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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 21, 2014

 Completely Unreasonable Grace

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16

              If the events in the parable told by Jesus ever really happened, can you imagine the conversations at home that night after work? The worker hired at nine o’clock in the morning would be saying, “Honey, I had a really good day. It didn’t start out that way, though. I was afraid I wasn’t going to get work at all. Then, at nine o’clock in the morning, the landowner came back to town, to the marketplace, and hired me. Better yet, when the end of the day came, he paid me like I had worked all day long. He is such a good man!” I bet the workers hired at noon and three said much the same thing when they got home, only with a little more enthusiasm. But the ones hired at five o’clock, “the eleventh hour”?! I bet they were utterly dumbfounded! “Honey, you wouldn’t believe what happened to me today! I thought I would come home with no work at all, and no wages, either. Then at five o’clock the landowner came and offered me work. He didn’t even promise to pay me, and when pay time came, I was the first to be paid. And he paid me for a whole day’s work! He is the kindest, most generous man I have ever met!”

             But what about those who worked all day, and watched those who only worked part of the day get their denarius, a fair day’s wage for their work? I suspect that the grumbling that started in the parable continued into the night! “I worked the whole day in the scorching heat, and got paid exactly the same amount as those who showed up at five. The man’s crazy! He is completely unfair; he is the worst, most unjust boss I have ever seen!”

             Who is right about this landowner? Is he the kindest, most generous man alive, or is he completely unfair? One thing is certain: No one wants to work for someone who is unfair, who cares not at all for equity and fair treatment in the workplace – unless you know you are getting more than you deserve!

             But remember – this is a parable Jesus tells. And what if it isn’t a parable about how to run a vineyard? Truth to tell, it is no way to run a farm or any business of any kind! No pay scale I have ever seen is truly fair, completely just, but if you pay folks at the end of the day in front of each other, and pay them all exactly the same thing, regardless of how little or how much they have worked, you are going to have a very unhappy, messy vineyard, or factory, or office, or school, or family for that matter, in no time at all.

             What if this is not a parable about fair labor practices, but instead a parable about the kingdom of heaven? (After all, this is what Jesus says it is about.) What if it is a parable about God first, and not about us? If we turn it that way, what might it say to us?

             First off, and best of all, it tells us God never stops looking for people to do His work. God keeps heading back to town, looking for all those on the sidelines, offering them work to do. God is a God who wants to use everyone He can, and who values each and every one of us. God has kingdom work that needs to be done that has your name written all over it!

             A guy named William Least Heat-Moon has written a travelogue called, Blue Highways. Travelling cross-country with his dog, Moon runs into an elderly gentleman and the subject turns to work. I love what the elderly man says! “A man’s never out of work if he’s worth a damn. 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 God calls you, no matter who you are, no matter what time it is in your life, to do what you are supposed to do.

             And if you assume that God is to be seen as the landowner in this parable that Jesus tells, there are two other absolutes about who this landowner is. First, the landowner is just. God, the landowner, is fair. He pays those who worked all day exactly what he promised. The grumbling happens not because of the landowner breaking his word. He pays everyone a denarius, a fair day’s wage. That is all he promised. No one is cheated.

             But it turns out this landowner is more than fair, even more than just. He is also generous. You might say that the landowner is gracious. He tries after all, to remember and to put to work everyone. And he gives to every worker what he needs to live – and gives to none of them more than they need. Some have said this parable is like the manna God gave to Israel in the wilderness: Enough for everyone for the day, but never more than enough so that you can hoard it.

             And it is the landowner’s generosity that creates the trouble. It is his graciousness to the latecomers that creates anger and resentment. Isn’t this often the way it is? A few years ago I got a card with a saying on it from one of my best friends. It said, “Comparison to others is the source of all unhappiness.” I keep it on my desk as a reminder.

             In my first church, I was the lowest paid minister on the staff, and I should have been. I was the youngest and the least experienced. I worked with two older, wiser colleagues, and loved it. But at Presbytery one year they decided to publish what every minister was making in the Presbytery. I found out that Bob Norris, my dear friend and the youth minister in the next town was making $3,000 more a year than I was, and I was floored. I was making $16,000 and Bob was making $19,000 in 1983! I was totally undone by finding this out. Our youth group was three times as large as the one at Bob’s church. (Bob, of course, had nothing to do with this. It was totally my problem, because I made it so!) Looking back now years later, I was making enough. Before I saw these salaries, I was perfectly happy. My family was housed and sheltered, and I was allowing $3,000 to rob me of the perception that I was really blessed to be working on the staff of Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church doing what I loved – working with teenagers and two wise, wonderful colleagues.

             I was blessed, but I allowed what someone else was making to rob me of my joy! This parable, if it says anything about our own work, tells us to let go of anything that keeps us from being joy-filled and grateful. We sometimes like to say, “Get over it!” There are some things we simply need to “get over” if we are to maintain our joy. God is not just fair. God is more than fair. God is generous. And I don’t ever want to resent God’s generosity or kindness to anyone, because truth to tell, I would be biting off my own nose to spite my face. God has been generous, gracious to me, all my days. And when I remember this I am grateful and joyful, and I grow more generous of heart myself.

             So a really wise, creative second grade teacher said, “Line up for recess!” There was a mad dash for the front of the line, pushing and shoving, trying to be first. Finally, when they settled in, she walked to the end of the line, and told everyone to turn around and said, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” It is what Jesus says at the end of this parable. From then on, all the pushing and shoving ceased. God never stops calling us to the work we are supposed to do. And God is the consummate teacher. God is generous and wants to teach us to be joyful and grateful.

 O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!

Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee;

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart; O take and seal it; seal it for Thy courts above.

                                                                                     Amen.

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