Jonah 3:10-4:11 Psalm 145:1-8 Philippians 1:21-30 Matthew 20:1-16
In both our reading from Jonah and today’s gospel parable the feeling express is one that we often hear in our society today: “It’s not fair!” Jonah does not think the evil people of Nineveh get what they deserve. He is unhappy that God shows them mercy. The laborers hired at the beginning of the day think they should be paid more than the ones who were hired later in the day. But, the landowner pays all the laborers a full day’s wage, even the ones who had worked only one hour.
And, in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, he is writing to Christians, who like him, are made to suffer for their beliefs. Unlike the other two readings, Paul does not suggest it is unfair for them to suffer as a result of this faith, he writes to encourage them to remain steadfast in it. He views suffering much differently from others, he goes so far as to say, “God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” I doubt any of us here today view suffering as a privilege. Most of us view suffering as unfair – as I imagine the people in Philippi did. Thus, Paul writes to help them see that they are indeed blessed.
Thinking, “It’s not fair,” clouds our vision. Jonah is unhappy that God shows mercy, and the laborers want more – both fail to appreciate the gifts they, too, have been given. Jonah has not been a willing prophet, but God does not give up on him. The laborers who are hired at the start of the day are given the gift of a job that enables them to earn enough money to feed their families. The landowner is more concerned about mercy than fairness – and if we are honest with ourselves we should be too.
More often than not, our cries for fairness are simply another way of saying, “I want more for me.” With limited resources available many, if not most of us, would have to give away a portion of what we have in order make life fair. The fact that we were born in this country, the fact that we had the educational and career opportunities, parents, teachers and mentors we did are all gifts that many others have not received.
When I was in healthcare, I saw that the staff who spent the most time with our patients and cared from them in the most intimate of ways were paid the least. Is that fair? Is it fair that I, as an administrator, was paid ten times more than a nursing assistant who bathed and dressed our patients? Is it fair that other administrators were paid ten times more than what I was paid?
When we talk about paying fair wages in this society we are talking about the fair market wage based on job class. We use lots of qualifiers in order to identify fair in the way we want it defined. We do the same when we talk about what people deserve. The fact is, however, life is simply not fair.
The people of Nineveh were an evil people, but they repented and God spared them. The landowner hired and paid the people who had not found work first thing in the morning, the same that he paid the others. If God was not merciful we would all suffer more than we do already. Suffering is a part of life, this life, this life which is temporary.
Paul, in his letter, is calling our attention to the mercy of God, the mercy offered to us through Christ Jesus. Life is found in Jesus, and so, he says, “dying is gain.” For in death, he will be with Christ. Paul writes of living in the flesh verses living in Christ, referring to living in the flesh as living for our own gains and for our selfish desires – but I do not think he is suggesting that the flesh is bad. His point is that we need to place God first. Living not for ourselves alone, but for God’s purpose. We are here for a reason and that reason is to love God and one another.
Through this love, we then have the strength to endure the suffering that is a part of every human life, and we have the desire to give thanks for the blessing of true life we experience through Christ. With our focus on God, we can experience joy, instead of jealousy, and we can give thanks for God’s mercy – for us and for others – without worrying about what is fair.
When Paul says, “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” he is referring to just such a life. A life where we celebrate the good fortune of others without regard to ourselves. When the landowner responds to the laborers who are grumbling, he speaks of God’s mercy and generosity. He says to them, “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
What matters is not how great our sins are, what matters is now great God’s mercy is towards us. And, if God shows us mercy, than – as we discussed last Sunday, we need to be generous with our mercy and forgiveness. Envy, or jealousy, like resentment hold us back from experiencing God’s peace and joy and life.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, help us, we pray, to celebrate the good fortune of others and to be witnesses of your loving kindness. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.