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Unfair
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
September 21, 2014 - Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16

 

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Unfair
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16               

Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
September 21, 2014

 

Let’s begin with a basic definition of grace: it is the unmerited, unearned, unconditional love of God.  If you remember nothing else today – indeed, if you remember nothing else I ever say as your pastor – remember what grace is: it is the unmerited, unearned, unconditional love of God. 

This is important because the Bible tell us that God deals with us with grace. 

What that means is that God deals with us with love – God loves us not because we are beautiful, intelligent, hardworking, affable, funny – there is no intrinsic merit that makes God love us.

God loves us not because we do good deeds or give generously, though it makes God happy when we do.

God loves us not because we behave or make certain faith attestations.

No, God loves us regardless – we can’t merit it or earn it – and we can’t do anything about it.  We can’t make God not love us.  So grace is the unmerited, unearned, unconditional love of God.  Remember that.

Now we can talk about the petty parable and the petulant prophet. 

After two weeks of back to back forgiveness, the lectionary serves up two lessons today that seem positively perverse – first, a prophet whose prophecy fails to come true, and then a parable wherein the laborers are paid unfairly. 

Let’s start with Jonah. 

No doubt, if you spent any time whatsoever in Sunday School, you know about Jonah.  IF you don’t, here’s a quick recap: God wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh.  Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh.

This is fair.  The Ninevites were to the Jews as General Sherman was to the Atlantans – it’s easy to be philosophical now that a hundred years have gone by, but you wouldn’t have wanted to meet him in real time. 

Well, it wouldn’t have been easy for a Jew in the time of Jonah to be philosophical about the Ninevites – Nineveh was in Assyria, and the Assyrians were evil.   

God said for Jonah to go to his enemies and preach a sermon of damnation and pestilence. 

You might think that Jonah would be up for this, he wasn’t. 

He declined. 

That’s when the fish comes into the story.  In the overall scheme of things, the fish is really rather a minor character, so let’s just streamline the next few chapters.  Jonah runs, storm follows, crew panics, man overboard.  Fish eats, Jonah prays, God speaks, Fish spews. 

It may seem unfair, but God asks Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh, and this time Jonah gets that it is an offer he can’t refuse.  He goes to Nineveh, preaches the sermon, and then wanders out into the desert to await the destruction of the city. 

Isn’t that just a lovely way to behave? 

We’ve been talking about forgiveness lately, and Jonah is exhibit A for not practicing it.

I know it can be hard to forgive at times, but somehow going out and setting up a tent so that you can get a particularly good view of your enemy’s destruction seems to be a bit of an extreme expression of difficulty in forgiving.

Well, let’s leave Jonah out there east of the city for a minute and look at this parable of Jesus. 

The early laborers negotiate what they think is right, go to the vineyard and work all day.

The landowner finds people who need work periodically through the day and takes them out to the vineyard.

The end of the day comes, the pay is doled out – it all would have been fine if the last hired had been the last paid – but that’s not how the story goes.

One by one, each receives a denarius – that’s a day’s pay.

And for the folks who got there early in the day and negotiated their terms this is surely unfair.

That’s no way to run a company  - Tom Long writes,

“Any company that paid employees hired in December the same wages as those who worked a full twelve months would soon have trouble finding anybody in the office from January to November… no, the purpose of this parable is not to provide a practical guide for the management of vineyard, a factory or a classroom.  Indeed, the aim of this parable is to be monumentally impractical, to fracture so thoroughly our expectations, our customary patterns of practicality, that we are forced to think new thoughts – new thoughts about ourselves, about other people and about God.”[1]

The point of the story is to get us to rethink God. 

I don’t know what rethinking of God you might need to do – a few weeks ago, I asserted that if we don’t get God right, the whole thing is flawed from the start.  But I think one of the number one things we need to rethink about God is the idea that God is sitting up in the clouds waiting to pounce on us with punishment and derision.  That’s mean and that’s not God. 

Remember what grace is – love that is unmerited, unearned and unconditional. 

So this parable invites us to rethink God – to think of God like this landowner who goes and invites people to work.  And then sees people who need work and invites them to work too, and then later, the same.  There’s no indication that he needed more employees.

Now, let’s do a little experiment here – let’s say that pay in this story doesn’t equal what is earned.  Let’s say that pay equals what is enough for the laborer to live. 

One by one, the landowner gives the workers – enough. 

But then the earliest risers, those who worked in the heat of the day begin to pick up that the latecomers got enough also. 

Again, Tom Long:

“Suddenly we see plainly the true poverty of the first-hour workers.  Everybody in the parable is tendered with the wealth of the kingdom; the deep river of providence flows through everybody’s life.  God gives everyone a daily wage so extravagant that no one could ever spend it all.  A deluge of grace descends on all; torrents of joy and blessing fall everywhere.  And there these first-hour workers stand, drenched in God’s mercy, an ocean of peace running down their faces, clutching their little contracts and whining that they deserve more rain.”[2]

I don’t know how this strikes you about God, but I know it is deeply important to understand that we can’t exhaust God’s grace.  The more we give it away, the more it replenishes. 

That can be sort of hard to live with, you know?

We all know how to live in a system where we get what we earn, don’t we?  It’s an easy system – oh, it can be hard, to be sure, particularly if you don’t start off with any advantages and you have to work your way up to earning what you want, but at least it’s predictable.  You get what you earn.  Nothing more – but here’s the incentive: nothing less.

And, what’s more, you can expect that to be true for others as well – I have comforted myself many a time that folks will get what they have coming to them.

But that get’s God completely wrong. 

Let’s circle back around to brother Jonah out in the desert waiting for Nineveh to get what it has coming to it.

Speaking of getting God wrong – that’s not Jonah’s problem at all.  Jonah got God exactly right… he knew what was coming and he didn’t like it one bit.  Jonah wanted what was fair. 

Instead, God decided to do what was good. 

Jonah hated that.  “I knew you were going to do that to me,” Jonah sulked. 

So God planted a little shrubbery to make a point – the point being that if Jonah could be sad over a plant, surely Jonah could understand that God would lament of a whole city.  It’s so tempting to want people to get what they have coming to them.

Failing that, it’s at least tempting to want what we have coming to us!

There’s just one problem with that.  That’s not how God looks at it. 

You’ll never get what’s fair from God because God is not concerned with fairness.  God is concerned with goodness.

Last week I heard a quote from the late D.T. Niles, a marvelous preacher and theologian, it went something like this: don’t ever ask God for what’s fair.  If God ever gave us what was fair, we’d all be dead and damned.

I’m not really a fan of that quote – it makes Niles’s theology look rather mean – but it does get at the heart of the truth: none of us deserves God’s grace – not because we’re horrible people – but because that’s not how God works.  We never get God’s grace because we earned it, only because God gives it. 

So I like this quote from D.T. Niles a little better: Christianity is one blind beggar telling another blind beggar where he found bread.”

That’s a word for the church to hear: we are not here to proclaim about our morality or the superiority of our way of life.  We are not here to judge whether another is worthy of God’s love and grace.  We are above all things not here because God is fair, but rather because God is fundamentally unfair.  We are here because God is unfair because God is good.

A friend of mine shared a clip from an episode of Louie this week.  In this show, Louie CK plays a single dad and in this clip, he tries to explain fairness to his daughter who is thoroughly bent out of shape because her sister got a mango pop and she didn’t. 

“You’re never going to get the same things as other people,” Louie says, “You may as well learn that now.”

“Well, I get something else,” his daughter replies.

“What is this ‘you get’” he counters.

Back and forth it goes, and with increasing intensity as his daughter continues to interrupt, “It’s not fair.”

No, life isn’t fair.  We’re not all going to get the same.

I am sure that the parents of children understand this exchange.  Good grief, even my dogs look at me with injustice in their eyes if I dare to give one a treat and not the other.

And that is when Louie preaches the gospel.  He says to his daughter, “You only look in your neighbor’s bowl to make sure that they have enough.  You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to make sure you have as much as them.  You just want to…”

That’s when his daughter interrupts again, “Can I just have a calcium chocolate.”

“Sure, make sure your sister gets one too.”

When we’re laboring in the vineyard in the heat of the day, it’s tempting to want others to pull their weight, to get off their blessed assurances and get up do something. 

I mean, isn’t it just natural to want to know that hard work yields good results and that what we do matters to God?  And we may not want to see bad behavior punished, but it would be nice, at a bare minimum, to know that good behavior is rewarded?

If you’ve been in church for very long at all, you know perfectly well that two things are simultaneously true: that Grace is free and that being a part of a church means, that in Jesus’ name, and certainly I hope for the right reasons, the church going to ask you to do things, and give things and make some evidentiary claim that this free grace has changed you.

Isn’t is natural - at least a little bit, at least every now and then - to be tempted to look into your neighbor’s bowl?

And when you do – when you do look into your neighbor’s bowl – make sure they have enough. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

[1] Long, Thomas.  Matthew in Westminster Bible Commentary.  (W/JKP, Louisville, 1997.) p224.

[2] Ibid. p226

 


 Long, Thomas.  Matthew in Westminster Bible Commentary.  (W/JKP, Louisville, 1997.) p224.
 Ibid. p226

Last Published: November 21, 2014 11:42 PM