Matthew 20:1-16

Who Am I Not?  Arbiter of Fairness

This morning we are going keep doing what we don’t usually do, though considering how often we do that perhaps I should stop not doing what we tend to do and instead do what we normally do which would then be what we normally don’t do, which would mean I’m doing what I said in the beginning not doing what we usually do. Right?

 Anyway… We are looking at some of the things Jesus told us to determine who we are not. We already know many of things we are. We are forgiven. We are a royal priesthood. We are friends of Jesus. All those are blessings beyond measure, but so too are the things we are not. We are not condemned. We are not slaves to sin.

However, the blessing we heard about today also contains a warning.  We are not The Arbiter of Fairness. God alone determines who He blesses and how much He blesses them. He can bless one person with long life and great comfort and another person He can subject to life of suffering outside of their control. We might not think such things fair, but, we merely receive that which God graciously gives us. 

The parable we heard shows us this all too clearly.  It has two parts.  It starts off by leading its hearers up to a joyful expectation and then, in the second part, it reveals the sinful pride that can come from those expectations. We just heard the parable so we already know both parts, but let’s try a little imagination.  Try to forget you know the whole story.  Think about what it would have been like to hear it for the first time as one of the disciples. 

You just saw Jesus tell a rich person to sell all he had and follow Him, but the rich man turned away and left, though you could tell it grieved him terribly to do so.  After that, Peter went up to Jesus and said that he and you and the rest of the disciples had done that very thing; you had all given up everything to follow God. Then Jesus, the greatest, most Godly man you had ever known, said that someday all of you were going to sit on a throne, a throne not totally unlike the one God Himself sits on, and judge Israel, the very country in which you live.

But then He tells you the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

The story starts off with a vineyard owner going out in the morning to hire people to work for him for a day.  It’s pretty early, maybe 6:00 or so.  Everyone agrees to a denarius as payment.  Really, that is a good payment.  It’s as much as a soldier would make in a day.  Everyone is happy. 

So far in the story, it looks like Jesus wants us to see ourselves as those workers and Jesus Himself as the vineyard owner.  By being His disciples, we have agreed to follow Jesus and do as He says and now we are being told that we will be compensated for our work.  Indeed, we will be well compensated what with the sitting on the throne thing.

Then, as we work, the vineyard owner goes out and hires more people. Now is 9:00.  There are workers just standing around doing nothing.  Now, we don’t think that they are lazy, just that no one has hired them.  The fact they are there in the place where workers go to be hired shows they truly do want to work.  The vineyard owner tells them to come and work for him.  This time, however, no one agrees to a certain payment.  The vineyard just tells them he will pay them whatever is right. 

We see no problem with this.  They’ll come and the generous vineyard owner will pay them well.  What a great man our vineyard owner is to go out and hire people so that they could provide for their selves!

The vineyard owner goes out again at 12:00 and 3:00 hiring even more people. Wow!  What bighearted man our master is.  He won’t rest until he helps everyone.  We are truly blessed to be the employ of one such as him.

And then the man goes out again at 5:00.  5:00!  There’s only one hour in day left to work and still our master, our wonderful, wonderful master, goes out to try to give even more people employment.  He finds some workers standing around doing nothing. He asks them why they are not working and they tell him that no one hired them.  He commands them to come and work for him.  The kindness of our master seems unlimited.  He will not rest until he does all he possibly can to help as many people as possible. 

Then the end of the day comes, 6:00.  The vineyard owner pays the ones who came to work at 5:00 first.  And could it be?  Our master pays them a denarius.  A whole day’s pay for only working one hour!  The generosity of our masters is staggering.  Words can’t describe it!  How blessed must those people that arrived so late feel! 

And then we think, what could that mean for us?  If our master was so kind as to pay someone who only worked one hour a whole day’s pay, how much would he give us?  We had worked something like 12 hours.  We can only imagine how much we will be getting.  We eagerly go up to get out pay.  Thoughts of what we will do with all the money we will soon be getting dance in heads. 

And then we get… a denarius.  We got the same amount of pay the ones who only worked an hour got.  Surely there must have been a mistake.  Here we worked all day and we get the same as those that barely worked at all?  No. That’s not fair.

So we go to this vineyard owner and carefully explain to him that we had worked all day in the blazing sun so there’s no way we are equal to those that worked only an hour.  We worked hard you.

Then the vineyard owner says, “Friend…”  Like an unfair person like him could be our friend. “Friend, I have done you no wrong.  Did you not agree to work for one denarius?”  Well, sure we did but, still… We all get the same pay?  Even the ones who did less work?   That’s not fair.

And then the vineyard owner goes on, “Take your pay and go home.”  Well that we will certainly do!  Don’t expect us to work for someone like you again. It’s just not fair.

And he keeps talking, “I chose to give the last worker the same amount I gave to you.  Can’t I do what I want with my money?”  Well, I guess so.  But… Don’t we deserve more?  Why should someone like those lazy people that only worked an hour get the same as us? It’s not fair.

And then he finished with, “Are you angry because I am so generous with others?” No, not really.  I just…  I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem fair.

So far we have been rather vague about what this payment represents, so let’s be more specific. What could Jesus be talking about?  What is it that every single follower of Jesus receives? 

Forgiveness. Forgiveness, at least the kind Jesus offers, is an odd concept. On one hand it is wonderful beyond words.  We here know that we have been forgiven by Jesus.  We know our sins have been paid for by the blood He shed on the cross and we know that the outcome of that forgiveness is that one day we will see Jesus face to face and live with Him forever in our new bodies on the New Earth. 

But there is another side to forgiveness.  Is it possible that the grace and mercy that God shows us in forgiveness could bring us something other than joy?  Could forgiveness actually end in anger?   Sadly, the answer is yes as Jesus proves in the parable He told.

Everyone is treated the same when it comes to forgiveness because everyone will receive the same reward, the washing away of sins and the promise of eternal life with God.  It doesn’t matter how much you do, or don’t do, everyone is treated as absolute equals. 

In the Bible we can see clear examples of this.  The disciples, the ones that followed Jesus for three years and suffered with Him whom nearly all of which faced excruciating deaths as martyrs, will receive the same forgiveness as the thief on the cross who seemingly never did anything for God.  It is not at all fair in human terms, but it God’s way. 

The problem with the disciples, and us too, comes when we take our eyes off of Jesus and look to others.  When we look to Jesus, all we can see is love and blessings.  We see the founder and perfecter of our faith.  We see the God-man who loved us so much He willing sacrificed Himself on the cross for us. 

But if we look to others, we start comparing.  Who is living the better life?  Who has done more for God?  Instead of rejoicing that someone is saved, we seek to prove who is better or more worthy.

It may seem like we don’t really suffer from this too much.  After all, it’s not as if I think I deserve to be forgiven, for I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. [Ps 51:3] Indeed, in my good moments I can see that it is not fair Jesus died to save me. 

But those are my good moments, to see my other side all I have to do is remember a story someone told me, and I can see just how easy it is to be offended with seeming unfairness of God’s mercy.

Some time ago a serial killer was terrorizing Washington State.  Dozens of women were being killed.  There was a sheriff, Dave Reichert, that worked to catch that murder for twenty long years and in the end he finally succeeded. Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, was caught and he confessed to and was convicted for murdering 48 women, though he said he killed over seventy.  Dave Reichert interviewed Gary Ridgeway multiple times. 

Dave was a member of an LCMS church and one day his pastor asked him a question, “Does Gary Ridgeway deserve forgiveness?”  Dave said he never even thought about such a possibility.  But after some time, Dave knew what he had to do, talk to Gary Ridgeway about Jesus.  So he did.  He talked to him about repentance and forgiveness in Jesus.  Then Dave saw Gary Ridgeway, the murderer of over seventy women, breakdown and cry.  Dave said Gary showed him a prayer he had been praying over and over again.  It was a prayer where Gary admitted he was a sinner and asked for forgiveness in Jesus’ name.

I admit the first time I heard that story, I immediately dismissed it.  There was no way someone like the Green River Killer could ever receive the same forgiveness I have.  Such a thing was too offensive to even consider.  But then there’s the very parable we just heard and it addresses that very thing.

I don’t think there is a way for us to accept it under our own power.  The only way we could is by the power of God in us. Jesus alone has the type of perfect, unconditional love that makes it possible for someone to accept that even a man like Gary Ridgeway could be forgiven.

But in the end, we will sometimes still be like those first workers.  We will take our eyes off of Jesus and compare ourselves to others.  But even then we can still be forgiven with same overwhelming, overflowing forgiveness we first experienced at our baptism.  There’s nothing we can do that will cause God to abandon us.  He promised us that our sins are forgiven and we will have eternal life with Him and He never breaks His promises. 

So my beloved I leave you with this:  Jesus offers forgiveness to us and everyone else. 

Lord's Prayer