Whoever Said Life is Fair?
Sep 20, 2020
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 20:1-16 and Jonah 3:10-4:11
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
What great stories, don’t you think? That is until we put ourselves in Jonah’s shoes, or the place of the laborers hired first, then it’s not so great. Then, it’s just plain not fair!
Before I go on, let me ask parents and grandparents what you say to the child who whines, “It’s not fair”? I’m guessing your response is some version of, “Whoever said that life is fair?” Well, that seems to be God’s response in today’s readings, although the meaning is a bit different than what we mean. We’ll return to that later. For now, let’s start with the Gospel lesson.
Jesus tells an allegory/parable in which a group of day laborers are hired to work in a vineyard. These are people with no regular employment, so they stand in the town square, hoping that a landowner or manager needs extra work done. Those who are healthy and lucky are picked to work a 12-hour day and receive a day’s wage, which is enough to provide food for a family for one day. Those who are not selected and are unlucky head, home with the prospect of disappointing those who depended on that day’s wage. However, in Jesus’ parable, everyone is lucky. Workers are hired not only at 6 a.m., but at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 5 p.m.
Commentator Scott Hoezee adds a bit of spice to the story by calling the first one hired “eager beavers” who are ready to work at dawn and those who are hired later as successively greater ne’er-do-wells who arrived late at the town square late and did not leap to their feet to get the job until there was only an hour left to work. When the day ended, the lucky reality was that they all were paid the same.
Those who had worked for 12 hours watched the ne’er-do-wells get paid what they had been promised, the amount for a full day’s work. So, they expect to be given more, perhaps even a lot more. Instead, a full day’s wage is placed into their hands, as agreed upon at the start of the day, nothing more and nothing less. While it is true that they were paid as agreed upon, but it was the same amount as those who worked half as much – or less – which makes the eager beavers angry. It’s no fair! And, we are inclined to agree.
Let’s now turn our attention to Jonah. His story, before today’s reading, is, in a nutshell, that Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Israel’s enemy Assyria, to proclaim God’s anger at their wickedness. But Jonah was inclined not to go because we learn later, he knows God’s tendency to be merciful, especially when people hear the Word and repent, which is the last thing he wants for the Assyrians. He runs the other way and ends up being thrown overboard when his attempted escape puts the sailors on his get-away ship in danger. It’s a fishy story after that; Jonah was swallowed by a large fish, repented from its belly, was spewed onto dry land, and went on to Nineveh where he gave a half-hearted, one-sentence sermon proclaiming their destruction in 40 days, probably in a whisper.
But just as he feared, the people, including the King, believed God, proclaimed a fast, repented, and are saved by God. Jonah is angry. As one commentator noted: “Jonah is making a box and trying to squish God into it and throw away the key. But God broke out of Jonah’s box, and Jonah cannot stand for who he is. He cannot stand a God who is so lavish with his grace and extravagant with his love. Jonah’s angry because he cannot control God.” (1)
When God continued the lesson with the bush and the worm, Jonah’s anger flared; he’d rather die than put up with this nonsense! Like the ne’er-do-wells in Jesus’ story, the Ninevites do not get what they deserve (punishment), nor does Jonah (shade). It’s not fair! And, we are inclined to agree.
As we contemplate why it is that we agree with the “wronged” parties in these stories, commentator Karl Jacobson, notes that the issue is not necessarily that other folks receive blessings from God. The issue is that they get the same as us, and they don’t deserve it. They are less worthy, or later arrivals, or just plain worse sinners. It is not that they deserve nothing, but certainly not the same. (2)
It’s like Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally in the classic “Charlie Brown Christmas Special” (I can hear the theme music even as I say that). Sally is writing a letter to Santa Claus in which she lists an enormous number of toys she wants and feels she deserves. At the end of her letter, she writes, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.” When Charlie Brown sees this and despairs over his sister’s greed, Sally indignantly responds, “All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me.” Otherwise, it’s not fair!
That brings us to an interesting question, raised by Pastor Barbara Brown Taylor in her sermon on the Matthew passage. When we read this parable, why do we tend to identify with the folks hired at the crack of dawn? Why is it that we see ourselves as the hardest workers who deserve more? (3)
What if, instead, we put ourselves in the role of the ones who worked for one hour, or the repentant Ninevites who side-stepped destruction, or the child who knew writing Santa a letter was hopeless? Instead of grumbling, “It’s unfair!” we would be celebrating, “It’s unfair … thanks be to God!”
You see, God is not playing by rules that prescribe that generous payment is earned, and mercy is deserved. Instead, God is in the grace game. We are God’s loved and forgiven children, whether or not we have earned or deserve those gifts of pure grace. When we say, “It’s not fair,” God responds just as we do to children. “Whoever said life is fair?” Thankfully, not God, whose love for us through Jesus turns everything upside down. We, who may think we deserve more, but actually do not, will end up joining the ne’er-do-wells and the Ninevites in being glad that grace is not fair. AMEN
(1) “The Purposeful Pursuit of the Grace of God” (Jonah 3:10-4:11), sermon.faithlife.com
(2) Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16 by Karl Jacobsen, www.workingpreacher.org
(3) The Lectionary Gospel: Matthew 20:1-6, by Scott Hoezee, www.cep.calvinseminary.edu
(4) Same as #3