09/24/17 – It’s Only Fair


September 24, 2017
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon: Ex.16:2-15; Matt. 20:1-16
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


On Labor Day weekend my grandchildren came to visit. Tom and I were minor attractions this visit because what they were most excited about was our new 4-month-old puppy. Young Max was not housebroken – we’re still working on it. So, on Sunday morning, when my daughter, Jillian, was ready to go out the door with Jamie and Lilly to come to church, she had the task of putting Max in his crate. Our older, much smaller dog, Phoebe, also has a crate for emergency purposes – like when a repair person needs to get into the house without having to fend off an angry, yapping dog. But, we do not usually put her in a crate when we leave the house. This morning, however, my grandson, Jamie, righteously insisted that Phoebe be put in the crate too. Why? It wasn’t fair for Max to be put into a crate, but not Phoebe. Jillian explained it this way: “When you’re 4 years old, fairness is very important.” We adults can be just as “dog”- matic and judgmental about our own sense of what is fair.

Our Old Testament and Gospel readings for today both look at the question of fairness. Be forewarned, the Bible tells us that God doesn’t play by our rules. Our first inclination is to look out for ourselves first, and then, if we’re really generous we try to give a little to those others that we deem to need and deserve help. There are some messages in the Bible that just keep being pounded away on us and this is one of them: God’s grace is freely given, not earned. And God doesn’t dole out blessings on a merit pay scale. God did not send manna to the Hebrew slaves in the wilderness because they followed all God’s instructions with grace and gratitude. That whiny bunch dared accuse God of orchestrating their freedom from slavery in Egypt just to cruelly let them die in the wilderness. Yet, God heard their complaints and provided manna in the morning and quails in the evening to sustain them.

Throughout the Bible we read story after story of God rescuing, taking care of, and even heaping abundant good fortune on folks that did not love, honor or obey God. Time after time the Israelites disappointed God, but God remained faithful to the covenant. In the Gospel parable Jesus told, the father didn’t welcome home his prodigal son and throw him a party for his good behavior. Peter disappointed Jesus over and over, yet Jesus gave him the honor and privilege of being “the rock” upon which the new Church would be built. And, Jesus didn’t welcome all to his table because they deserved a free meal.

If you read on after this section in Exodus, chapter 16, you will find that God placed a stipulation on the manna the people were given. Each day, God would provide what each individual and family needed for that day and no more. If anyone tried to take more than they needed so as to save it for another day, the manna would become rotten and inedible. In our Lord’s prayer, we hear Jesus echoing God’s directions to the Hebrew people in the wilderness: “Give us today our daily bread.” Not more than we need, not less, but enough. In this way, all will be fed.

You see, God will not be contained by our expectations or play by our rules. And it’s a good thing God doesn’t play by our rules. Why? Because we cheat.  Even after God’s assurance, they would all be fed, some tried to take more than their share and hoard it. This is how we have come to have the top 1% of people in this country hold 40% of the wealth.

Having wealth provides you with the opportunity to get more wealth. Children of the wealthy attend schools where they “network” with children of other one-percenters. They tend to marry other one-percenters. They donate money to political candidates, who are the most likely to sustain or increase their wealth and block those beneath them on the ladder to share in their financial success. Is it fair? No.  When so many people have less than what they need – their daily bread – but a privileged few have hoarded enough that the poor and nearly poor are caught in a cycle of poverty that is nearly impossible to break – is it just? No, and I say that because the bible tells me so.

Jesus also addresses the issue of fairness. Of course, fairness is in the eye of the beholder and Jesus made it quite clear that God’s perception has a much wider and deeper scope than our own. We operate on the understanding that our work is rewarded commensurately with our effort – or at least that is what we expect from others.

When I did my first reading of the parable of the vineyard workers, I could not help but wonder about the latecomers. Why were they not chosen in the first round of hiring? Could it be they didn’t make it to the marketplace where day workers were hired because they had to travel a greater distance to get there? Did some of them have duties at home to care for their families that caused their late arrival? Were some not picked by other landowners because they did not fit the employers’ profile of a good worker? Perhaps they were judged to be too small or too old? The wrong gender maybe? Perhaps some were handicapped or weakened by illness for which they had no access or money for treatment?

Jesus seems to be telling his disciples that without knowing why some came later, those that were hired earlier had no right to judge. But, we just love to judge. We want things to be fair; yet, in truth what we really want is for the scales to be tipped in our favor. We are hardwired by our proclivity to sin to place people on a “ladder of success:  and make ourselves the arbiter of which step people deserve to start.

The early hires in the vineyard of Jesus’ parable got the pay for which they had agreed to work. If historians are correct in their calculations, one denaria would feed the average first-century family in the Roman Empire for 3-6 days depending on the size of the family. The wages promised to the first hired were adequate for their needs, but certainly not enough upon which to invest for the future or get ahead of their neighbors. Jesus has revealed to us, in his person that all of God’s children are to be brought into God’s kingdom — without rules and restrictions based on human judgment. Jesus knew what the Scriptures said about how God wants us to live in the world from the Old Testament. But, some did not listen, some did not obey, some gave excuses, some justified loopholes in the Law to exempt themselves and some, the Gentiles, had never heard. But, now we who claim the name of Christian ‘have seen, now we have heard, now we know.’

Today, the hot-button issues of American politics revolve around individuals’ sense of fairness based on an individual gain — – health care, immigration, civil rights, public education, and taxes. What does this parable say to you about these issues when you look through the eyes of Jesus? The first laborers got what they had asked, those that arrived later received what they needed for the day. God’s economy is not based on the principle of “get what you can and as much as you can.” God’s economy operates on love and mercy. How can people learn about God’s kingdom when we insist on making earth so very different than what God has created, sustained, nurtured and commissioned us to steward by the same laws of love?

Like most of Jesus’ parables, he deliberately doesn’t give us any details about the workers hired. But based on many other passages in the gospels, it is likely that he expected his listeners to consider more about the workers that were hired later than just the number of hours they worked. You just can’t help but think about who has the advantage in the marketplace and who doesn’t.

While we are busy classifying who deserves what and bemoaning our place on the ladder behind others, God is concerned with all getting what they need. In the book of Acts, Paul and his followers are referred to as “people who turn the world upside down.” (Acts 17:6) God’s great reversals of human assumptions and rules are proclaimed in both the Old and New Testaments. If God tells us our world needs to be turned upside down, who are we to argue?  As Jesus taught his disciples to pray: God sent Jesus to us that we could see “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus told parables to help us to see. Perhaps it might help us to read this parable without assuming we are the first laborers. Jesus wasn’t one to ask follow-up questions to make sure his audience got his message. Jesus told parables so that in our search for understanding, we might travel in many directions and find unexpected treasures.  Jesus is trying to get our attention that we might be transformed. And, in our transformation, we may be led by the Holy Spirit to do the labor that brings this world closer to the kingdom of God.

All power, honor and glory to our Triune God!



© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois