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Sermon for Pentecost 16, September 20, 2020: Justice, Fairness, Grace (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

“BUT THAT’S JUST NOT FAIR.” I am positive that almost all of us who have raised or dealt with children have heard this refrain. This sentiment may be more prevalent among close siblings, but we all may have exclaimed or thought it some time. Sibling rivalry, of course, occurs in many families, especially when the children are young. It is as though the children feel there isn’t enough love or attention or approval to go around, and so they must continually compete for their fair share. What parent hasn’t heard the pitiful cry, “But that’s not fair!”? Sometimes it even continues into adulthood. Those of us who are old enough remember the famous line from the Smothers Brothers television show: “Mom always liked you best.”(1) How many of us with siblings recall growing up feelings we had to do more than others? How many first-borns eventually complain that their parents let younger brothers and sisters have more liberty than they had at the same age? Isn’t it true that one of the first things we learn in life is to develop a view of what seems fair and what does not?(2)

These feelings and this kind of behavior can carry over into our other relationships. If we have learned to see life as some contest for power, wealth, approval, and fame, we will always be alert for things that are not fair — that is, situations in which we feel we do not get our just desserts. We want to get the best grades, the best job, make the most money, have the best home or car. We strive to get ahead, we “look out for number one,” we complain loudly, or perhaps silently, when favors go to someone we think less deserving than ourselves.

It’s easy to understand the feelings of the laborers in today’s Gospel story who had worked all day in the vineyard under the hot sun. They had agreed to work for the usual daily wage, probably enough to feed his family for the day. But when they saw those late comers receiving that amount, they thought indeed they would receive a more generous amount. They had worked 12 hours! Was it fair that they received the same amount of pay as those who had worked for one hour?

And so they grumbled. If we are honest with ourselves, we will probably have to admit that we would have grumbled,(3) as well. Of course, the word “grumbled” might remind you of Israel’s grumblings in the wilderness. I think Jesus intends for us to make that connection. The point is: don’t be like the exodus generation—saved from slavery, saved from the rule of Pharaoh, saved from the Red Sea, only to die without inheriting the promise. They died because they never got past their grumbling. They were never grateful for grace.

It is interesting to note that the vineyard owner paid the latecomers first so that those that worked longer saw they were receiving an equal amount. As we see this story unfold the way it does, we may be sympathetic to the grumblers. But When the last get paid first, we may cry, “Injustice,” and when the last get paid the same amount, we cry out again, “Injustice.” The lord of this vineyard has broken the first rule of all economics: the more work, the more pay.

As members of the body of Christ, we are called to demand justice for all people. Justice is the moral fabric that binds modern societies and civilizations. It is a concept based on morals and ethics, and what is morally correct is seen as just. We talk about social justice that is a concept of equality and strives for equal rights for all sections of society. In this sense, justice means providing every person in the society what they deserve, be it social, economic, or environmental. Justice is seen as a quality of being just or fair. In broader terms, justice is giving a person his due. So justice can be something negative. While justice and equality most often go hand-in-hand, it is not so with fairness.

One of the first things we learn from today’s gospel reading is that Jesus didn’t care much about fairness or unfairness in the way we tend to think about it. He was not concerned about the ethics of business or labor-management relations or who got to what place first. Through the story in today’s gospel, Jesus turns our standard views upside down, shaking them out, so we can more clearly see the truth of God’s values. He challenges our religious assumptions, affirming a radical understanding of God and our relationship with God that upsets our conventional views.

As in so many of Jesus’ stories, the landowner represents God and the workers Israel. However, the first will be the last saying was part of the answer to Peter, after his somewhat self-centered question in the previous chapter (‘We’ve left everything and followed you; so what is our reward?’). Jesus may intend the saying about first and last, the front and the back, to be a warning to the disciples themselves: don’t think that, because you’ve been close to me so far, you are now the favored few for all time.

Despite earthly appearances of inequality concerning who has “earned” a greater or lesser reward (Jews/Gentiles, longtime workers/latecomers), this parable clarifies that there is radical equality before God based on radical love. Gods radical love has no limits. The reward comes not from each worker’s merit, not from the quantity or even quality of their labor, but rather from the gracious covenant offered by the one doing the hiring. God promises and delivers but one reward for all—Grace represented by a single denarius (basically enough for one’s “daily bread.” The result is that God’s people work in God’s vineyard simply because it is a good and righteous thing to do, rather than because they hope to earn merit. The other lectionary texts designated for this week reveal that grumbling against God has been the pastime of God’s people from the beginning. Still, the Scriptures have consistently called God’s people to see in a new way and view God’s mercy as a gift of which they should strive to be worthy.

God’s grace, in short, is not the sort of thing you can bargain with or try to store up, any more than the Israelites could store up Mana. It isn’t the sort of thing that one person can have a lot of and someone else only a little. The point of the story is what people get from having served God, and his kingdom is not, actually, a ‘wage’ at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal.(4) God makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When God keeps promises, she is not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally to God’s overflowingly generous nature. There is always a danger that we get cross with God over this. People who work in church circles can easily assume that they are the special ones, God’s inner circle. In reality, God sends us out into the marketplace to look for the people everybody else tried to ignore, welcoming them on the same terms, surprising them (and everybody else) with God’s generous grace. The earliest church needed to learn that lesson. Is there anywhere in today’s church that doesn’t need to be reminded of it as well?

Living in the Kingdom of Heaven, would not we celebrate the last hired also being able to feed his family? Amen.

  • A Grandmother Tells About…, Proper 20 (A) – 2002 ….

  • An Undeserved Gift, Proper 20 (A) – 2014 | Episcopal Church.

  • A Grandmother Tells About…, Proper 20 (A) – 2002 ….

  • The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

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