It’s Not Fair
Matthew 19:16-30. Matthew 20:1-16.
A couple of weeks ago we looked at how we should react when someone was a pain in the neck.
Last week we saw the practicalities of that when Peter asked the question, ‘If someone hurts me again and again and again, how do I react to that?’
Today we look at the elephant in the room. The question we are often scared to ask.
What if it is God who is being the pain in the neck?
What about when God seems to ask us again and again to do stuff and others seem to get off with doing nothing?
Over the years I have seen something that is one of the most unpleasant things to observe...people who have worked hard for the church, for their faith, and they haven’t become more loving or compassionate, or joyous. In fact the opposite, they have become harder, more resentful, less generous, more angry.
I can remember an elder in a previous church who secretly kept a record of all the times he and the other elders came to church...not just church on a Sunday, but church during the week. Then at session meetings he would stand up and blame all the problems of the church on the other elders and how they didn't attend the prayer group, or help out with the guild or attend the Bible study group.
He would then go on about how much he had been to church and felt that the others were shirking, giving up on the church, and their indifference was destroying the church. If they couldn't be bothered with their faith then why should non-Christians be bothered with their faith. In his eyes they were a terrible example.
He just got more and more angry.
Eventually he had a mental breakdown.
Because when he couldn't maintain all the work he was doing that anger turned inward. How was God going to treat him when he had failed just as much as the other elders?
Even ministers. I have seen retired ministers, or nearly retired ministers, and they are so angry at younger ministers because the church is going down the tubes. This is the church they have given their life for and these younger ministers are only interested in the pension scheme and doing as little as they can. These older ministers feel they sacrificed for the church, that their marriages and their family suffered but these younger ministers put family before church, they don’t seem to visit their congregations and they always take days off.
Instead of supporting and encouraging and mentoring the younger ministers these older ministers spend time attacking them.
I want to suggest that maybe one of the reasons that people of great faith can get like that is because of the one person they want to blame but feel they can’t...is God.
They have become so angry because of how they feel they have been treated by God. They have given so much for God, and what is their reward?
That is what today's passages are about.
And it starts off with a man who has done everything right.
This is a really nice guy.
He has treated his mum and dad right. He has treated everyone nice. He is the kind of guy that if you had a daughter and she brought him home that you would instantly agree that he was a good catch.
And this guy comes to Jesus and says, ‘Look I am a really nice guy. I think you are a nice guy Jesus, and this eternity of niceness that you talk about, I could agree to that. So what do I need to do?’
And Jesus says, ‘Well follow the laws of Moses. Don’t treat others badly, don't murder them, don’t wreck other peoples marriages, don’t lie to them or steal from them. Respect the elderly, especially your parents. Treat others the way you would want others to treat you.’
And you know what’s interesting about that statement?
There is nothing about God?
Nothing about going to church, or the Temple, nothing about doing anything religious. Personally I would put church attendance right at the top of the list.
And that catches the man unawares.
Because he has already done all that stuff, but he knows he doesn't feel the assurance that his eternity is OK.
So he asks, ‘What more do I need to do?’
And Jesus says, ‘The trouble is that you can protect yourself from the hardships of life. You give your ten percent as you should but you don't have compassion in your heart. Give up everything you have and live the way that the poor need to, then you will understand what they truly need, follow me and then you will see them the way God sees them.’
And the man runs.
Peter is horrified by what Jesus has done.
Because this rich young man has given a lot, and it isn't enough. Though in Jesus eyes it is a perspective thing. Remember Neymar, the footballer who got transferred for £222 million pounds. Well imagine that he is a member of this church and in his offerings he gave £200 a week. That might be a lot to us, but to him it would be spare change.
Peter saw all the rich man was giving and thought that was huge.
Peter couldn't give the way that man had, in fact Peter feels that he has given everything and he hasn't got anything else to give, so what chance does he have of getting into heaven?
And there’s the true problem.
The problem that we feel we need to earn our way into heaven.
And the way that we judge how we are doing that is by comparing ourselves with others.
Are we better than our neighbour? If we are better than our neighbour then we have a better chance of being in God's good books.
We learn to do this from a very young age, especially if we have brothers and sisters. Because we all know that we want to please our parents. We see how excited they get when we do things...like taking those first steps, like say those first words, like the first time we have a dry nappy. And it is amazing how much we compare even at that age.
‘My daughter said her first words at 9 months, I believe your son didn’t say his first words till he was a year old.’ Who cares?
We all fall for this. Not only do we want to know how our child did in the test, we want to know how they did compared with all the other classmates.
So if our child failed a maths test that is bad, but if we hear that everyone else failed
then that’s OK, that’s because they have a bad teacher. And we pick up on that as children.
My kids were terrible at spelling, but so was I, poor Iona spent hours and hours doing something that she hated. Because other children were going up in their spelling levels, and she wasn’t. Then she gets to university and they discover that she’s dyslexic. So she never had a chance to start off with.
So we compare ourselves with others, we do it without thinking. And we even do it with our relationship with God.
We deep down believe that if we are to get into a good relationship with God, then we need to do better than other people.
And Jesus then tries to show us differently.
That we have everything the wrong way round.
That God loves us, just because God loves us.
God’s love is a gift to be accepted, not a reward to be earned.
As I have said before, God does not love us because we are special, we become special because we are loved.
And we even do it in the parable that Jesus uses to explain that we get it the wrong way round.
There is an owner of a vineyard, and it is harvest. The grapes need to be picked and there is limited time to do it. So he goes out to the market place where the labourers wait every morning to see if someone will employ them.
He chooses some men and agrees to a days wage for a days work.
By lunchtime it is obvious that he needs more workers. So out he goes to the market place and gets more. Then does the same a few other times.
At the end of the day all the men are ready to receive their wages and they all get the same amount.
Those that have worked 13 hours get a days wage, those who have worked 1 hour get the same wage.
Does that seem fair to you? Seriously, does that seem fair to you?
No. That’s because you are looking at it from your point of view.
You feel that those that work more should get more. Because we compare ourselves with others.
But this parable isn't about us.
Jesus didn’t need to tell a parable to explain how we feel about things, we know how we feel about things.
This parable is Jesus trying to explain to us how God feels about things.
The parable doesn’t start, ‘This is the way of the world...’ the parable starts, ‘The Kingdom of God is like...’
So we should read this parable seeking what it tells us about God.
So how does God feel in this situation?
Well the priority for the owner is that everyone that can get a chance to work, no matter how long they work.
The priority of God is not that people get rewarded for good behaviour, that there is a hierarchy of goodness. The priority for God is that everyone has a chance to feel his compassion and love and care. No matter for how long that is.
I’m going to push the parable a bit here.
Because you may think to yourself, ‘What’s the point of having faith? I could just be as selfish and evil as I want till my dying breath and then just give God the last three seconds and I will still be fine.’
Personally I don't think it works that way, but even if it did here’s the rub.
I have seen this situation. When I was in India men still went to the market place and were picked up by the farmers on their buses. Those that got on the bus had a days wage, those that didn’t never got anything.
The truth is that what the workers, that are first employed, get is the assurance from the start of the day that everything will be OK. They will have money for bread on the table. They will have money for paying the bills. They will have money to make sure that their family is OK. And they get that at the start of the day.
The rest are at the market place worried that their children will have nothing to eat that day, that they may get home and the landlord has started to evicted them.
As the day goes on they live with that worry, until the moment the owner of the vineyard comes along and employs them.
So those that get employed at the end of the day haven’t gotten off scot free, they have had to live with worry and helplessness and concern all day.
Look at all this Brexit worry. All it is, is worrying about how we will be compared to what we had before. Will we be less well off, more well off? Will we be better off than others that stay in the single market or worse off?
And the truth is it isn't that important. If you know in the end that everything will be all right, then why worry. And whether our life will be alright isn’t dependant on the Brexit negotiations.
What God offers is assurance, and it doesn't matter when we get it. If we try to do as little as we can to get it then we are thinking on it all wrong.
Bill Beatie came up with a ‘What’s next?’ for this parable that illustrates what I mean...
Imagine it is the next day...
So the labourers said to each other, ‘Right, now this is what we will do. Tomorrow morning we will get up late, go round the pub, spending most of what we had earned the day before. And just before sunset we will go to the market-place and wait for the owner to come along. Then we will work for that last hour and get a full days wages.’
So that is what they did. And at the fifth hour they stood in the market place and waited, and waited. But no one came. They had to go home with empty pockets, hungry and grumbling even more than they had the day before.
Now, what do you suppose these men will do on the third day?
The truth is, this parable is about the heart of God.
This parable is about the longing of God to help as many people as possible. He returns again and again to the market place to give the workers what they need.
This parable is about the generosity of God.
And when we can truly see what God is given us and the heart of why he has given so generously to us, then we too can be inspired by that heart.
It’s not about being fair. If God was fair then none of us would be good enough.
It’s about God not caring about the right thing to do, but God caring about the loving thing to do.
We don't need to compare ourselves with others.
We don’t need to judge the success or failure of our life by how we match up with others.
We are loved. We are cared for. That’s all that matters.