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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 24, 2017

 The Vantage Point of Grace

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

            This last week, Connie and I shared an impromptu dinner with some old friends who attend another church in town.  This friend runs one of Nashville’s iconic businesses that his father ran before him, and he always has a lot of good questions to ask whenever we are together.  Often he enjoys needling me!  This time he asked, “Do you preach the lectionary?”  The lectionary is the church’s three-year cycle of suggested Bible passages that can save a pastor from preaching one’s own pet passages of scripture.  I told him that for years I did not, but for over twenty years I largely have used the lectionary.  I like the challenge of finding in the assigned Biblical passage a word to share that is timely and fitting, and employing it has helped me to trust more the given Biblical text, instead of my own wits.  Then my friend floored me.  He proceeded to ask if I knew what the lectionary text was for this week.  He explained that it was the Exodus passage about manna in the wilderness (I told him I was aware of this!), and the first chapter in Philippians.  But he confessed, “I can’t remember the Gospel passage.”  I told him it was found in Matthew 20:1-16, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  He laughed and said, “No wonder I forgot it.  I hate that parable!”  We both laughed, and I added, “You might like it more if you don’t read it as a manual on how to run a business.”

            You will remember that the parable tells us that a landowner went out early in the morning to hire laborers to work in his vineyard.  He agreed to pay them a denarius – a Roman coin representing a laborer’s fair wage for a day’s work.  Then at nine-o’clock he found idle workers in the marketplace, and hired them, promising to give them “whatever is right.”  Then at noon the owner of the vineyard does the same thing again.  And then in the eleventh hour (hence the phrase), at five o’clock, he goes out and engages still more idle workers.

            At the end of the day, he lines up the workers and instructs his steward to pay them, starting with the last hires first.  He paid them each a denarius, a day’s wage, though they had worked only one hour.  I am guessing they went home thrilled!

            He did the same with those hired at noon, and they must have been pleased.  A full day’s pay for a half day’s work is “nothing to complain about,” as the saying goes.  Then the landowner does the same with the ones hired at nine o’clock.  None of them could have been unhappy.  Then those who were hired first are paid exactly the same, and this is where the trouble begins!  They are displeased, unhappy, grumbling at the landowner, probably not unlike the Israelites in the wilderness grumbled to Moses over the manna!  They accuse their employer of being unfair to them.  They make the point that they worked much harder than those who only worked one hour, in the scorching heat of the day.

            So who is right about this landowner?  Is he a generous kind-hearted man, or is he unfair?  One thing is certain – no one wants to work for someone who is unfair – unless you are getting more than you deserve!  Few of us ever complain about being overpaid.

            I told my friend that he might learn to like Jesus’ parable more if he decided that Jesus never told it as a way to run a vineyard or any other business.  No pay scale in all the world is truly fair and equitable to all, but if you pay everyone the same thing, no matter what their contribution, and do it in front of all your workers, you are going to have some very unhappy, even outraged employees on your hands.

            But what if the parable has nothing to do with fair labor wage practices, but instead is a parable about the kingdom of heaven?  This is after all, what Jesus says: “The kingdom of heaven is like….”  What if this is more a parable about God, and only then about us?

            First off, best of all, if we look at it in this way, it tells us that God never stops looking for people to do work in the kingdom of heaven.  God keeps heading back to town, looking for folks to join in what God is trying to do.  God is a God who wants to use everyone He possibly can, and who values each and every one of us.  God does not want us to stand idle.  God has kingdom work that needs to be done that has your name written all over it!

            If you have never read William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, perhaps you should.  It is a travelogue of sorts written by Moon, who crosses the country with his dog, and runs into all kinds of people.  He meets an elderly gentleman and they talk about work.  I love what the older man says!  “A man’s never out of work if he’s worth a darn…  It’s just sometimes he doesn’t get paid.  I’ve gone unpaid my share…  I’ve pulled my share of pay.  But that’s got nothing to do with working.  A man’s work is doing what he’s supposed to do.”  And no matter who you are, no matter where you are in your life, God is calling you to do what you are supposed to do!

            There are two other things about God this parable is clear about.  God is just.  God is always fair.  We sense this in Jesus’ parable: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?”  In the parable the landowner did exactly as he promised.  The unhappiness comes not because the landowner broke his word.  No one was cheated.

            They get angry and grumble because the landowner turned out to be more than fair.  He was not simply fair, he was also generous.  He might have been seen as gracious.  He tries, after all, to remember and put everyone to work.  And he pays them all a fair day’s wage – like the manna in the wilderness, enough for the day, but not more than enough in this parable.

            It is the landowner’s generosity to the latecomers that creates the problem.  Isn’t this often the way it is?  We are not always delighted over the good fortune of others.  A few years ago one of my best friends sent me a card for Christmas.  I have kept it on my desk: “Comparison to others is the source of all unhappiness.”  It has become for me a kind of extra-Biblical wisdom saying.  There is no peace you will ever find in comparing your own situation to that of others.

            God is fair, and God is even gracious.  But life is mysterious, even baffling.  I am losing a dear friend right now, and it comes on the heels of a few other huge losses of really special people who have died long before I thought they should have.  You know how we work, when we put ourselves in the place of comparing people.  “Why is she dying when so many lesser people, who contributed so little, go on living?”  Such questions can lead you to a very bitter place.

            Life is unfair.  At least from a human vantage point, it can surely seem to be!  “Where is the fairness in it?” we sometimes ask.  Of course, we never see life in all its fullness.  Paul said, “Now we see through a glass dimly.”  Madeline L’Engle said once, “People have a point of view.  Only God has view.”

            One thing I have come to know for certain: Life is a gift.  It is sheer grace given by a gracious and generous God.  This is the only way it makes any sense to me.  You find a hint of this in the landowner’s last word to the grumblers.  “I choose to give to this last as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

            I do not!  God has been generous to me beyond what I ever could expect.  I have gotten more than I have deserved.  And I know it.  For me, to resent God, because God may appear to be more generous to someone else, would be to bite off my nose to spite my face.

            There is a whole lot about life I do not comprehend.  But that life is sheer gift, and a miraculous gift at that, I cannot doubt for a moment, and go on living as the grateful, generous person I know that God is calling me to be.  I almost wish Jesus had said at the end of this parable what He said at the end of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Go and do likewise.”  Having received generously, go out and be generous!

            We have been given life.  That is the only way I can make sense of it, as a gift.  A gift given in love – but never a given!  We are not entitled to anything; but what if everything is gift?  Doesn’t that make life all the more wonderful, and to be savored, never to be wasted?

            John McCain thinks so.  The son of a four-star Admiral and the grandson of a four-star Admiral, McCain entered the Naval Academy and graduated in 1958 at the age of twenty-two, 894 out of 899, despite a very high I.Q.  (It was a sign he would not become an Admiral!)  He did become a Navy pilot, like his father.  In 1967 he was shot down over Vietnam and was both saved and then severely beaten by his captors.  For five-and-a-half years McCain was a Prisoner of War, and often was tortured by his captors.  He refused release early as a Prisoner of War when the Vietcong wanted to use his release, as the son of an Admiral, as an occasion for propaganda.  He was not released until 1973.  He retired from the Navy in 1981, and for the rest of his life would never be able to lift his arms above his head.  He ran for the United States Senate and was reelected five times by the people of Arizona.  Recently McCain was operated on for a malignant brain tumor.  The diagnosis is not good, but McCain is still working hard, still the Maverick he has always been, offending people on both sides of the aisle.  “I’m very happy with my life.  I’m very happy with what I’ve been able to do, and there’s two ways of looking at these things, and one of them is to celebrate.  I am able to celebrate a wonderful life, and I will be grateful for additional time that I have.  Every life has to end one way or another — so you’ve got to have joy.”

            That dear friends, is the vantage point of grace. 

                                                                                      Amen.

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