Matthew 20: 1-16
by Rev. Todd Weir
Life is so unfair! It starts the day we are born. One baby is born a girl in Lahore, Pakistan and another a boy in Palo Alto, CA. You already have in mind a picture of their destiny. Life gets more unfair as soon as your next sibling is born. We are hard wired to make sure the cookie gets divided down the middle. Some people are born short, you might think I was born to be tall, however I wanted to be 6’8” and play in the NBA, so I feel too short. Some people are born ahead of their time in a world not ready for their ideas, and far to many die far to young when they still had so much to give. A lifelong smoker can hack away till they are 95 while people in perfectly good health with great habits die of cancer in the prime of life. Some people complain about teacher’s salaries while the world’s billionaires make that much money every minute of every day! And guess who pays a higher percentage in taxes! Have I convinced you yet that life is unfair?
One of our biggest theological conundrums is trying to understand how God can be called just when life is so obviously unfair. God clearly has a different view of justice than we do, just read randomly through the Gospels. Who do you identify with first in today’s Gospel Lesson? Are you thinking, “It is so nice that even those who worked just a little still got a day’s wage? Life should be more like that.” Or do you want to yell at this Vineyard owner for being ridiculously unfair? Who ever heard of such a thing, paying everyone the same no matter how much they worked? Don’t you know Communism failed? Russia is capitalist now, and their leader, Vladimir Putin, is the wealthiest man in the world. So there! So my point is….I’m not sure what…I just know this is not fair.
Are you envious because I am generous?” says the vineyard owner. “Of course I am.” Why? Because everyone did not get what they deserve. That is the unspoken belief underlying our sense of justice. Justice is getting what you deserve. You work hard and it pays off. If you are slacker, there are consequences. But what do you deserve? How would you know, who decides? Would you really want to get what you deserve in all circumstances, even when you really blew it? It sounds great to get what you deserve, until I am the one who made a bad choice, said the wrong thing, fell short. Then I want a break. How fair do I really want life to be?
Jesus seldom appeals to our sense of fairness. In reality he challenges are self-serving ideas about fairness and instead models the moral world by a generous spirit, a forgiving heart, and a reconciling love. Hear the vineyard owner’s question again: “Are you envious because I am generous?” The older brother of the Prodigal Son was. He was upset because he was the deserving one. Those who wanted to stone to death a woman caught in adultery were stopped in the tracks when asked, “Those without sin may cast the first stone.” Jesus is the generous bringer of a new Kingdom, and new Commonwealth where a generous spirit reigns, where all people matter.
God’s generosity does not begin with Jesus. It was there even in the wilderness with freed slaves marching to a new world. They were hungry and tired and wondered if they starve or die of thirst. But Moses had lived in that wilderness for years. He knew strong winds off the Mediterranean blew flocks of quail down to the Sinai to rest, and it was easy to catch them by hand. He had gone out many mornings and harvested the sweet, sticky residue of the Tamarisk plant as the sun dried it, and balled it up in his finger and popped it into his mouth. He showed it to his fellow travelers and they called it “Manna” which is Hebrew for “What is this stuff?” And then he preached to them and said, “Here is the word of God: you shall have bread by morning, and you shall have meat by evening, and God will provide for you even here in the wilderness.”
And he turned manna into an object lesson, a metaphor for our faith in God. “You can only gather enough of it for one day, for it spoils the next. But don’t worry, because God is generous and will provide for you the next.” We struggle to really believe there will be enough for us. We hoard, try to store it all up, but it is all for not. We must continuously be replenished.
This is how the economy of God works. (And by economy I don’t mean just finance, but that too. Greek for economy is “oikos” which means “the household.” God’s household is a place of generosity, with enough food for all members, overflowing love for all, forgiveness to heal the heart, justice to order activities, and peace when we work within this generous spirit of this household. Hunger, injustice and evil all result when we break the flow of God’s generosity. “Earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.” said Mahatma Gandhi.
That is why people are marching in New York today to draw attention to global climate change. Protecting the planet and living in harmony with it is not bad for the economy, for the earth is the source of the economy. The wind and the sun, the tides and waterfalls, and geothermal energy from the earth can provide an abundance of energy if that is our goal. There is only one reason to relentlessly pull oil, gas and coal from the ground and pour carbon into our atmosphere, foul our air and water. Greed. There is enough for our need, but not for our greed.
I started this sermon noting that life is not fair. It never will be. But I don’t need everything to be fair. I trust that God is generous. I know there is enough love to go around. I have hope that humanity can overcome our urgent challenge to secure our future as the climate changes. I have faith that our actions make a difference, because God hears our prayers and gives us strength and courage. I have confidence that God is still speaking, and that we are still listening!