting life.  And when everyone receives the same gift, everyone’s equal.  And that’s the point of the parable.

Equality among Christians is just another of Christ’s teachings that turn the world upside down.  Think about the Pharisees when they see Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors.  That’s not what Jesus should be doing!  Or now with the disciples and the reward for faithfulness.  It’s just not fair!   Isn’t that the way of the sinful world?  We know what’s best.  We know how things should work.  And then God comes along and turns things inside-out.

And now, so you all don’t call me a heretic for upsetting tradition, we see one of the good things about the pericope system.  Isaiah 55 was a great Old Testament text to pair with this lesson.

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. 7 Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. 8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.


Just as the sky and the earth are two completely different things, so are the world’s ways from God’s way.  And while we may not always understand His way, we can trust in Him to know what’s best for us.  And we can also trust in His promises to us.

Now before we go too far off course, the equality in this parable is not like the equality the world around us strives for.  We’re talking about something far different.  It’s the way we live together as a community of believers.  It’s about humility, humbling ourselves before one another.  It’s a realization that whatever gifts and talents you and I all have are equally important.  God gave them to us to use in specific situations that we will face in our lives.

This equality is a direct shot at our Christian pride, our desire to be better than those around us.  It looks back to those attitudes from the beginning of the sermon, about being better than other Christians who either haven’t been in the church as long or aren’t as active as we are.  It’s that evil thought that we deserve something greater.

That’s also an easy temptation for pastors and other church workers and teachers to fall into.  Sometimes people in the church place them on a pedestal, or in a fishbowl, or whatever the saying might be.  They expect them to be better than themselves.  When I was growing up, one of the high school girls looked at our pastors this way.  And when she ran into one of them at a fast food restaurant wearing normal causal clothes, it shattered the way she viewed him and our church.  She left for another congregation and never came back.

Worse yet, church workers sometimes make the mistake of buying into it, or latch on to the power of their office.  That can have devastating effects.  But remember, Christ has declared us all equal in the end.  He leveled the playing field.  We’re all equal here today.

We’re all sinners.  And yet we all share one Savior, Jesus Christ.  He gave His life so that each and every one of us might live.  There is no distinction between us as Christians.  When judgment day comes, you’re either in God’s family, or you aren’t, the goats on one side, the lambs on the other.  The reward for being a member of the family, the inheritance as Paul likes to call it, is everlasting life.

We must learn from the mistake of the workers in the vineyard when they took their eyes off the master.  We can’t compare our value before God.

We must keep our eyes on Christ, our Lord and Savior.  It is through faith in Him, and the confession that we made together moments ago in the creed, that we will receive the ultimate pay: everlasting life in paradise with the God who loves us so dearly.  And when we think about our own sin, that’s exactly when we should be glad that God is unfair.  Through His grace we all get what we don’t deserve.