Life is not fair (A Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16)


“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for one denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing in the marketplace without work. He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard, too, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So off they went. He went out again about noon and about three o’clock and did the same thing. About five o’clock he went out and found some others standing around. He said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day long without work?’ They told him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard as well.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ Those who were hired at five o’clock came, and each received a denarius. When the first came, they thought they would receive more, but each received a denarius as well. When they received it, they began to complain to the landowner, saying, ‘These last fellows worked only one hour, yet you have made them equal to us who have endured the burden of the day and the scorching heat!’ But he said to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m not treating you unfairly. You did agree with me for a denarius, didn’t you? Take what is yours and go. I want to give this last man as much as I gave you. I am allowed to do what I want with my own money, am I not? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ In the same way, the last will be first, and the first will be last. For many are called, but few are chosen.”

“I would like to submit that justice (for self and others) is the point at which we forgive ourselves and hence if we don’t go beyond forgiveness to justice, we have done only half the necessary work.”
This is something someone ‘tweeted’ at me this week on Twitter, in response to my sermon of last week.
Those who know their Twitter might guess that t actually took two ‘tweets’ to get that message through (as it was a bit long). Even so, I’m not exactly sure what the author meant, except that she had some concerns about my sermon on ‘forgiveness’ last week, which, as I’m sure you will remember, was given on the anniversary of 9/11.
I appreciate of course that mentioning ‘forgiveness’ and ‘9/11’ in the same sentence is (for most Americans at least) potentially confrontational, and this person was American. At any rate, I think the point she wanted to make was that, religiously speaking, ‘forgiveness’ is not the only thing we are on about. Justice is important too.

And justice is important too – surely! I personally consider myself a great advocate of justice. I believe in justice and fair play. I believe that a hard day’s work deserves a good day’s pay, and I believe in equal rights for all persons, which means, I think, that everybody should get an equal share of everything, or at least that everybody should have an equal chance to get whatever it is that they deserve (or something like that).

And Jesus told them a parable …
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard…”
“How much do we get for the day’s work?” the guys at the dole office ask. “A hundred bucks” the landowner says, and the boys say, “fair enough”. It’s not a lot for a day’s work but it’s a hundred bucks more than they’re going to get if we don’t do a day’s work so they take what they can get.
We’re in the middle of a major city here in Dulwich Hill and most of us have been born and bred as city-slickers. Even so, there are some here who grew up in the country, and those who have grown up in the country know pretty well that this is how things work come harvest time.
Last time this text came round in the lectionary I had just returned from Griffith, where a lot of our wine is made and hence a lot of grapes grown, and I can tell you that at harvest time Griffith has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.

Outside of harvest time the rate is miserable but during harvest time work might not be hugely lucrative but it is plentiful. A lot of hands are needed to pick those grapes when those grapes finally ripen, and there isn’t a whole lot of time during which you can pick them, so …
Around lunchtime the landowner does another circuit of the town square and pops by the dole office a second time. The quality of labor this time is somewhat reduced. These are the guys who didn’t get up early to make a fresh start on the day. These are guys who had a big night the night before, or who slept in for some other not-very-good reason. Even so, the landowner says, “are you boys looking for work?”, and plenty of them say ‘absolutely’!

But those grapes don’t stop ripening and they certainly don’t pick themselves, and so there’s still plenty of work to be done and plenty of room for more workers…
And so the landowner makes yet another drive back to the dole office and finds a few lay-abouts and addicts, who are standing around looking confused, wondering what happened to all their mates. The landowner says, “you boys want some work for what’s left of the day?” And most of those who are left decide they do!

And there’s been no discussion with these last guys as to how much they are going to get paid for their efforts, but they figure that whatever they get will be more than what they would have got if they hadn’t taken up the offer, so off they go.
And the day ends and the work is finished and everybody gets paid, and the guys who showed up last of all get a very pleasant surprise when they open their pay-packets. After all, these guys were not the crème-de-la-crème of the workforce to begin with, and even if they had put in a full day’s work, some of them were detoxing to begin with, so they were never going to be a great asset to the team. Even so, for only a couple of hours’ work, they’ve been given the biggest pay-packet they’ve had for some time! This landowner is one generous guy!

And the big guy’s generosity does not go unnoticed of course by the boys who have done the bulk of the work and have borne the heat of the day. They can see that the boss is in a generous mood, so they figure that when their turn comes, they too will be getting a nice surprise too. But of course when their turn comes, there is no surprise! They get exactly what their contract said they were going to get. They get only what they agreed to work for. Moreover, they get the same amount as the good-for-nothing lay-abouts who didn’t clock on till after they had well and truly exhausted themselves!

And I think we understand totally the frustration of those who bore the heat of the day! It’s not that they were badly done by, but they weren’t being fairly done by!
I heard a Trade Union leader quoted once, saying that there had never been a strike over low pay, but only over pay differentials. In other words, it’s not that we feel we’re not getting enough in some absolute sense. It’s that we’re not getting as much as the guy next to us! That’s the problem.
And I know that kids hate it when their parents use them in examples in sermons, so the child in the following example will remain nameless, but I am sure that it is the experience of families everywhere that the real dilemma you face every day with your children is not that they don’t get enough lollies or that they’re not given enough time on the computer or that they really have to go to bed just too early but rather that their sister gets a better deal than they do!
When it comes to dividing up a piece of cake, we who have been parents for any length of time know full well the equation: you let one child cut and the other one choose. For what we are really looking for is not more cake but justice!

We want justice. We want what’s fair. We want to get what we deserve. And so the early-morning workers call out to the boss before he drives off in his convertible, “Hey! We worked here all day! Why should these losers get the same as us? It’s not fair!”

And the boss says, “Well excuse me! You got what you agreed to. You said you were happy to work for that amount, so what’s your problem? Why do you begrudge me my generosity? Can’t I do what I like with my own money?” And Jesus says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is a lot like that!”

In the original Greek the landowner is quoted as saying, “why is your eye evil because mine is good”. In other words, ‘What’s it to you if I choose to be nice to somebody else?”

And yes, we can see his point. Everybody has been looked after. Nobody really has a right to complain, but even so … if the Kingdom of God is like that, does that mean that there is no justice in God, or that God’s idea of justice is one that it totally at odds with our own?
There is a very confrontational story, isn’t it? Indeed, it’s rather offensive and even irreligious in the most basic sense, as isn’t it the basic intuition of all religion that in the end we all get what we deserve?

That’s what ‘karma’ is all about, isn’t it? And if you ask any good Hindu they will tell you that karma is ultimately inescapable!
And it’s not only in Hinduism, of course. It’s equally the case with Islam and Judaism and any number of other religious traditions. Good is rewarded and evil is punished, and that’s the way it should be … surely?

What does Jesus mean to compare the Kingdom of God to this landowner? Does He really mean that lazy no-hopers all get the same reward in Heaven as we who sweat away for their whole lives, trying to do the right thing?

Does Jesus really mean to compare God to this rich wine-maker, who obviously has more cash than he knows what to do with but who doesn’t seem to have many clues as to how to handle your money or your staff?
Does this really mean that good, honest, hard-working people like us don’t get rewarded for all our good work, while useless good-for-nothing lay-abouts who spend their days at the pub and who can’t be bothered to get a real job and who take our tax dollars and use it to buy weed for themselves and won’t get themselves a decent haircut … that they get to pick up the same heavenly pay-cheque at the final checkout?
No, no! That’s not how it works!

I remember back in my school days, I learnt the importance of discipline and industry, and I knew that when one of my classmates, lazy Joe, said, “hey Dave, can I see your homework? I had a big night last night!” I could say, “sure”, because I knew that in the end this guy was only hurting himself! He wasn’t really learning. He wasn’t really getting ahead. It wasn’t really doing him any good. And then, when comes the HSC and lazy Joe got the same mark I did …

It’s not fair! It’s not supposed to work that way! I did the work. I deserved the reward! Jesus says, “yeah, well … the Kingdom of God is like that!”

This is an offensive story. And yet the truth is that if religion is about getting what we each deserve, we’re all in trouble. I remember David Sheppard, the once Bishop of Liverpool, pointing out that our traditional Western image of justice is of a woman holding a set of scales in her hands, and she is blindfolded, so that she can show no partiality. Sheppard pointed out that the God of the Bible is never depicted that way – with his eyes blindfolded or closed. On the contrary, His eyes are always open! He sees our need. And He acts, not according to some abstract concept of what is fair, but with a very real sense of the needs of each of those He loves.

Maybe God does have a different concept of justice to us, or maybe it’s just that He considers mercy greater than justice – forgiveness as more important than fair play? I’ll leave you to think through that one for yourself. But I will say that I personally wouldn’t mind working for that landowner. He might be a bit quirky and full of surprises, but he certainly doesn’t mind sharing his wealth around and spreading joy. And I get the feeling that He would be one exciting dude to work for.

You can hear the audio of this sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 by clicking here.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, September 18, 2011.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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1 Response to Life is not fair (A Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16)

  1. Toni Brown says:

    I think that your sermon is really good. It sits well with me as a social worker. Often those who have lost their self esteem and hit rock bottom, need to feel valued more than anything else. The parable reflects for me, this kind of thinking because it does not doesn’t imply that the part time workers are only partly worthy, but that are valued the same as those workers who are in control of their lives, because they have a sense of purpose, which is reflected in being responsible and engaged in full time employment. One would hope that the part time workers would eventually gain enough self worth, to also become valued community members who inturn could offer assistance to others. The parable also made me think of refugees and the sentiment that some have towards them not being entitled to take the risk and come by boat to Australia. Oh but for the grace of God go I!

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