Sunday’s sermon: Willing to ACCEPT

Text used – Matthew 20:1-16

  • So last week we introduced this year’s Lenten theme of willingness. Throughout the next few weeks we’re going to be walking through some of Jesus’ parables and teachings from the gospel of Matthew, each of which has something particular to say to us about the interplay between willingness in our faith.
    • Last week: being willing to forgive
    • Up next week: willing to respond to God’s call
    • Today: being willing to accept, particularly when it comes to fairness → And as with so many other topics, we’re going to come at this one through the lens of … a children’s book. (Once a children’s librarian’s daughter, always a children’s librarian’s daughter!) → book called Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev[1]
      • Story of a little boy who has a pet elephant
      • Boy and his elephant are very excited to be going to pet club → But when they get there, they find a sign on the door: “Strictly no elephants.”
      • Sadly, little boy and elephant turn away and start to slowly walk away (in the rain, of course, because in books, it always rains when the characters are sad … it adds gravitas)
      • Sitting on a bench watching people go by when a little girl comes up to them with her pet … skunk → boy and girl have a conversation about how, even though their pets are unique, there’s nothing wrong with them
      • Boy and girl decide to start their own pet club at the local park → as they’re walking there, they’re joined by kids with all sorts of different pets
        • Bat
        • Hedgehog
        • Giraffe
        • Armadillo
        • Penguin
        • Even a narwhal (in a fishbowl in the bed of a little red wagon)
      • Create their own pet club open to everyone … including, on the very last page, the kids who turned them away from the original pet club in the first place → “So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.” You know, the tenderhearted side of us want to go, “Awww. Of course they invited the other kids to their club.” But maybe there’s another part of us that says, “But was that fair of them?”
        • Just like forgiveness last week, fairness is a sticky subject
  • So … let’s just dive right in.
    • Definition of fairness: impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination → Ideally, there’s a certain level of neutrality expected in fairness.
      • Impartial
      • Without favoritism or discrimination
      • And while we want and hope for and even expect other people to treat us without any impartialities or favoritism or discrimination, we know how hard it can be to actually turn around and grant that kind of neutral, fair treatment to others in turn, don’t we? We cannot deny that as human beings, we are made up of all our experiences – things we have learned, people we have known, ways that we have been treated, and so on. Even in those moments when we say we want to act fairly, it’s really hard to intentionally set aside all that baggage that we bring with us to actually act impartially without favoritism or discrimination.
        • Certainly not the version of “fairness” that kids complain about whenever their parents require something of them that they don’t like → For kids, “That’s not fair!” generally means, “I don’t like that” or “I don’t want to do that.” But is it just kids that use the term “fair” in this way? I kinda don’t think so.
  • This is what makes Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard such a challenging parable this morning
    • Story of a landowner who is in need of workers to harvest his crop in his vineyard → text tells us he hires workers at 5 separate times throughout the day
      • “early in the morning”
      • 9:00 a.m.
      • Noon
      • 3:00 p.m.
      • Finally 5:00 p.m.
      • What’s interesting is that, as far as we can tell, the only time this particular landowner was actually looking for workers was the first time he went out. – text: The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.[2]
        • Other times, text just says “he went out” and found all the other workers “standing around in the marketplace” → Now, we know that this guy was a farmer because he’s got a vineyard. And I have to think he must have hailed from the Midwest because his response to seeing all these people standing around in the marketplace throughout the day is, “Let’s go to work!”
    • Also interesting that the only time he actually discusses pay are with the first two groups
      • Group that he found “early in the morning” – text: After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard.[3] → denarion = roughly equivalent to a full days wage
      • Group that he found at 9:00 a.m. – text: He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.[4] → “I’ll pay you whatever is right.” I mean … that could be really nebulous, couldn’t it? Well, maybe in English, but in the Greek, it’s a little more precise.
        • Gr. “whatever is right” = incl. word that means honest, good, just, righteous, upright, even innocent → When applied to a person, this word means someone who is a model citizen. There’s even an element of duty and honor in this word. In fact, it’s the same word from which we get our modern-day term “deacon.” So in using this particular word to describe the wages that these workers will be receiving, Jesus is leaving no room for doubt. It will be utterly and completely fair.
    • Or will it? – text: When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’[5] → “Now wait just a darn minute!” we think. “That’s not fair.” We can feel the burning indignation of that “early morning” worker, can’t we? Even though we weren’t in on any of the negotiations with the other groups of worker (if there even were any), we don’t like the way this sits. In our society, it’s work more = paid more.
      • Don’t normally do this, but I’m going to read a fairly large chunk of one of my commentaries[6] for you this morning because I just feel like it addresses this whole messy business of fairness so well → commentary written by Patrick J. Willson, HR PC(USA) minister currently living in New Mexico *FOR COPYRIGHT PURPOSES, I UNFORTUNATELY CANNOT INCLUDE THIS IN MY BLOG POST*
        • This brings in an interesting element of the idea of fairness: I … me … mine. Very often, when we’re concerned about fairness, we’re concerned about what’s fair for us. It’s a very self-focused issue. When we perceive something as “not fair for me,” it’s insulting. It’s embarrassing. And if in that perception we decide that it’s not fair for us because someone else got it first … got it better … got it more … then we’re even more incensed.
    • But let me ask you this:
      • Is it fair that in our society – in our wider community of Rochester, even! – that a single-parent household can work three jobs and still not make enough money to afford decent housing?
      • Is it fair that in our society, a new mother is too often forced to choose between going back to work before her body is even healed or getting paid so she can feed her family?
      • Is it fair that so many of our older adults on fixed incomes have to choose which one thing they’re going to be able to afford this month: their housing, their food, or their necessary medication?
      • Is it fair that until very recently, something as essential as insulin was marked up more than 600% from manufacturer’s costs to consumer’s costs?
      • Truly, friends, we have a problem with “what’s fair.” I’ve been working for Paid Family Medical Leave within the PC(USA) for a number of years now, both on the presbytery level and the wider denominational level. I was blessed by this congregation in that, when I needed that leave when my kids were born, no one batted an eye. Y’all said, “Yes. Of course you need time.” But I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from colleagues who have been told other things.
        • “You haven’t earned that kind of leave yet.”
        • “Why would you need so much time?”
        • And from male colleagues, both currently serving AND honorably retired: “Well, my wife never needed leave like that.” 
    • And yet even though we can feel the burn of indignation that those “early morning” workers felt, listen again to the words of the landowner – text: [The landowner] replied …, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”[7]
      • Especially pointed when we realize that this parable comes on the heels of a very particular moment in Mt’s gospel
        • Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler who asks how to obtain eternal life à Jesus’ response: “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”[8] → Rich young ruler “went away saddened, because he had many possessions”[9]
        • In the wake of that encounter, we hear Simon Peter speak up: “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you. What will we have?”[10] → Surely, Peter is thinking that it’s only fair for he and the disciples to receive the best that eternity has to offer them – the best place at the heavenly table, the best honors, and so on. And indeed, Jesus assures Peter that there will be good things waiting for those who follow Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven … but there will be good things for others as well. And then he tells this parable.
    • Continue with Patrick Willson’s commentary[11] *AGAIN, I CAN’T INCLUDE THIS ENTIRE TEXT FOR COPYRIGHT PURPOSES, BUT I WILL INCLUDE  SMALL PORTION OF IT*: If we wait and watch long enough, we come to see that the only way we come to know the goodness of God, the only way we can see the goodness of God, is as it is given to others. We can see the goodness of God more clearly in the lives of others, quite simply because they are other than us. The back of the line offers perspective. … Thus when we see God’s goodness to others – to people we love, to friends, to colleagues, but most especially to those people we do not think deserve such generosity – then we can see the goodness of God for the wondrous miracle that it is. → Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Lisa Mantchev. Strictly No Elephants. (New York: Simon & Schuster), 2015.

[2] Mt 20:1.

[3] Mt 20:2.

[4] Mt 20:4 (emphasis added).

[5] Mt 20:8-12.

[6] Patrick J. Willson. “Matthew 20:1-16 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 123, 125.

[7] Mt 20:13-16.

[8] Mt 19:21.

[9] Mt 19:22.

[10] Mt 19:27.

[11] Willson, 125, 127.

One response to “Sunday’s sermon: Willing to ACCEPT

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Willing to RESPOND | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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