September 21, 2014 - Matthew 20.1-16

“Waiting in Line”

Matthew 20.1-16

September 21, 2014

 

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

 

I am terrible at math. I always have been. I guess it is no small sign of grace that I did not end up in a career that needed any more math than simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  I was fine in math at first, that is, until the “new math” showed up in junior high.  Algebra. 

My ninth grade algebra teacher was Mrs. Gray.   Mrs. Gray was a very experienced teacher.  Apparently, she had been there when they invented algebra.  I was not getting it and tried to talk to her about my difficulty and she told me, “just be patient, you will get it eventually.  I can teach algebra to a monkey.”

I then asked her if she could do that and get the monkey to teach me, since I wasn’t getting it from her, then that would be just great.

My career in mathematics from that point on was mediocre at best. And that was that. I hate math.  There is math I can make sense of and then there is math that I can’t, like physics and probability mechanics, number theory and chaos theory.   And then there is Jesus math.  Let me explain.

In the gospels, there is a sort of mathematics, but it is a very special math. It appears that when Jesus entered the world, he brought us a very different mode of reckoning. He turned the world's mathematics – its way of adding things up - onto its head.

Here I am thinking of that shepherd that Jesus extolled, the one who risked leaving 99 sheep "in the wilderness" in order to look for that one lost sheep. What kind of mathematics is that? You leave 99 sheep alone, vulnerable in the wilderness. When you get back, if you are successful at finding that one lost sheep, you're going to return to far fewer sheep!

I am thinking of that woman who took nearly a quart of fine perfume, costing over a year's salary, and poured it on Jesus' feet. On his feet! Have you bought perfume lately? If you have, you know how tiny the bottles are. Each only holds a couple of ounces, and yet they cost a fortune. Can you imagine how many of those little bottles it would take to fill a jar to fondle feet?

This woman wastefully pours that perfume all over Jesus, and Jesus praises her. What kind of mathematics is that?

Jesus watched the rich making such a big show of dropping their bags of money into the temple treasury. A bag of money is a lot of money. But when Jesus saw a poor widow come in and drop one single little penny into the temple offering, Jesus claimed that she had given more than all the others put together. Get out your adding machines and figure that one out.   It makes no sense to this world.

And then in today’s gospel text we read, there was a farmer who hired people to go to work in his vineyard. Some arrived at work just as day was dawning, others came mid-morning, others at mid-day, some in the afternoon, and some slackers showed up just one hour before quitting time. At the end of the day, this eccentric farmer called everybody together, paying the last that got there first, and paying everybody the same wage. There was grumbling. Is this any way to run a farm? How do you figure that one hour's work is worth one denarius and 12 hours of work is worth one denarius? This man clearly doesn’t understand money.  Isn’t there some sort of hourly wage?

You will note there is a common theme that runs through all of these Matthean parables.  In our mathematics, one plus one equals two always one plus one equals two, only two. But here in this math, one may be equal in value to 99, depending on who's doing the counting. And one little coin is said to be worth more than a big bag of money, depending on who's keeping the books.  Also, for some reason, math and money always seem to go hand in hand in the gospel. 

When Jesus tells us the story about the farmer who hires servants to work in his vineyard, I suppose most of us immediately identify with the servants who worked at the vineyard all day. No wonder they grumbled, we think to ourselves, they worked all day and got the same wage as those who worked only one hour. And it is understandable that we should identify with those who worked all day. After all, here we are "in the vineyard" so to speak. We are those who have been here in church all our lives, or certainly most of our lives, or a really long time. To be told that somebody shows up in the vineyard just one hour before the end gets the same as those who have labored here all day, well, no wonder there was grumbling!

There is a common theme running through these parables, and it is grace. What Jesus wants to do for us is not a matter of shrewd calculation on our part, but rather it is a matter of his extravagant graciousness.

Most of us are unaccustomed to such math. We think to ourselves, "As far as God is concerned, if I do this, then I will get that."

But what if our relationship with God is not a matter of what we do, or the way we figure it, but a matter of what God does and the way God figures it?

Peter came to Jesus wondering how often he should forgive someone who had wronged him. Seven times? Those numbers seem reasonable, even more than reasonable. It is hard enough to forgive someone one time, much less seven times. You remember what Jesus told him?

You forgive someone not seven times, but seventy times seven times. That's got to be a huge number, whatever it is.

It does seem that, built right into the heart of the gospel is a kind of effusiveness, a sort of extravagance, which refuses to be calculated. And as Jesus said on one occasion, God makes his sun to shine on the good and the bad and his rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

We say we want to live in a world where if we do this we will get that. One plus one equals two.  At a British Conference on comparative Religions – C.S. Lewis was asked the question, what is the most significant thing about Christianity?  Incarnation?  Resurrection?  Divine Action?  No.  Lewis responded with “That’s easy.  Grace.” 

Every other religion claims to have a way to earn your way to eternal life/nirvana/etc.  The Hindus have karma, the Buddhists have the 8 fold path, the Muslims have their laws, and the Jews have their covenant.  Only Christianity dares to proclaim that God’s love is unconditional.  Only Christianity has the word grace.  Grace just doesn’t add up.

The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims inaugurates a topsy-turvy way of looking at the world. Those people that the world considers large and significant are sometimes considered insignificant by Jesus. What impresses the world does not impress Jesus. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. In the gracious mathematics of the kingdom of God, conventional values are flipped on their heads.

Grace is not just amazing; it is alarming.  It is alarming because it is not fair.  It really gets alarming when we realize that God is not fairBefore you go and get mad, think about it.  Do you really want to get what you deserve?  Really?  We need to realize that if God were just fair, we’d all end up in hell.  That would be fair.  We are ALL sinners and CAN’T deserve to be with God in eternity.  That’s why he sent Jesus.  But God loves us too much.  God loves us enough to forgo fairness for grace.  Grace does not depend on what we have done for God, but what God has done for us.

I think that our problem with grace, and with this parable, lies in our misunderstanding of it.  Like every sermon I have ever heard on this text, I seem to always read this parable from the same standpoint.  I am one of the guys at the end of the line, getting mad at the freeloaders, because have been at church my whole life and I ought to get more than them.  Imagine that we are in a line, and we are looking up at the end with the people who did the least and everyone is getting paid, starting with them.  Then our hackles get all raised up, and we see they get paid the same as us.  NOT FAIR! No, it’s not.  (Thank God) 

I see this as a rebuke to my pride telling me that I should not begrudge the grace of God to others.  But his is again, a misunderstanding of God’s grace.  Besides, think for a minute.  Exactly where is it that I think I am standing in this line?  Which end of the line am I actually closer to?  I am spending all my time looking this way, when I need to turn and look at all those who have done more than me. Do we really belong at the end of the line with the ones that sowed up at dawn and did all the hard work?  Even if were just this church, I wouldn’t be at the end of the line, I would more toward the front.  Have I done 1/100th the work that Hilda Schlittenhart did? Or John and Berna Miller?  Or Tom and Lou Sherrill? Are you, or am I, going to be standing next to Lottie Moon?  Mother Teresa?  Annie Armstrong?  Roy Honeycutt?  Keith Parks?  Martin Luther King?  Martin Luther?  Charles Spurgeon?  William Carey?  Adoniram Judson?  John Smyth?  Thomas Helwys?  Roger Williams?  Billy Graham?  Augustine?  Peter?  Paul?  James?  John?  Just exactly where do we think we are in this line?

And yet if we could hear this parable from the standpoint of those workers who came late the person because of a disability, lack of training, or education, who was passed over all day long and only got hired at the end of the day and receives the same wage as those of us who had been there the whole day, there would be rejoicing.

Once we understand that we are a lot closer to the front of the line than the back, we begin to realize just how great a gift grace is.  God will look at us, and look at the grapes in our basket.  “Got here kind of late, didn’t you?”  But this week is grace – its payday.  And folks, we are getting so much more than we deserve.  We forget that our pay – the grace of God, our salvation, our eternal abundant life.  Everyone who says “YES” to God gets the same thing – love and grace that we have not earned. 

So here we are, with our measly basket of grapes.  How should we respond to the awesome grace of God?

John Newton was a slave trader.  He had a ship and made his living bringing slaves from Africa to England.  Once on a trip, he was reading Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ and was convicted of his sin in taking part in the slave trade.  When realized the grace God had showed him, he turned his ship around and took his cargo (of people) back to Africa.  Later he wrote the words to a famous hymn.  Earlier in the service we sang the song Amazing Grace.  John Newton wrote that hymn about his conversion experience. 

It is never too late to turn your ship around and show up for work in the fields of the Lord.

In the end, there is judgment, accounting for what we have done and left undone in our lives. How will God look upon us and the fruits of our lives? Jesus is the full revelation of who God really is. Jesus reveals a God who, at the end, is gracious and forgiving. In the end we shall be judged, not by the opinions of others, or even by our own assessment of ourselves, but by a loving and gracious God.

The great Scottish theologian James Torrance tells the story of how, during the Great War, a soldier who was terribly wounded was being held in the arms of a chaplain. The wounded man, in his last moments of life, looked up at the chaplain and asked, “What is God really like? I know Jesus, but is there another God hiding behind Jesus? What sort of God am I going to meet?”
     The chaplain reassured him, “No, son. There is no God hiding behind Jesus. Jesus is the whole truth about God. Jesus is who God really is. God is love.”

 

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