Pentecost 16 Life is Unfair!

First Reading: Jonah 3:10–4:11

10When God saw what [the people of Ninevah] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
  6The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
  9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Psalm: Psalm 145:1-8

1I will exalt you, my God and king,
  and bless your name forever and ever.
2Every day will I bless you
  and praise your name forever and ever.
3Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised!
  There is no end to your greatness.
4One generation shall praise your works to another
  and shall declare your power. 
5I will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty
  and all your marvelous works.
6They shall tell of the might of your wondrous acts,
  and I will recount your greatness.
7They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness;
  they shall sing joyfully of your righteousness.
8The Lord is gracious and full of compassion,
  slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30

21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
  27Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—30since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16

 [Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

CHILDREN’S SERMON:  One of Disney’s beloved fairy tales that has been into multiple movies is Beauty and the Beast.  Beauty, a young town girl, is captured by the Beast, a prince turned into an ugly monster by the wicked fairy.  He must learn to love her and get her to love him before the last petal falls from an enchanted rose.  There is much drama and beautiful music and magical love that sees beyond the scars of life.  Beauty wins the tender hear of the Beast who humbles himself.  In our text today we are tempted to see a landowner who unfairly pays all his workers the same wage though they have worked different amounts of time.  Can we see beyond his seemingly gruff exterior to the heart of love beneath?  Let us pray.

Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my rock and redeemer.


         Our text today jumps to the 20th chapter of Matthew.  Jesus tells a parable in the context of a young rich man coming to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life.  The man professes that he has fulfilled the law, tried to do everything as God would like, but yet the young man feels he has fallen short.  Hence the question, What shall I do to inherit heaven?  I suspect many of us, in the depths of our heart ponder if there is something more we need to do to inherit eternal life?

         The young man is admonished to share his riches and he leaves sad, for he is very wealthy. Jesus comments on how hard it is for the rich to trust God and not their riches and fruits of their work.  Jesus gives the famous saying, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, possibly implying kneeling and humbly crawling through a gate into Jerusalem, than for the rich to enter heaven.  The disciples despair as they have left everything to follow Jesus.  Jesus responds with today’s text, explaining the kingdom of God.

         A landowner, obviously God, the creator, the provider and the person for whom we work in the kingdom, hires workers at various times of the day – early morning, nine a. m., noon, and 3 p.m.  At the end of day, at the end of time, rewards are given.  The twist is that all the workers, the early morning and the late afternoon workers all receive the same wage. “Unfair” cry those who have worked all day. 

         Wait, did I hear an “Amen”?  Life IS unfair! and it is unfair that late, lazy or unqualified workers get the same wage as we who have tried so hard all day to do what is right.  Right?  Is that not what all the demonstrators are about today.  They want life to be fair for all ethnicities, all economic strata and all people.  But life is not fair and we demonstrate against that fact.  We want fairness….or do we?

           I think of Hebrews 11, the faith chapter where the writer talks about the martyrs through history who died in persecution for their faith, not receiving their reward, fairness, in this life.  I wonder if like Jonah in our Old Testament reading, they cried as they were sawed in half “unfair”.  In the face of God’s mercy, Jonah sits under a bush God provided and sulks.  A worm destroys the bush and Jonah whines.  Unfair.  God responds – should he not be concerned about the Ninevites who cannot tell their left hand from their right?  Should God make life revolve around me? Or is there a bigger picture I do not see and cannot understand?

         If we connect blessings in this world with God’s approval, as the Jews did, then we end up asking, “Who sinned, his parents or this man, that he should be born blind?”  When faced with a diagnosis of cancer, a bankruptcy, a wayward child, a setback in any area, it is easy to cry, “unfair”.  The truth is that life is unfair.  The workers worked different amounts of time and all received the same wage.  God works outside our boxes and has a bigger plan he is working on.

         But wait, let’s look at this a little closer.  Those hired early in the morning, let’s say the disciples, walked and talked with Jesus in person.  The early workers had the privilege of working under a benevolent dictatorship under the owner, God.  They had the gift of prayer.  They had the blessing of fellow workers hopefully supporting each other.  Paul in our second reading ponders the choice of death to be with Christ verses the suffering of this present life.  For the sake of his fellow Christians he chooses life.  Life in the kingdom cannot be compared to waiting at the gate!

         Meanwhile, who are those other workers working for?  They are not working for the Lord, they are living in the world.  Perhaps we would not equate life without Christ as working for Satan but I would ask you to reflect on life without Christ.  What was your life like before you came to faith?  Those late arrivers have not just sat in luxury in the market, enjoying life but have worried about how to buy food for their families, worried about who is first in line to be chosen, pondered their faults that they were not chosen.  They have not had an easy life.  Comparing life working for God to life working for the world, is not a fair comparison.  For those of us who chose to follow Christ as youngsters, we have received benefits far beyond the wage at the end of time, life of eternity in God’s presence.

         All workers were paid the same wage at the end of time.  All believers receive eternal life.  How the rewards in heaven will work out, I don’t know.  I have heard theories about levels of heaven.  I like C. S. Lewis in the last book of Narnia, The Last Battle, where the heroes start running, crying “Higher up and higher in”.  That gives the feeling of continued relationship and adventure as we are able to receive and continue growing with Christ after death.  The dwarfs are stuck at the entrance grumbling and circled against Aslan and so it was in heaven.  Perhaps the workers who start at the  11th hour are such because of their own attitudes or their own issues in life but they will be in heaven.  We are all recipients of God’s grace and he will make it fair in eternity.

         Next, notice that the unfairness of life in this parable has the workers grumbling against God.  I do not see them reflecting on their choices that led to the results – we should have waited to the last minute to start working for God.  No that is not their response.  Their response is to blame God of unfairness.  Faced with the horrible circumstances of life, poverty, disease, war, I can hear that little voice on my shoulder whispering, “And where is your God?  Is he lost in the heavens?  Does he not care about you?”  All the doubts about God’s love rise to the surface in the face of unfairness.  Do you notice how our attention has gone from the blessings of working for God and his character to the pain of our own situation?  We become self-centered and not God-centered.  We must be careful that we do not end up like Job’s friends, accusing Job of sin and misbehavior, when life confounds us.  Grumbling blinds us from realizing the blessings we are receiving from the God of the universe.

         Finally, please note how God addresses those workers who are grumbling and out of focus.  He answers them, “Friend.”  Let me say it again.  “Friend.”  I must stop here and cry.  The God of the universe addresses me in the midst of my grumbling and laments and pulls me back to reality, “Friend.”  Abraham who got his wife to lie and become the Pharoahs concumbine to save his own neck, who irritated Sarah with his favoritism for Ishmael until God stepped in and corrected him, this Abraham, the father of the faith, was called the “friend of God.”  In this parable today, God calls his workers friends.  I hear warmth, I hear love, I hear acceptance.

         I do not know who you identify with in this story.  Perhaps you signed on with those early workers and you question God’s fairness?  Perhaps you are just overwhelmed at God’s mercy at the end of your life?  Perhaps you are just plain grumbling because life is hard right now and you want to demonstrate and bring justice to earth?  This parable reminds us that the kingdom of heaven is under God’s rule, a benevolent dictatorship that is run by his mercy.  Fairness will come but it will not look like what we think.  This life is unfair but when wages are paid we will receive what God has promised, eternal life in a kingdom without tears, without hunger, and without pain.  That is something to look forward to.  You are God’s worker and he addresses you a “friend.”  Thank you Lord.

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