Fairness in the Kingdom is not about your wealth, but our health
a Homily for Proper 20 A | Text: Matthew 20:1-16
GOD’s way doesn’t seem fair
It seems fitting that we would spend my last few weeks here dealing with what holy community looks like to Jesus. It is almost as if He’s trying to tell us something. I think He is.
We heard from Jesus about confronting sin and granting forgiveness. We heard about not being stumbling blocks to GOD’s “little ones.” It is fitting, too, that we would get the parable of the fair landowner and the confused laborers as a send off. We all know that this story doesn’t truly make sense to us. As it is and where we come from, it doesn’t seem fair.
The landowner, from where we’re sitting, is not being fair. We all know that more work equals more money. That’s our equation. Work hours times wage equals compensation (H x W = C).
Perhaps more ingrained in us is the idea that we compensate by effort and circumstance. We want to pay more for harder work. So when we hear this story with all of these varieties of late-comers, we instantly think this thought:
If they really wanted the work, they would have gone out and beat the streets early.
This is how we determine fairness in our culture: our intention and effort. If you work hard, you make more money. I’ve often said that we live by the popular maxim backwards. We believe that our neighbors ought to work harder, not smarter.
We get confused, then, when the landowner keeps hiring people in this parable. He hires everybody he finds in the early morning, then everybody at 9:00, at noon, at 3:00, and at 5:00. He goes looking and he keeps finding more people. And he hires them. And pays them for a full-day’s work.
The text doesn’t say the landowner hires some of the laborers he finds. He doesn’t screen them or run a background check. He doesn’t check their papers. He hires the laborers that are there.
Our sense of fairness is based in sin
We look at the parable through the lens of scarcity, not from Jesus’s lens of abundance. Our sense of fairness is limited because we think everything runs out–because good things end–so we reject GOD’s fairness the way the first laborers do the landowner’s. They are saying we want more than was promised us because we did more than they did.
Notice that their sense of what is fair is based, not on the actual work they did, but the comparative work of the others. In essence, they say to the landowner
We don’t care how generous you want to be to them, we deserve more than they receive.
This is like the sinfulness Jesus spoke to in chapter 18. I don’t care about them and their relationship with you: I demand a better one! This is their argument. Like the second son in the Prodigal Sons story who demands a better relationship with his father than his sinful brother has. It is about relationship with the Father and we believe, we demand, that ours be better.
We confuse a story about the Kingdom of GOD, with its true fairness, generosity, and abundance, for the world we know: a place ruled by injustice, selfishness, and scarcity.
What Jesus says about the world just doesn’t sound right to us and part of that is because we don’t want it to be right. We want it to be good for us. We want it tailored to our needs.
Fair isn’t about mine, but ours
In the lectionary, we jumped from chapter 18 from last week to 20 this week. From talk about how to keep a faithful community to this strange parable. What’s missing, what we skipped over is Jesus’s teaching on divorce and the story of the pious young man. What Jesus is doing here is expanding on how to be community and what the Kingdom of GOD is like.
Remember the pious young man comes to Jesus looking for what he needs to do to have a really good life: what more he has to do. And the punchline of the story, of course, is
‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
The young man doesn’t like that answer any more than we do.
As Jesus is approaching the outskirts of Jerusalem, facing His own death, he preaches of the danger of wealth–how it distracts and prevents us from actually following Jesus, for we cannot serve both GOD and Mammon (wealth).
Stanley Hauerwas writes
Jesus’s reply challenges not only our wealth, but our very conception of salvation. To be saved, to be made a member of the church through baptism, means that our lives are no longer our own. We are made vulnerable to one another in a manner such that what is ours can no longer be free of the claims of others. As hard as it may be to believe, Jesus makes clear that salvation entails our being made vulnerable through the loss of our possessions.
This is where this parable of the landowner begins: so that it will overturn our sense of fairness. This one particular way we understand fairness allows us to maintain control and diminish our relationships with others.
Jesus offers this beautiful alternative world: the Kingdom of GOD. Here, we aren’t in a rat race to have it better than our neighbors in a land of scarcity, but to find meaningful work in a place of abundance. We can all serve GOD, no matter when we arrived or what our skills might be. We all get a chance.
Our vision for the future
This portrait of the Kingdom of GOD is fitting for us and where GOD is calling St. Paul’s. One of our struggles has been with teamwork: not only in the doing of things together, but actually operating as a team rather than a collection of individuals. This is more than just the difference between those who are part of the 8:00 service and the 10:00. It is our ministries and our work. We often go it alone and compare ourselves to our neighbors.
The vision Jesus presents is vastly different. For one, it isn’t competitive. None of us wins when some of us lose.
For another, we aren’t supposed to be greedy. When we watch the movie, Wall Street, we aren’t supposed to see Gordon (“greed is good”) Gekko as a hero.
For a third, the abundance of the Kingdom means that every day, all of us has opportunity. Our daily wage, our daily bread isn’t earned, it’s given. It isn’t based on the volume of work, but that today is a new day and each of us needs to live.
The Kingdom is built together.
St. Paul’s has the supplies.
St. Paul’s has the laborers.
St. Paul’s has the vision.
All provided by GOD abundantly and generously.
Listen to Jesus who told Peter and the disciples to “take up your cross and follow me.” Who said to the pious young man, “sell your possessions…then come, follow me.” Follow Jesus together. As apostles, as laborers, as prodigals.
For the landowner will meet you when you go out to find the work. The father will run out to meet you when you finally come home. GOD will find you when you are ready.
GOD offers us something much better than fairness and pride. GOD offers love and patience and hope with such abundance. Not for our gain. Not for St. Paul’s. For the kingdom.
Make the Kingdom together. Work together. Share together. And love one another together.