Sermon - 16 Pentecost
In the Name...
A fellow asked his boss for a raise because, he said, he was doing the work of three men. The boss said he wouldn't give him the raise, but, he'd fire the three men.
The Bible contains a great many stories that people often find unbelievable - a talking serpent, a great flood, the parting of a sea, a virgin birth - but, this morning's Gospel parable must be the most unbelievable of all. A businessman who gives all his workers a generous wage regardless of hours worked.
Just to recap the parable, it's time for the grape harvest, so the owner goes to the local labour hall at 6am and hires some men for a full day's wage. Later on, at 9am, the owner hires some more men and again at noon, at 3pm, and, finally at 5pm. But, he doesn't sign any contracts. All he says is, "I'll pay you what's right."
Well, 6pm rolls around and the workers line up for their wage packets. The 5pm lads go first and they receive - a full day's pay. The 3pm, noon, and 9am workers also receive - a full day's pay. Everybody, including the 6am workers. Now, the 6am guys had been at it for twelve hours and they get the same as everybody else. Oi! No way, Jose! Can you imagine that today? Calls to the Dept. of Labour, the United Farm Workers. Imagine what fun the lawyers would have.
All in all, this is a very strange parable because for some people, it endorses unfair labour practices. In fact, a hundred years ago this text was used by factory owners to justify short wages and long hours. How dare the government set a minimum wage? What I pay my workers is my business.
Fortunately, we've moved on since then, but, it's true that a lot of what goes on in life is unfair. Just think of a typical office. Veronica is always taking sick leave or complaining about her aches and pains. Alan is always walking around with papers in his left hand and a Starbucks in his right. And Victor is the best. Give him a job to do and you can be sure, he'll find someone to do it. And they all make just as much as, if not more than, the solid, dependable worker who covers for all of them.
And, isn't it unfair that an adult son or daughter ends up looking after his or her elderly parents while the brothers and sisters drop in from afar once in a blue moon? That a fatal sickness strikes a young child and not a drug-dealer? There's a lot of unfairness out there. And the 6am workers seem to be victims of more. Why should they have to settle for what everybody else got?
But, read the parable from the point of view of the 5pm worker and that's a different story. We're not talking about fairness, now. We're talking about generosity. And that's what it's all about. The owner represents God and the full day's wage - it's not money - it's nothing less than eternal life and salvation. There's no way to improve on that. Do the complaining workers want life that's longer than eternal? So, it doesn't matter if it's 6am or 5pm. The lesson is whenever we respond to God's call in our lives we get the full reward.
This was a radical teaching of Jesus because the Pharisees taught that if you lived a certain kind of life, if you followed all the commandments, laws, and rules, if you said your prayers and did everything right, then God was in your debt. He owed you happiness, health, or prosperity to match what you had done for Him. Like a business transaction. And there are some Christians who think this way, too.
But, what inevitably happens is that those who think they've been the most religious, those who've always gone to church, supported every activity, given generously, served on more committees than anybody else, these are the very people who can become the most bitter, the angriest, when life deals them an unfair card. They think God owes them, owes them immunity from trouble because of what they've done for Him. And sometimes they decide to get even with God by quitting the church. I've seen it, more than once, and probably so have you.
Our Old Testament lesson today showed us someone like this - Jonah. God picked Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and preach that they were such great sinners that they were all going to be destroyed. Well, as we know, Jonah tried to get out of the job, but, after a close encounter with a whale's GI track, he reluctantly went about his mission. God chose his man well, though, because Jonah was a huge success. His preaching was so powerful that he convinced everyone from the rulers on down and, lo and behold, they all repented. And God forgave them. How did Jonah react to that? He was furious. After all he'd been through. he wanted the city blown to tiny little pieces. He deserved to see that, didn't he?
In the New Testament lesson, St. Paul urges the Philippians to let their lives be "worthy of the Gospel of Christ." Worthy of the Gospel, the Good News, of Christ. This is the same letter in which he also writes, "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice." Now, when Paul wrote these words, he had every reason to be bitter, angry, and complaining. He was in prison on Death Row. And hadn't he been one of the leading leaders of the Church - traveling thousands of miles, founding new congregations, strengthening existing ones, writing letters, raising money. Didn't he deserve better in life?
The short answer is, No. Nobody deserves better, or indeed, anything in life, not even Paul. Because life is unfair. That's the curse of Eden. But, the Good News of the Gospel is that God is also unfair. Life short-changes us, but, God overpays us. He doesn't owe us anything, but, He's given us everything. He's given us Himself, His Son, His Spirit. That's more than we could ever deserve or earn. So, how can we respond to that unfair generosity?
By leading lives worthy of it. By not getting bitter, angry, or complaining when things don't go our way. By rejoicing in the fact that no matter how badly life treats us, God is there to rescue us. By not being unfair to others just because everyone else is. By expecting nothing and celebrating everything.
It's easy to make the case that life is unfair. There's plenty of evidence for that around. So, let's make the case that God is also unfair, wonderfully unfair. And what evidence can we show? We can show ourselves. We can be the best evidence to make that case. Because we may not do the work of three men every day, but, every day each of us benefits by the work of a certain trio. Which is why we say we live and breathe....
In the Name....