Monday, September 19, 2011

Not A Fair God

 + 14th Sunday after Pentecost – September 18th, 2011 +
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series A, Proper 20
Matthew 20:1-16

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

            Wait a minute. They all got the same? You’re telling me that what I do doesn’t matter? Scandal!  You’re telling me all my hard earned religious cash isn’t worth anything? Preposterous!  You’re telling me all those efforts, all those meetings, all those hours serving, working, planning – all that suffering and bearing the heat of the day – all that adds up to nothing?  Appalling. Disgusting. Absurd! Where’s the fairness in that? You really mean it?
            And the answer comes back: Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. You’ve finally got the message.
            How do I make sense of that? What relevance does any of that have in my daily life?

            That’s what’s troubling about this parable; it doesn’t fit into our way of thinking. And all the while Isaiah echoes in the background: my thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord. Yea, yea. Get real, Isaiah. We all know you get what you put into it. You reap what you sow. A day’s work for a day’s pay. We expect God to follow the same rules. To be fair.
            Then comes along the parable of the workers in the vineyard and Jesus drops a big fat bolt into the machinery of our fairness. He upends everything the disciples – and we - think is right. The first will be last, the last will be first. Winners are losers and losers are winners. Is it fair? No. God is not fair. He’s just. Gracious. Good. But he’s not a fair God.

            The parable starts with the familiar refrain…the kingdom of heaven is like. And then the suspense starts building. There’s work to be done. People to hire. Wages to be given – a denarius a day. Then more workers hired at the 3rd hour. “You go into the vineyard and whatever is just (Greek word for righteous) I will give to you.” So they go. But the Master isn’t done; he goes out again at the 6th and the 9th hour. The suspense is building. Workers are working. The sun is scorching. Brows are sweating. Finally, the day is almost over, it’s the 11th hour. Everyone’s thinking the same thing: when’s quitting time and where’s my denarius?

            They’re so busy working they don’t even notice the workers called into the vineyard at the 11th hour. Before you know it, closing time. As the grapes are gathered and on their way to the wine press, the workers are on their way to collect their wages. But wait, that’s odd. The foreman calls the workers in backwards: last in first out. What a strange Master.
            Ooh, Did you see that? The last ones in receive their denarius. A denarius for a hour’s wage?! Wait ‘til we get ours, we’ve been here all day! If they got a denarius for an hour, we’re going to be rich. Look at all the work we’ve done.

            And with great astonishment…They all receive the same denarius. Grumbling ensues –like the Israelites in the wilderness and the Pharisees – always grumbling against Jesus’ goodness. Outrage! Scandal. Not fair! This upside-down, unconditional, undeserved goodness. That’s what really offends our religious sensibilities.

            Trouble is, Jesus isn’t interested in our religious sensibilities. Blessing and grace are never logical. If the world could be saved by hourly wages and bookkeeping all we’d need is Moses and the 10 commandments, not Jesus and his bloody cross. And grace would cease to be grace.
            However, the kingdom of heaven follows Jesus’ standard of righteousness, not our sense of fairness. It’s not about your work, but his goodness. And the minute we take our eyes of that, we are on the wrong side of this parable. It’s not who’s the greatest, who’s the winner, or who’s the hardest, longest working, sweatiest Christian around. Rather, the last shall be first. We all get the same. By grace you are saved – hired and put to work, no matter what your vocation is, no matter how long you labor in the vineyard.
            That’s what this parable is all about: Grace and judgment. Grace for those who least deserve it.  Judgment for those who resent it, who turn the evil eye to God because He isn’t fair and dispenses salvation freely. 

            To our sinful flesh, Jesus’ statement is terrifying. “I have chosen to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you cast an evil eye on my generosity? My goodness, My unconditional, unmerited, unqualified, outrageously absurd grace?” That is truly terrifying. How do you get along with such a Master? What can you do about this God who pays no attention to your standards and smashes your sense of fairness to kingdom come? (Yes, pun intended).

            You’ve come at last to the turning point of the whole parable. The first shall be last, the last first. Jesus’ words of terror turn into words of comfort. That’s Jesus’ audacious claim: our only hope lies in the fact that he does do just what he wants with what is his own. And look what he does with what belongs to him.

            See how the Master goes into the vineyard by himself: By the 3rd hour his work was well under way. Betrayed. Mocked. Beaten and Bloody. And again at the 6th hour the worker labors under the cover of darkness. In excruciating humility He bears the scorching heat of death for us in bloody sweat on his thorn-pierced brow. And again at the 9th hour – the worker cries out: My God, My God why have you forsaken me? The greatest burden of the day is born: silence. The first has become last. And the last ones – chief of sinners, self-justifiers, 11th hour losers – we are made first by the blood of Jesus. For the wages of his death are life for you. I choose to give to this last worker as I gave to you…as I gave to all. Today you will be with me in Paradise. Wrath gives way to righteousness. I bear your burden and I give you blessing upon blessing. No, it’s not fair. But it is gracious and good, eternally good for you who have been eternally bad.

            The kingdom of heaven is…Where the last are made first. Where utter failures make it into the kingdom as easily as the ones who worked all day. Where 11th hour losers, rascals, scoundrels, villains and knaves – murderers, hookers, tax collectors – sinners and failures – every last one of us...
            Whether you’re a lifelong Lutheran or today’s your first time in a church – we all receive the same from Jesus’ hand and it is good. We enter the kingdom the same way: as helpless little children, as 11th hour laborers whose only real work is found in seeing the pure and utter marvelous scandal of God’s grace. Here it is, it’s yours. I choose to give to the last workers as I give to you. Not fairly. But graciously. Freely. Justly.  God is not too proud… to spend his time with sinners, eating, drinking, forgiving, saving – He will have us even when we’ve shown that we prefer everything else to him (Lewis, Problem of Pain). 
And if you don’t find any of this “relevant” to your daily life, you’d better stop and take a look in the proverbial mirror. Maybe you have things backwards. It might just be that your daily life is irrelevant to what the Master of the vineyard has in mind.

            Rather, thank God he’s unfair. Thank God we don’t get what we deserve. Because if there’s room in the kingdom of heaven for hookers and murderers, tax collectors and Jesus-deniers like Peter, thief on a cross and 11th hour workers – then there’s room in the kingdom of heaven for me and you. We all get the same.
            Same Jesus crucified for us. Same Jesus in the forgiving Word from our pastor’s mouth to our ears. Same Jesus washing us daily in a bloody, saving bath flowing from his pierced side to our font. Same Jesus poured out on the cross to be poured out on our tongues for the forgiveness of all your sins. The Master loves to share the bounty of his vineyard with you.

            This is the marvelous joy of Christianity that causes sinners to leap into heaven like a calf leaping from its stall, further up and further in. Joy in the Crucified Christ. Joy that the One who is first became last so that we who are last might become first. Joy that Jesus reaps what we have sown. That you get out what Jesus put into it. Joy that here in his Church he is doing exactly what he wants with what belongs to him. For this God has decided to do something utterly and absolutely wild! He gives you his own, here, now…he dwells with you in words and water in bread and wine not only for a few hours – but to the end of the age.

            And so it is that in the 11th hour of this old creation, as the fields are ripe and the harvest is near, the Masters sends his laborers out into the vineyard once again. What a privilege!  We are called to work in the vineyard – no matter the hour or length of day - knowing that we’ve already been given the same denarius, the same salvation won for us by Christ Crucified.
            That may not fair, But then again, Jesus is not fair. He’s good and He’s gracious.

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

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