Sermon: Justice and Mercy

Sermon for Williamstown
24th of September, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16

As you may know, I am an aunt. One of the many things that being an aunt has taught me is the importance of fairness to children, and how early that importance develops. One of the most common expressions of small children, I don’t think that this is true just of those I know, is: ‘It’s not fair!’ They have a very strong sense of when something is fair, and no qualms about complaining when something isn’t.

This emphasis on fairness doesn’t diminish as we get older. The sense that the world should be fair and that there’s something wrong if it’s not, is part of human life. I don’t believe that that’s a bad thing. Most of human rights law and equal opportunity law is based on the idea of fairness; the belief that it’s unfair for people to be treated differently on the basis of their race or gender or religion or sexuality. Contracts are based on the concept of fair dealing between people; the expectation that people shouldn’t take advantage of each other. The entire notion of Fair Trade is based on the idea that people should get fair payment for their work, rather than be exploited by those with power. These are all good things. And yet this understanding of fairness, our belief that fairness is always good, is challenged by today’s story.

In today’s Bible reading Jesus tells of a landowner who went out to hire workers. He first went out to hire at the break of day and ‘after agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them out into his vineyard’. The landowner returned to the marketplace four more times as the day wore on: at nine, at noon, at three and finally at five – just an hour before the end of the working day. When the day ended, the landowner lined up the workers, and began with the last to be hired, who received for their hour of work one day’s pay. The first ones hired also received a full day’s wage – just as they had bargained for and just as they had been promised. But, not surprisingly, the first workers were upset. Surely it wasn’t fair that the last-comers should be paid the same amount as the first-comers, who had ‘borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’. If the landowner in this parable represents God, is Jesus saying that God is unfair?

With whom do we identify in this story? If the landowner is God, and we are the workers, when were we hired? If we find ourselves identifying with those hired first, the workers who ‘have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’, that is probably as Jesus and Matthew intended. We might think of all the times we arrived early and stayed late, all the committees we have served on, all the washing up we have done, all the work we have undertaken, and say, ‘It’s not fair!’ In the same way, Matthew’s community, full of Jews who had kept the Torah and lived virtuous lives, might look at the Gentile Christians who were suddenly full members of their community and say, ‘It’s not fair’. At the very beginning, when Jesus first told this story, the religiously observant, the scribes and Pharisees, might look at the sinners and tax-collectors who gathered around Jesus and were welcomed to the kingdom of heaven and say, ‘It’s not fair’. Maybe we’re right. Maybe the landowner isn’t playing fair. Or maybe what we see here is the absolute balance between God’s justice and God’s mercy.

The point is not that the landowner likes some workers more than others. The point is that he wants to give the first and the last the same. He is giving to everyone according to their needs, not on the basis of their merit. This is what the landowner explains to the worker who complains. ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?*’ This is God’s justice; offering to the first-hired the daily wage that they need. But the story is also about God’s mercy; he gives the last hired the same daily wage, what they need to live.

The parable shows us that the kingdom of God is a world that is different from ours. It is characterized by its owner’s generosity and mercy, which parallels that of a father who waits for his lost son, and a king who invites guests from the streets for the wedding banquet. The landowner claims the right to pay his workers on the basis of his own compassion; God’s love is offered to all.

In Jesus we see that God is not working with a rights and rewards scale and making exceptions, but simply loving humanity. It’s love, not rights, that is at the heart of God’s being. If we persist in thinking of God in terms of God’s rights, or our relationship with God in terms of what we’ve earned, we miss the point of the gospel. God’s love is offered to all with absolute generosity.  And, anyway, can we be sure that we are the first-hired? Possibly from God’s perspective we’ve all shown up at 5:00 P.M.? Are we confident that God giving us what we deserve would be a good thing? (I’ve got to say I’m not!)

When our only measure is fairness, when our preoccupation is our just deserts, we lose touch with grace and graciousness. We forget the God who has extended generosity and forgiveness to us. Through this parable, Jesus invites those who were called first to understand the new world into which they have been welcomed, and to join him in welcoming the last ones – the latecomers, the unimportant – instead of comparing and complaining. This is the role of the church, to share the welcome, the blessing, the forgiveness that we have been given with the world – even when, perhaps especially when, we feel that the world doesn’t deserve it.

And even if we do compare and complain, we are not rejected. The first-comer who argued with the landowner is still called ‘Friend’. In that small exchange we see the relationship between the two transformed from that between landowner and day-labourer, to that between friends. Luckily for us, God is not just the righteous judge, the one who gives us what we deserve. God is, much more, the compassionate friend, the one who offers us love. So, do we really want fairness when we’re blessed with God’s generosity? This story tells us that God is not primarily fair. God is primarily compassionate. For most of us, that can only be a relief! Amen.

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