Sermon: Pentecost 15, 24 September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 24th September 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

GRACE, NOT JUSTICE

 (Exodus 16:2-15; Ps 105:1-6,37-45; Philippians 1; Matthew 20:1-16)

“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Words of Jesus that remind us that God’s ways are not necessarily our ways, God’s priorities are not always what we would expect. They sum up this strange story that Jesus told in our Gospel reading from Matthew 20.

At the end of the previous chapter, Peter had heard Jesus point out that rich people will find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven. Wealth so often gets in the way of our response to God. In response to this, Peter reminded Jesus that he and the other disciples had left everything to follow the master. What would they get in return? Surely they would get a big reward!

And here we have this parable which I suspect a union leader wouldn’t know what to do with. A landowner hires workers for the harvest: as the day goes on, he realizes he needs more workers, and he keeps going back to the local marketplace, which is the local employment office. Even at 5pm, with only an hour to go before sunset, he goes back and finds some more workers. If they have been there all day, they can’t look very impressive to those who are looking for workers. And if they have been there all day, they are now expecting to go short for the next 24 hours.

But they are hired. And like the other workers hired later in the day, they will have to take whatever the boss gives them: at least it will be better than nothing!

The landowner and the first workers have agreed on a denarius for the day’s work: it is the standard amount for a labourer. Not regarded as a great wage, but seen as a fair wage: enough to pay the bills and keep food on the table, but not much more. If you earned a denarius a day you were OK: if you didn’t get a denarius, you would go short.

The end of the day comes, and it is time to distribute the pay. To everyone’s surprise, those who started at 5pm get paid first, and they get a full denarius for their one hour’s work. So do those who started at 3 and at 12 noon, and those who started mid-morning. They all go home delighted, not to mention relieved: they’re not going short, even though they weren’t able to get a full day’s work.

Finally the landowner gets to those who spent the whole day in the vineyard. It’s been a hot day and the work has been hard. If the others got a full denarius, what will they get for doing so much more? What they get is a denarius, the same as everyone else.

Surely they deserve more than those slackers! And so they complain about this injustice. The landowner reminds them that in fact he has done them no wrong: he has paid them exactly what they agreed. And it was a fair wage. The reason they are complaining is not that they went short: it is that the landowner chose to show generosity to others. He had the right to do that, as long as he did the right thing by them. The issue wasn’t injustice: it was actually envy. And you can’t really argue with that observation. But somehow, it doesn’t quite feel right, does it?

I am reminded of how Sarah and I sometimes handled things with our children. We had a nice piece of cake which we were happy to give to a couple of our children who happened to be around. It was a bonus which they weren’t expecting. But we all know what happens when there are two pieces of cake, but they are not the same size. “It’s not fair. She got the bigger piece!” Why complain? Both children were getting something good and unexpected. But that is what people are like. It’s not just that we don’t want to go short: we don’t want to be behind! When the girls were old enough, we would ask one to cut the cake, and the other could choose the piece she wanted. It ensured that great care was taken in cutting the cake as evenly as possible.

The great news in Jesus’ parable is that everyone got what they needed: no one went short. And that is the real point Jesus is making.

Jesus was trying to help Peter and the disciples – and us – understand that we don’t relate to God on the basis of strict justice as we see it. We can never put God in our debt.

Let’s face it: which of us can say that we are like those who worked hard for the Lord from dawn to the end of the day? Which of us could say that before God we had a 100% rating? Of course we don’t. We all fall short.

Some may have served God for a longer period of our life than others. Some may have worked harder. Some may have broken fewer commandments. But none of us can say that we have been perfect servants of God throughout our lives. If we’re honest, none of us get close.

So what’s the point of trying to work out which of us is more deserving of God’s rewards? It would be like using NAPLAN to put schools in some sort of competition with each other, instead of getting teachers to use it to find out how individual children are going, and where they need extra help! It misses the point! And there is no point in making comparisons with each other to decide who is more worthy of God’s love.

We all need God’s forgiveness. We all need God’s grace, just like those workers needed the landowner to be generous if they were to have adequate food on the table that night. And through Jesus and his death on the cross, that grace, that forgiveness comes to us.

There is a temptation to think that if God treats us justly, everything will be OK. But what we need from God is not justice, but grace. And grace is what he gives us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And faith is the way we respond to God’s grace. We don’t deserve God’s grace. We don’t have to earn a place in God’s kingdom. It is his gift, to be received with a thankful heart. In faith, we open up to God’s love. In faith, we become his children.

And it is in in faith that we seek to live as God’s children, God’s friends. In my relationship with Sarah, I seek in love to live as a good husband to her. In faith, I seek to live as a follower of Jesus. I don’t have to earn some sort of points to keep that relationship: I’m not on trial. As a Christian, I simply seek to live the life of a follower of Jesus: imperfectly for sure, sometimes very imperfectly, but thankful that when I fall short, he still loves me. It’s still about grace.

God’s ways are not our ways. Often our perspective is very inadequate. God will never treat us less than justly. The great news is that he offers us not just justice, but grace: forgiveness, acceptance, welcome, and the gift of eternal life. Let us then live lives of thankfulness, knowing that God’s grace reaches out to us all through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Paul Weaver