September 24, 2017
16th Sunday After Pentecost/25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture reading: Matthew 20: 1-16
Sermon: “Jesus…You’re Off Your Rocker!
It Isn’t Fair To Pay Everyone The Same!”
One thing that I think we can all agree on is that the Lord is the perfect judge for us all. There is no one who knows our hearts, remembers our experiences, understands all situations and in all settings like our Lord. We can all try our best to be fair and just in all situations, but the sad truth is that we can only hope to be fair and just. We cannot hope to understand all things that the Lord understands, nor can we hope to judge accurately all the time. Because we are human, we will make mistakes.
Praise God that we do not have to be the ultimate judge when it comes to who is saved and who is not. We can presume to judge – and let’s face it…we do that all the time! – but we aren’t perfect. So, we have no business judging others at all.
Remember the thief on the cross who was crucified next to Jesus. One thief derided and mocked Jesus, but the other one defended Jesus; in his statement, he reminded his fellow thief that they both “deserved their punishments.” Yet he identified Jesus as being completely innocent. When that thief asked Jesus to remember him “when you come into your Kingdom” Jesus told him that he would be in paradise that very day.
But I wonder how many of us would be so merciful, so perfectly righteous, so forgiving as to save a miserable thief who even admitted his own guilt?
The Lord alone decides these matters because the Lord is the only one who can discern the true nature of each human heart.
But we sure do like to do our own judging, don’t we?
And we hate it when unfairness raises its ugly head!
That’s when we get really REALLY righteous, don’t we?
And that’s why it’s so easy for us to hear today’s parable and to believe that statement that I have been saying all month: “Jesus…you’re off your rocker!”
I want you to picture a group of young kids, let’s say about ten years old or so. Picture them working hard at a project for a long time, let’s say all day long. The project – whatever it is – is hard and the kids are sweaty. But they are working hard and they are doing a great job, and when they are done, there is a nice prize at the end of the day for all the kids who work hard. Then…about two hours before the project is finished, a few other kids show up to work. The boss puts them to work too…and they work just as hard as everyone else for the remainder of the time.
Now the end of the day arrives. The prizes – whatever they may be – are to be given out by the boss. And every single kid – including the ones who showed up late – gets the exact same prize. And it’s a very nice prize, a wonderful prize, but everyone gets the same prize.
For those of you who have your children in sports, it’s feels like the equivalent of everyone getting a participation ribbon or trophy, and no one getting first or second or third or best or champion or whatever you think that child should get.
And if your child shows up on time, and if your child works as hard in the hot sun all day long as all the other children, it galls you that some late-comer kid gets the full prize too.
And if your child shows up a little late, but works hard for even a little while…I wonder how you feel when the prizes are given out.
The murmuring begins… “unfair…unfair…UNFAIR!”
The big problem is that we are thinking of this situation through our own minds. We are not even considering how the Lord would think about it.
The rewards of God are not according to what people think is their merit. God rewards long-time believers, short-time believers, last-minute believers, true believers! And this drives us crazy! We want EVERYONE to be long-time believers. We struggle to accept that even those who have ruined their own lives can repent – truly repent – and be forgiven and saved.
Just like we can.
Early commentators avoided this whole question when they wrote their thoughts on this passage of Scripture. Instead, they applied an historical lens to the parable. Some of the more outspoken ones compared the all-day workers to the Jews, and the late-comers were the Christians! Others identified the all-day workers as the patriarchs and the prophets of the Old Testament, and the late-comers were the disciples of Jesus.
What a nice lens for such an uncomfortable parable! We interpret what Jesus meant to fit our own opinions and beliefs… and Christian life suddenly becomes just a little bit easier to live.
But we also miss the detail that makes the whole parable focus on what Jesus intended. Remember that Jesus was speaking to common people, most of them probably day workers, people who understood that sometimes workers find the jobs first thing in the morning, and sometimes they don’t hear about the job until the middle of the afternoon and sometimes the boss still needs workers near the end of the day. The boss has the right to gather as many workers as he can find and to pay them according to his own wishes. Grumbling is the privilege of the all-day workers, but that doesn’t make it right.
Don’t miss the detail near the end of the parable; the landowner asks the grumbling all-day workers, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose because I am generous? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
There is no mention of what will happen next time the landowner puts out the word for workers. That is not the point of the story.
The point of the story is that God does not judge on a whim. God has God’s own criteria which the mortal mind cannot fully comprehend.
Perhaps another point is that this parable is not about God’s judgment or God’s love or God’s mercy. It’s about our attitude.
Perhaps the point of this parable is for us to examine our own narrow-minding judgments and ask ourselves some hard questions…such as:
- Are we at all loveless toward the late-repenting sinner?
- Does simply being obedient entitle us to special privileges?
- Do we do the right thing even when we are the only ones doing it? And if others join us, do we feel superior to them?
- Even being late is God’s gift to us – so who are we to question it?
- And finally, as workers for the Master, what should concern us more: the work or the wages?
No, my friends…Jesus is NOT off his rocker. He said things and did things that made the people of his day wonder about what he meant or why he said them. But in all that he did and said, the Lord revealed his compassion and his love for every single one of God’s children.
The best we can hope for is to be rewarded at the end of our work. Praise God, the Master who will make the final decisions.