That’s Not Fair!

Delivered June 10, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
as part of a series on the parables.

Theme: Grace is God’s way – all the time.

Sermon Text:
Matthew 20:1-14
and Psalm 116

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. Evening came and the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.” The workers who were hired about the 11th hour came and each received a denarius. So when those who came were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it they began to grumble against the landowner. These men who were hired last worked only one hour, they said and you have made them equal to us, who have born the burden of the work and they heat of the day. But he answered of them, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man that 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. So the last will be first and the first will be last. Amen.

The sermon title is there before you in the bulletin, “That’s not fair”. I wonder if anybody has ever said the sermon’s title before in his or her life. Have you ever uttered those words in any context? I bet every single person here has done that. Have you ever felt that a brother or sister got special treatment, and said, “That’s not fair?” Has anyone ever felt that for all the hard work you have done, that you aren’t truly appreciated? Has anybody ever felt, even in the church, that some folks get the recognition, but your efforts go unnoticed? Or you make sacrifices, major sacrifices of time and energy and yet just a little bit of resentment is there because maybe those who do about half as much still get the spotlight. If you can relate to any of these questions, then you can relate to this parable of laborers in the vineyard. It gets under your skin, its annoying, this parable. Because the landowner bargains a contract with some early workers, people who were standing in the marketplace, which was a common thing to do. There were no labor unions then. There were no organized laborers. They just stood out in the marketplace and waited for somebody to hire them. And six o’clock in the morning, at the break of day, when the workday started, certain ones were offered a contract to work for a denarius, basically minimum wage. Was it a lot? It was about what was expected in that day. And then, the second, third, and fourth group, people who came to the market place at nine or noon or three, were offered a different deal. The owner said, “You go and work and I will give you whatever is right.” And they went. And then to make it even worse, somebody showed up in the marketplace at five o’clock and the landowner found them and said, “You go, too. I want you to work in my vineyard. I will pay you whatever is right.” And in our desire for fairness and justice, we assume, just as the workers in the parable that the later workers will only be paid a percentage of what the first workers got. And so in effect, we are set up.

One time I asked my daughter, who has worked as a waitress, “If your boss said ‘Work for me from 9 to 5 and I will give you $50 extra for doing it on a day when I normally wouldn’t have you work’, and then to one of your co-workers he said, “Work from 4-5″, and gave them $50, what would you think?” She said, “I would strangle him.” I mean, its natural. Nobody coached her or anything. It just came right out. “I’d strangle him.” There’s no grumbling here, over the denarius being paid to the last hired. It’s only when their expectation to receive more, isn’t realized, that the grumbling begins. And we know how they feel. We empathize with what seems to be injustice. It’s not fair. Equal pay for unequal work. Let’s strike! “How could you make them equal to us?” Is what the first hired said. It’s a very thought provoking and spirit provoking parable. Why? Because it does what it was intended to do. To get us to think. To get us to think about life in the kingdom of God. Life where God rules. God’s rule of grace far surpasses any justice or fairness paradigm that we have. God says, “Anyone, anyplace, anytime, you are welcome into my field and into my work.” If we identify, as we often do with the first group, then we identify with those who want a world run on justice.

A pastor friend of mine was in Allenwood Maximum Security Prison. He was doing a ministry. There were about 30 inmates and he asked them a question. “Who here wants justice?” All their hands went up, 29 hands went up, except one guy’s. He thought it was a trick question. His hand was going like this: it was up and down, he wasn’t sure. And then my friend said, “Well do you want justice or grace?” “We want justice,” they said. My friend said, “Wait a minute. Be careful of what you are saying.” We say we want justice, but the scripture writer says, “Who can stand in God’s presence? When the Lord says line up it’s justice time, do you think you are going to stand? If you go just by justice, it will never happen. Lord, if you keep track, one Psalmist said, of sins, then who could stand? Who would be saved? If we think in terms of justice and fairness only, then what happens to those in Verse 14 happens to us. The landowner says, “Take your pay and go.” You have to leave the vineyard if you operate only on a justice model. But thanks be to God that the kingdom is one of grace. And there is not one of us who cannot benefit by the reminder of grace. If we all believed in grace there shouldn’t be one shred of guilt in us today. We had our prayer of confession, we had our assurance of pardon, this should be the most guilt-free place ever found. And yet, I talk with people all the time, even people who sing grace greater than all my sin. They say, “I still think that God is upset with me. I still think that I am going to be paying for something that I have done. A bad mistake. I deserve the bad things that happen to me. I am no good.” All of these kinds of thoughts. This parable, tries to cut through all of that and to say that anyone, anywhere, anyplace, anytime is welcome to be part of the kingdom enterprise.

Sometimes, when I preach about grace, you could come away feeling guilty because you don’t believe in grace enough. This is the way we play tricks with ourselves. D.L. Moody, a great man of God and a preacher said, “You know, many people are trying to make peace with God, but that’s already been done.” God has not left it for us to do. All we have to do is enter into it”. And this parable challenges us. Not only about grace and salvation but also about service in God’s church and in God’s work. I would also like to suggest some ways in which this parable may challenge us today. It brings forth challenges that members of any congregation might need to hear. Challenges that will jog our “that’s not fair” mind-set. And so I would like to share five basic complexes, or membership categories perhaps, that this parable challenges. And actually, it is not just about church membership, it’s about an attitude that many times we can have regardless. But sometimes it’s found in churches and its helpful to get a correction.

The first is the long time member complex. While every church desires and ought to honor the efforts and faithfulness of long time members, this complex is based on the following reason: “My years of labor entitle me to special treatment.” I saw a cartoon once with the caption “Visitors to First Church have a new understanding of what it means to say, “My seat.” There, at the end of the pew, was a lamp, a footstool, a pair of slippers, a rug, and a shawl on the back of the pew. We laugh. But one time I was visiting a church and a pastor took me through the sanctuary and showed me around. It was a small country church and there were seat cushions, shawls, and afghans scattered all around the sanctuary. I said, “What is this?” He says, “What do you mean, what is this? This is where they sit. They’ve got their space marked out.” Long time members can sometimes develop resentment towards new folks because they haven’t earned their stripes or the sweat equity isn’t the same. We had a wonderful person, Katherine Kapician come in just a couple of weeks ago to talk with the Chancel Redesign Committee and speak about how to give the sanctuary a nice facelift, which will happen in the near future. She was giving us all kinds of wonderful ideas of what to do and what not to do. And she said that in a recent experience that she had, there was a church that had a beautiful window, but the most prominent members of the church who sat in a certain spot, and always sat in that spot, did not like the way the light came through the window. And so they had the window covered. They had this beautiful window covered because of the way the light hit them where they sat. Now, I know that is an extreme, but the attitude of the first hired can be here beneath the surface. You know, there are pioneers and settlers in every church. The pioneers are the people who whacked out all of the underbrush and made the clearing and set it up as it is today, and then the settlers come in, the “New Folks.” And pioneers can be resentful of settlers, who want to do things differently. And you know, sometimes a new pastor can come in and identify more with the settlers, the newer folks because he or she is new. And then there is a little camaraderie that goes on and it can create a triangle that is very tense in many congregations. We have to be careful of that attitude of the first hired. A young Chinese man who was hired to be the housekeeper of a well to do family, took care of their two teenage sons and it was the mission of these two boys to make life miserable for the housekeeper. One day, they nailed his shoes to the floor. Another day they gave him the old bucket of water on the door trick. And each day they harassed him to no end. He just smiled and went on just like nothing had happened. He gave them the utmost respect. Matter of fact, it caused them so much guilt after a while that they promised they would never ever do it again. And they assured him that they had reformed and so he said, “No more shoes nailed to floor?” They said, “Nope we are not going to nail your shoes to the floor anymore.” “No more water over the door?” “No more water over the door.” He says, “Good, no more spit in soup!” You see our belief that we deserve more for years of effort can cause what seems like respect to be nothing more than a thin veneer covering resentment towards those who haven’t paid their dues.

A hardworking church member can fall prey to this, too. It doesn’t have to be a long time member, so we have to be careful. There is a second complex that members can have, or people can have in the kingdom. Whether new or long time, older adult member or a limited member (because of financial reasons, or because of physical concerns), you just can’t do as much as you used to. You can get into this mode of thinking that says I am just not as valuable anymore. Life gets tougher as we age, or as things happen to us and because of grief and physical pain and hardship. In many churches, older or weaker members can feel like they are not contributing. Well let me share something with you. In many churches, older and weaker members sometimes have the sweetest witness. Its like bells that are hung in the Alps, maybe you have heard of these. Where there is no rope to ring the bells, they are just strung across the mountain range in the autumn and the soft winds come through and you can just barely hear them ring, but in the gales of winter, when the worst winds are going through, the bells are really ringing, they put forth the most beautiful sound. Well that’s the way it is in the witness of older folks, even though they think they can’t do as much, even though things have become tough, their witness becomes the most beautiful. I am thinking now about a woman who I had the privilege of knowing. Her name was Martha Price. I knew her all the time I was at First Church in Sunbury. She was a wonderful person. Her hands were all arthritic; she could hardly even move them. I would go to the nursing home and she would show me how she would throw out her shoulder, she’d say, “Look at this”. It was like a trick, like I was suppose to be impressed on how she could throw her shoulder out of her socket. She had a great sense of humor. One day when she was really weak I went there to visit her and she looked up and there were like squares in the ceiling, they weren’t ceiling tiles but a design. And she said, “You see those tiles?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “They are not tiles.” I said, “What are they?” She goes, “They are boxes that represent different people and different needs in our church. See that second one over there, that’s you,” she said. “I pray for you.” She continued, “The third one is for our children’s ministry.” And she went on. It was like a tile or a rosary sort of thing to remind her to pray. There she was lying in bed, seemingly doing nothing, seemingly insignificant, she was praying hours and hours at a time. I walked away from that thinking, “Wow, what a heart of service.” No matter how small it appears to us, it doesn’t appear small to God.

The third kind of complex we can develop is kind of the opposite of the long time member. It’s the new member complex. And that’s very simply, this, “that my importance to the church is limited by the fact that I haven’t been around very long.” I haven’t earned enough chips to play the game. I haven’t earned enough stripes to have any kind of seniority. In this text, the man who speaks to the first hired, even though they were disrespectful to him, answers one of them and says, “Friend”. It’s in the singular. Friend. Friend, every laborer is needed. Every hour. Don’t hang back believing that you haven’t earned enough. There is also a variation of this and that’s the teenage member. The younger member. Again, thinking that they are somehow second-class because they are not older. The Scripture says, Paul to Timothy, “don’t let anybody look down on your youth. Be an example of righteousness, etc.” I don’t think anybody would argue how valuable Julie Harp’s testimony was last week. An eighth grader sharing about how God is working through her. So we have to be careful of that complex as well.

And then there is another complex and this is what I would call the sidelined member, or the former worker complex. Is there somebody here today, that has taken a serving detour? You used to serve the Lord, but you became disillusioned and you have become tired and weary, and you feel that you are riding the bench or you have left the game. But there is a part of you that says, “I need to get back in, but will God still use me? Do I have to go through some sort of re-education in the kingdom kind of thing?” No. You can come back in anytime, anyplace, and anywhere. You know, one of the things that breaks my heart is to read about pastors who drop out. And I can understand, believe me. A pastor’s work, and I am not just saying this because I am one, is one of the most stressful jobs. At a Project Justice luncheon the other day, somebody brought a list of reasons why this is happening to pastors in our country today. And many are dropping out or dropping by the sidelines. I don’t know if there are any former pastors here today, but anybody pastor or not you can get back in the work. This parable says so. Anyplace, anywhere, anytime. You’re needed. It’s important.

And then lastly, any member can have this complex. When we become aggravated because pastors or other leaders may seem to care more about those who are not even in the church yet. Not in the vineyard yet. You see the householder went and saw others standing idle and then he went out and saw others, and he saw others, and he saw others and he kept calling them in. When we lose a sense of urgency about the gospel and desire to extend the invitation to others so that they too may enjoy the benefits of Christian community, when we lose that, then every pastor, every leader has failed every member, because the church is as much for others who are not here as it is for those who are here.

Let me tell you about one other friend from the past. Her name is Stella. Stella had a hard life in many ways. And some of the difficulty in her life was of her own making. But I got to know Stella. She only lived a block from the church that I served. She was rather poor. The thing that caused her to call me was an illness. She had gone to the doctor and found out that she had a brain hemorrhage and she was very, very fearful of dying at any minute. She had enough church background to know that there might be some help and so she called the closest church, which was ours. She asked if the pastor would come and see her. And we sat at her kitchen table and she told me about all of her problems and struggles. She was frightened and said, “Pastor, I want to be baptized. I have never been baptized.” I, of course, wanted to know if she understood what baptism meant and what it was a sign of. And in conversation she said, “Yes, I have trusted in Jesus. I did a long time ago, but I don’t know why I was just never baptized and I need to be baptized.” “It is just so very important to me.” And so we set it up and she came in as a member of the church and she wanted to be involved. She didn’t just want to be baptized, she said, “I want to be involved.” She hadn’t been around the church in 60 years basically and I will never forget that morning as I put the water on her head and it came running down her cheeks. The most pleasant, unbelievably peaceful smile came over her face. She humbled herself. She used to receive help from the soup kitchen we ran. She was in the kitchen helping others after that. And she would come to prayer meetings and she just jumped right into everything. It was like she had been around all the time. And we would pray for her and one time we anointed her with oil and we laid hands on her and her brain hemorrhage was healed. It was stopped. She went for another MRI and the doctor said there was no more hemorrhaging. We rejoiced, we were thrilled. Six months later, six months later, she died suddenly. And we were all crushed. But I thought about that and I asked, “Why did Stella come into the life of our church?” She came in to show that God is not a respecter of persons. That God wants anyone, anywhere, anytime to be part of his kingdom effort. And nothing should keep us, no excuse, no complex should keep us from appreciating and experiencing the ministry of all people.

So what should we do today? Well, I think it depends on how we fall into all of the different kinds of categories. Some of us may need to repent of an entitlement attitude, or an attitude of deserving based on longer hours. Some of us have to let go of attitudes that keep us from getting involved. Some of us hold back when we should be getting involved. I am too new, too young, too inexperienced. I am too whatever. The Lord says, “Come”. Extends open arms. And I know this congregation does this. I am preaching to the choir, I know that because most of the choir is not here. So I am really preaching to the choir literally and figuratively. I know we extend open arms to people. Sometimes we send letters to new folks and we put first impression cards in the letter and I ask a first time guest to please just give us your first impression of what you experience. And almost every one says that they feel so welcome. So I know I don’t even need to preach this, but some may need to move past any uncomfortable feelings. Move out of those comfort zones and really go the extra mile to include those who are new in our midst. Perhaps, they need to work in the vineyard as well. You know there is so much to do. Three services we have now. And do you realize that without doing anything else that the average attendance at Central Church could go from 600 to 900? It could. It could happen, just because there is room now. Can you imagine how exciting that would be to see more people come to know Christ and fulfill their potential, to experience the grace of God. We need everybody, no matter what his or her gifts. No matter what his or her experience, we need everybody to say, “Lord, I partner with you in the church and in the work of the kingdom.” So by God’s grace let’s shift from any attitude that sounds like, “what will I get”, to every attitude that sounds like, “I’ll give what I have”, and that way God will be honored and his kingdom will be expanded. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Lord, we ask that you would strengthen us. That you would help us to see through this word that you are a God that bestows graciously and generously to any and all who will listen. Correct that which needs to be corrected. Strengthen those who need to be strengthened. Lord, call those who need to be reclaimed and help us all to serve you so that not only will your name be honored, but also more and more people will come to know your great love. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.