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Equal To Us

Sermon – 9/18/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 20: 1-16

The text this morning from the Gospel of Matthew is a parable.  Parables, you probably know, are much more than stories with a moral at the end, they are hard-hitting stories taken from every day life which Jesus used to illustrate some truth about the way of God in this world.  Many of these stories ran directly counter to the conventional wisdom of the day, in fact, of any day.  They often turn the world as we know it upside down, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

To get the full impact of the parable I am about to read, it will be helpful to understand the context.  Jesus has just told the disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for the rich to enter the realm of God.  That was not the common understanding.  Indeed, wealth then more so than today was seen as an indication of God’s blessing.  If the wealthy are going to have a hard time getting into God’s realm or kingdom, then what hope would there be for everyone else? 

Somewhat worried, Peter says, “Jesus, we have left everything to follow you.  What then, is in store for us?”  Jesus then replies, “You will be greatly rewarded.  Everyone who has left their home, family and friends for my sake will be blessed a hundred times over.”  If you read that text carefully, quietly, attentively—you can almost hear the audible sigh of relief between the lines.  After all, if you work hard, sacrifice much, all for Jesus, well then, you should be rewarded for your labors, right?  If not in this life, then certainly in the next.  It is only fair that the disciples who gave the most to Jesus should be the ones most rewarded in the realm of God.  It is only fair that we who have given so much to the church should receive some kind of reward for our efforts.  It is only fair that those who work the hardest receive the most benefit.  The freeloaders, the cheats, the Johnny-come-lately's, should not expect to get a free ride.  Only fair that every person receive their reward in proportion to their efforts.  If we cannot count on that from God, what can we count on?

Just as the inner circle around Jesus is beginning to feel a little better about everything they have given up for him, he adds this little gem to throw them off balance again.  He says, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  The parable that follows then is meant to expand on this little jewel of very unconventional wisdom.  Listen carefully.

Matthew 20:1-16

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

Now I ask you, does this sound fair to you?  If you want to test it out for its fairness quality, I recommend to you the world’s experts on all matters of fairness:  kindergartners.  I dare you.  Tell a group of kindergartners that if they stay silent for the whole day, they will receive a special treat.  Bring in more at noon and another group at three and tell them same thing.  If you can imagine that this hypothetical group of children were actually quiet, imagine the reaction of the first group who have struggled with the assignment all day long when they learn that the last group who have only participated for the last hour, receives the same treat.  Boy will you be in trouble.  When my kids were that age if I gave them different colored vitamins I was accused of being unfair! 

Disciple master of preaching Fred Craddock recalls teaching a class of high school students when he read this story.  One young lady, offended by its lack of fairness immediately said, “Jesus did not say that.”  Dr. Craddock was a little taken back and said, “Well, yes he did.”  “No he didn’t.”  “”It says here in Matthew that he did.”  “Jesus could not have said that,” she retorted angrily and walked out of the room, never to come back. 

Who can explain something like this?

Like many of the other parables--the Great Banquet where vagabonds off the street take the place of invited guests, the Prodigal Son where the youngest son, who has squandered half of the family wealth is welcomed home with open arms much to the dismay of the older, obedient son-- the parable of the workers in the vineyard changes the rules of what is fair and just.  Jesus tells the disciples that yes, they will get a big reward for all of their sacrifices and then he tells them, “Oh yes, everyone else will get the same thing.”  In the realm of God, whether you’ve been a member your whole life or you have just joined, you are treated the same.  To be truthful, that hardly seems fair.  But as Helmut Thiellicke says, “You will never be able to see the goodness of God with jealous eyes.”  To be honest, God really is not concerned about fairness, God is concerned about what is just and God’s justice is not our justice.  God’s justice is not based on fairness, it is not based of merit, it is not based of effort.  God’s justice is based on the value of every human life as a child of God. 

Do you hear what Jesus is saying to the landowners and employers of his day?  Do you hear what he is saying to the privileged and wealthy?  Do you hear what he is saying to those living on the edge, those unable to get enough work to pay the usual daily wage?  Do you hear what he is saying to us?

In the aftermath of Katrina, we hear the usual squabble over who is the most at fault for the various mistakes made along the way.  Without jumping into that blame game, I want to take note of the one survey that compared the different perceptions between Caucasians and people of color.  Whereas a little over 60% of whites said they did not believe race played a significant factor in the relief efforts, over 80% of people of color said the reverse, that race was a major factor.  To be honest, I think most white folk are in denial on such issues and simply do not realize the significance race still plays in our society simply because we are the benefactors of if.  We don’t see the racism because we do not experience its effects. Even if I am completely wrong we still have a very significant problem just from the differences in perception. 

In the parable, the first workers complain that the owner has made the last workers “equal to us.”  Precisely.  It is only when the last are equal to the first that we will begin to undo the damages of centuries of racism.  Only when the poor are equal to the rich will we begin to solve the problems of poverty and hunger.  Only when Christians are equal to Jews, and Jews equal to Muslims, and Muslims equal to Hindus, will we begin to build a world of peace.

How do we make such a world?

Gogo Shandu is not abnormally poor by South African standards, she represents a nation of people ravaged by the effects of apartheid.  Her home is a simple sod hut with thatched roof and dirt floor.  Her kitchen consists of a cooking pit, a few pots and pans and tin plates.  Do not feel sorry for Gogo, she is a happy woman with a great sense of pride and dignity.

When Sibusiso, her 5 year-old grandson and her pride and joy, came down with a high fever, she took him to the government subsidized hospital.  Two weeks later she and Ana Gobledale, our missionary in the Zuzuland, returned to fetch a much healthier Sibusiso.  Gogo was presented the subsidized bill:  130 rands, or $60, was her small share.  Gogo looked at it with disbelief.  130 rands was the equivalent of 3 to 4 months of food for her and her two grandsons.  Her sole income was the four rands a day Sibusiso’s older brother brought home from the fields.  Like many children of apartheid, the boys parents were absent, working in factories and mines far away.  Gogo did her best to care for the boys, but how would she pay this impossible bill?

Ana asked to see the Superintendent.  An Englishman with rosy cheeks, he reminded her of jolly St. Nick.  Ana prayed for a gift.  She received a lump of coal instead.  “This is only 1/15 of the actual cost,” the pseudo St. Nick told her.  “The patients need to begin to help meet these costs.  They must learn this all doesn’t grow on trees.”  Ana was the school girl, he was the Head Master.  The lesson was underway.  “Some people cry poor, but really can afford the fees.  If there is a case of dire poverty, we can arrange an account for payment.”   Ana wondered where there was not a case of dire poverty in the region. 

Gogo was deserving, and Ana assertive.  An account was opened.  Would it have been, had the American woman not been Gogo’s voice?  The Head Master finished his lecture:  “I don’t really expect her to pay off the account, but ‘they’ [referring to native peoples] must know how much things really cost.”  Ana wanted to ask, do they [referring to white bureaucrats] know what it really costs to sell your pride to a system that degrades your humanity day in and day out?  For Gogo’s sake, she held her peace.  Gogo would pay her account.  She may not have soap for a year, school clothes for the boys or health care for herself, but she would pay her account.  Just as she found ways to turn scrap metal into cooking utensils, she would turn pennies into rands until the account was paid.

13 year-old Tessie Blake was not sick, she was angry.  Normally a good student and very cooperative, her violent behavior in school caught teachers and counselors by surprise.  Interviews with parents provided no clues for the sudden change in behavior.  Drugs seemed the most likely explanation, though Tessie denied it.  After the 3rd suspension when Tessie injured a good friend and damaged school property, the principal reluctantly suspended her for good.  Tessie seemed to calm down at home at first, but after a few weeks, she had a sudden psychotic episode in which her speech became incoherent and her behavior uncontrollable.  A social worker feared she might be homicidal.  In the subsequent psychiatric evaluation, a complete family history was taken. 

Much to the parents’ displeasure, the employment history of Tessie’s father was revealed for the first time.  Unable to find work for two years, he had become what is often called a “discouraged worker”.  He was no longer counted among the unemployed because he no longer sought employment.  Why bother, no one would hire him anyway.  Worse than the loss of income was the loss of self-respect.  It is hard to be someone your children look up to when all you do is mope around the house throw fits when no one else can be found to blame for your condition.  Tessie’s mother often came to his aid.  It’s not Daddy’s fault, she would say, it’s society’s fault, it’s the racism.  But Tessie was told not to talk about it.  Public knowledge of his chronic unemployment might hinder what slim chances Tessie’s father had for finding work.  The family secret was the disease and Tessie’s behavior its sympton.

The psychiatrist asked Tessie about her father’s unemployment.  Tessie became panic-stricken and broke into tears.  Her tears soon gave way to a confusing giggle.  “The secret’s out, the secret’s out” she muttered over and over to everyone and no one.  Tessie’s recovery was much faster than her father’s.  She was soon readmitted into school while her father remained out of work, his shame only compounded now by the awareness that in addition to all the other sins of being good for nothing in the eyes of society, he was also responsible in one way or another for his daughter’s near demise.

Tessie and her father, Gogo and her grandson, literally a world apart and yet only a neighborhood away.  You know them.  You see them on the street with their desperation signs and in the supermarket with their food stamps.  You read about them in the news when their psychotic episodes end in a spray of bullets.  You hear the politicians talk about them when they preach on welfare reform.  And if you look close enough, you will see them in your Bible, right there between the manger of Bethlehem and the cross of Golgotha.  Can you see them?  Out there on the edges of the crowd, straining to hear what good news this Jesus may have for them, the last hired for work, the last in line for food, the last to receive what has trickled down after those above have taken their fill.  

And he looked over the crowd, there, way in the back is an old woman and her young grandson; over there, behind everyone else is a discouraged looking father with his troubled teenage daughter.  And Jesus said, God’s country is like this:  there was a banquet for all the rich folk, but they did not come so the host invited in all the poor and lame; and there were two sons, one who squandered away his father’s wealth while the other worked hard on the farm and when the younger son returned, the father threw a great party; and there was a vineyard owner who paid all his workers a living wage, whether they worked all day or one hour.  And the rich folk grumbled, the older sons complained and the full-time employees protested.  But in the back of the crowd, a tear ran down an old woman’s cheek and a teenage girl hugged her smiling father.

Jesus says this is God’s Good News, and if we allow it, it will change the world.


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