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18th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 20:1-16

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, You can ask my wife, but there’s one thing that for whatever reason that I don’t get tired of.  Just about every morning I will have a glass of cranberry juice with my breakfast – not apple, not orange, not grape, not cherry-cranberry, not pomegranate-cranberry – cranberry juice.  So we keep a healthy supply of it at our house.  Well, since my children are getting older they’ve also want juice in the morning so I’ve kind of become the cranberry juice dispenser for the kids.  And I’m getting pretty good at it, but if ever one glass gets a few drops more of juice than the other one, you better believe I’m going to here words like this: “That’s not …fair!”  “That’s not fair that he got more than me!” And it doesn’t end with that either: “That’s not fair she got to play with that toy longer than me!”  “That’s not fair he got to go last time.” And this sensitivity to fairness really doesn’t go away, does it?  As we get older we just get better at hiding it better.  It seems each one of us- ever since we were little children- have been developing, honing, and refining this internal scorecard that keeps a tally of fairness.  “Why did he get a raise at work and I didn’t?  That’s not fair!”  “Why can they go on nice vacations, buy nice cars or boats and I’m just struggling to stay out of debt?  That’s not fair!”  “They’re my age yet they haven’t been to the doctor nearly as often as I have, they can get around better and aren’t in as much pain as me.  That’s not fair!”  And then perhaps you’ve been told or have told someone else this old adage: “Life isn’t fair.”  Now that’s not really helpful, but it is true: Fairness is often an elusive concept in our world.  But if you’re troubled that life isn’t fair, here’s a greater shocker: God isn’t fair.

And Jesus makes that point in our text this morning.  In order to understand this text we need to hear what Peter asked Jesus a few verses before our text.  Peter said to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!  What then will there be for us?”  We almost cringe at Peter’s words, “What in it for us?”  And what does Jesus tell him?  He doesn’t rebuke him right away but he does say that those who followed him will enjoy a throne in glory, in other words, there is an eternal reward awaiting all of Jesus’ followers.  But is this a “work for wages” deal?  Is this a “I do this for you and God you better do this for me”?  Do I follow Jesus because of what’s in it for me?  So that I can expect my fair pay at the end?  So Jesus tells this parable:

It was likely harvest time so the owner of a vineyard went out to hire men to work in his vineyard.  This was pretty typical in Jesus’ day.  You might not have had a 7 to 5 job, in order to earn some money for your family you went out to the marketplace and waited for someone to come by and hire you.  Kind of like a job center I suppose.  He made a deal with some men who were there: they would work for the day and he would pay them a denarius.  Now a denarius at this time was a good day’s pay.  Roman soldiers were apparently paid a denarius a day.  It was a good paying job.  So off they went to work.  Now it’s not very likely that a capable vineyard owner would miscalculate how many workers he needed to get the job done, but if men didn’t work, they wouldn’t have had any income to take home for their families.  So was it the kindness of the vineyard owner to go back to the market place at 9, 12, 3 to find more workers?  Without a contract he simply promised to pay them what was right and off they went to work.  But then he goes out at 5:00 to hire more workers- who does that?  Who hires someone an hour before quitting time?  This vineyard owner did.

Well, the day goes by and now it’s 6 pm quitting time.  The workers are called in to receive their pay.  The ones who were hired at the eleventh hour, so 5 pm, who worked for only an hour, came forward first.  And you can just imagine their amazement, surprise, excitement when they’re given a whole denarius, a whole day’s pay!  You’ve got to be joking!  For me?!  Wow!  This is awesome!  This is amazing!  What an employer!  You can just imagine how they felt and how the others felt as they received whole denarius for only working part of the day.  But then it came to the ones who were hired right away in the morning.  And what do they get?  A whole denarius!  A good pay for a full day’s work! But how did they react?  They were upset, they grumbled, “Are you joking? ‘These men who were hired last worked only an hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day!”  Finish the thought: That’s not…FAIR!  Their words reveal their hearts don’t they?  Why were they working?  They were simply working in order to get something, what’s in it for them.

And what did the vineyard owner say?  “Friend, I am not being unfair to you.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?” Am I not giving you exactly what you wanted?  Do you want me to break the contract in the name of injustice, the contract that I have fully kept?  “Take your pay and go.  I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”  Ouch. The owner reminded them that they couldn’t criticize his justice, they could only criticize his generosity.  But perhaps the gravest word the owner spoke was “go” – it is the same word Jesus used when he said, “Get away from me Satan!”  In other words, “Go and don’t come back, you’re fired.”

So, what is Jesus’ lesson?  Who is the vineyard owner who hires workers?  That’s God.  God calls people into His kingdom to joyfully work for him with their lives.  Who are the workers?   That’s people.  And there are two kinds of people.  There are those who live their lives in a certain way in order to get something from God and there are those people who live in response to God’s incredible generosity and grace.  Which one are you?  Which one am I?

Is God fair?  Do we ever live life complaining that God isn’t fair to us?  The car breaks down, your pet dies, the doctor informs you about a serious health problem you have, you get laid off from your job, and your house burns down.  Sure life isn’t fair, but what about God?  Why did God allow this to happen to me?  And here’s the clincher…”After all I’ve done for Him.”  Why do I watch my words at work?  Why do I help someone whom I see struggling?  Why do I go to church almost every Sunday?  Why do I live the Christian life?  So that God will be good to me?  So that God will “pay” me what I deserve?  Each of us is in danger of being just like those complaining workers, living and serving God in order to get something from Him.  And if we don’t get what we expect we should from God, it is easy to become bitter, angry, frustrated, upset, and complain that God isn’t being fair.

But do we want God to be fair with us?  Do we want God to give us what we have coming? Do we want God to treat us as our sins deserve?  Remember, the payment for our sins is death.  If God treated us fairly we would each face the terror of hearing from God, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  If God were fair, we would face eternal punishment from him.  If we reject God’s grace and generosity, then we’re asking God to give us what we have coming and punish us for our sins.  Do we want God to be fair?

Fierello LaGuardia was the mayor of NYC during the difficult days of the depression.  Apparently he wanted to be with the people of his city so he often rode with the firefighters, went on police raids, and took whole orphanages of children to baseball games.  Well, there’s a legend that says that once he went to a night court in one of the poorest wards of his city and dismissed the judge so he could hear the cases.  Within a few minutes an older woman was brought forward in tattered clothes and was charged with stealing a loaf of bread.  She told the LaGuardia, “My husband deserted me, my daughter is sick, and my two grandchildren were starving.”  The shopkeeper said, “She must be punished, this is a bad neighborhood and the people need to learn a lesson.”  LaGuardia turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you, the law makes no exceptions – ten dollars or ten days in jail.”  And as he was speaking he reached into his pocket and said, “And here is the ten dollars I remit for the fine and furthermore, I’m going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a city where a person has to steal bread so her grandchildren can eat.  Bailiff, collect the fines and turn them over to this woman.”  Supposedly some $47.50 were given to this lady from petty criminals, people with traffic tickets, policemen, and even the grocery store owner.

That’s mercy, she didn’t get what she deserved.  That’s also grace, she got what she didn’t deserve.  How much more, though, haven’t we been shown mercy and grace by God?  It is God’s grace, His generosity that He handed our sentence over to Jesus.  With Jesus’ bitter suffering and death on the cross God paid your debt in full and completely.  By God’s mercy God doesn’t give you or me what we deserve instead, He gives us grace- what we don’t deserve.  In his grace and generosity God gives you and me infinitely more than we could ever ask for or imagine.  In His grace he’s brought us into His kingdom through faith, gifted us with the Holy Spirit, washed us clean from our sins, clothed us in Jesus’ perfect righteousness, and made us co-heirs of eternal life!  That’s grace!  That’s generosity!   And it’s God’s grace that further gives us true peace, joy, comfort, and strength to endure whatever trials in life we may face and to serve God out of love for his amazing generosity without complaining, without comparing ourselves to others, without demanding for fairness.

So is life fair?  No its not and we’ll have to continue to work at accepting that.  Is God fair?  No he’s not.  But for that we thank and praise him.  It isn’t fair that Jesus died, and not you. It isn’t fair that he hung on the cross and you get His pardon. It isn’t fair that He was perfect and you get the benefits. The kingdom of heaven is not fair, but it is good, eternally good.  So don’t demand fairness, just cling to that denarius God has placed in your hand and marvel at His incredible grace and generosity!  Amen.