09/21/14 Sermon (September 21, 2014)

posted Nov 6, 2014, 12:07 PM by David Hawkins

“The Discipline of Justice”

Scripture Reading: 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. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

And 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?’

They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’

He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

When 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.’

When 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. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; 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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Sermon: "The Discipline of Justice"             Rev. David Hawkins

I’m the oldest child in my family, which explains a lot, for those of you who think about these things. And when I was growing up, as the oldest child, I worked the farm with my dad and my granddad. I never got paid for it, it was just part of life on the farm. It was my role, you might say. Of course, I did get a new shovel and a pair of boots every year, so I guess I did get some kind of reward. Everybody together now, say, “Awww, you poor thing.”

Anyway, I grew up doing the kind of work you all know so well, working the fields, working the cows, picking the rocks, Oh, that’s right, that’s not something you do down here. The farm I grew up on was on the foothills of an ancient volcano, and to this day, I could swear that a new crop of rocks grew every year, like heavy igneous potatoes that we had to clear out of the fields before they destroyed our equipment.

After I graduated, I went off to college and then the army and then college some more. After several years of being away from home I  was not surprised to find out that my brother Michael, you may have heard of him before, he’s the one who catches fish, had also worked on the farm. I was surprised, however, to find out that he actually got PAID to work on the farm. Real money. Not a shovel and a new pair of boots. Cash. Dollarinos. Bucks so big you had to fold them three times to fit them in your wallet.

Not only that, I discovered that he had been allowed to drive the swather. The swather! Can you believe it? I had driven tractors, had baled hay, had plowed fields by myself on that farm from the time I was in sixth grade, but I had never been allowed to drive the swather. I always thought my parents thought it was too dangerous for me (which it probably was) or maybe my granddad didn’t trust me to mow the hay in just the right way (he had a system).

But my brother Michael, the one who catches fish was given this privilege that had been denied to me. And not only that, he was paid to do it.

Can you believe it? What an injustice! Now, I have to admit, it doesn’t rank very high on the all time list of things that are just not fair, but it did get under my skin. I can understand, on a small scale, what the workers in today’s story feel.

Jesus tells a story about a landowner who hires some workers. Sort of like a construction company going around to pick up some day-laborers. We used to see this all the time in Atlanta. Do you have the same sort of system here in Texas? Folks who need work, who are willing to do some temp-type construction work hang out at the parking lot at a Home Depot or a Sutherlands, and construction foremen would pick up some workers in a truck for the day, and then pay them for a day’s work.  

I don’t know what the day wage for that kind of work is, but I assume it’s something standard, something that the boss and the workers agree to.

That’s the system that Jesus is talking about. The boss picks up some workers early in the morning, and agrees to pay them the standard day wage, whatever that is. They go to work. Later that morning, the boss comes back to the parking lot, and sees some more workers, and picks them up as well.

This time, though, he doesn’t bargain with them about the wage, he just tells them that he’ll pay them what is right. They kind of have to trust him on this one. But they do. They get into his truck, and they go to work.

The boss goes back to the parking lot two more times, around lunchtime and at 3 in the afternoon, and picks up some more workers, again, simply telling them that he will pay them what is right.

Finally, the boss goes back to the parking lot one last time, near the end of the workday, and sees some workers there who had not been picked up. He wonders why they aren’t working, and they tell him that they’ve been waiting all day long, but nobody hired them. He tells them to jump in and takes them to the jobsite.

But there is a difference between these workers and the others. There is no agreement about paying them a day’s wage. There is not even a promise to pay them what is right for their time. There is no promise at all about any pay whatsoever.  

And yet, they go with him. Simply because he asks. Simply because there is work to be done. They go with him, and work for as long as they can.

When the work is done, the boss gathers all the workers together to pay them. He begins with the ones he hired near the end of the day. I’m not sure what these workers expected, but I’m sure they didn’t expect a full day’s pay. But that’s what they got.

And then the boss pays the rest of the workers. The ones who started at 3 in the afternoon, a full day’s pay. The ones who who started at noon, a full day’s pay. Then the workers who started at 9 received a full day’s pay. At this point, I wonder what the workers who started at the crack of dawn are thinking. I wonder if they sense a pattern.

Finally, it’s time for the ones who had been hired first, the ones who had worked all day long, it’s time to get their pay. And they got it. The pay that they had agreed on twelve hours ago. A day’s wage, just exactly like everyone else.

And it’s just not fair, is it? They did much more work, they had spent much more time, they had given so much more of themselves. And yet, they got paid the same. A day’s wage. The agreed upon amount, the same that everyone got, regardless of when they started, regardless of how long or how hard they worked. The same wage for everyone.

We don’t like this story, do we? It makes us uncomfortable. Our God is a God of justice, right? And we know what justice means. It means that we get what we deserve. If we do something wrong, we get punished. If we do something right, we get rewarded This idea of justice is built into us from the very beginning of our lives. And the more wrong we do, we more we are punished. And the more right we do, the more we are rewarded.

It’s a simple system. It makes perfect sense. We learn it in our homes, we learn in it our schools, and we learn it at work. Our worth is based on what we do. Our value as human beings is based on how well we do.

And when we do not get what we have earned, that is an injustice.  Two 6th grade teachers, equally trained, equally experienced, equal class test scores, but one is paid less than the other. It’s not right. It’s not just.

And so, we know what justice looks like. We know what justice is. And this story that Jesus tells us is not just. It’s not right that the workers who put in thirty minutes worth of work get paid the same as the ones who work all day. We know it in our bones. The landowner messed up. If this is the kingdom of heaven, then the kingdom of heaven has got its priorities upside down.

Scholars have tried a few different ways to make sense of this story. The early Church Fathers tried to make this into an allegory about the way God rewards different classes of his own children. For them, the Jews were the early workers, and Gentile Christians are the last.

It’s an easy fix, isn’t it? It’s not about justice, it’s simply a description of the way that God has dealt with humanity. The Hebrews worked for their reward, and the Christians don’t. It fits perfectly into our theology. It lets us off the hook. And it solves the problem of justice.

Except that it doesn’t. Because Jesus never said anything about this being an allegory about the salvation history of humankind. He said this is a description of what the kingdom of heaven looks like. It’s not a history. It’s the almost, but not quite yet breaking-in reality of the reign of God. It’s not a nice theological view of the past. It’s a radical and unnerving view of our present and our future.

It’s the kind of justice that has nothing at all to do with our system of rewards and punishments. It’s the kind of justice that has nothing at all to do with our understanding of credits, and debits. It’s a justice that is informed, not by our worthiness, but by love. The love that God has for each of us.

You know, even though I was, I think, justifiably indignant when I found out that my brother got paid, and even more so when I found out that he got to drive the swather, I never, not for minute thought that my dad, or my granddad loved me any less, or loved my brother any more for it.

This was not a matter of whether they thought I was worthy of their love. It was a matter of what they thought was right for me, and what was right for my brother Mike. And these were two different things. It might be hard for me to understand or accept, but I know it to be true. And I trust it to be true.

Our place in God’s kingdom is not a matter of payment for services rendered. Our place in God’s kingdom is a unique expression of God’s love, and his desire for each one of us to be there, at our own uniquely determined time, doing the work that that has been given to each of us, work that we are each uniquely qualified to do. And we can trust this kind of kingdom justice.

Because this is grace. It’s grace because we are not paid what we deserve. Grace because our salvation is not based on when we first heard the voice of God, or how long we’ve been walking the path, or even how faithfully we’ve lived our lives.

When I first started working in the Church, way back in 1992, I remember a plaque that was in my pastor’s office. The plaque said, “Work for the Lord. The pay’s not that great, but the retirement plan is out of this world.” When it comes to God love, it doesn’t matter when or why we showed up for work, or even the kind of work we do. We’re just blessed because we came.

Thanks be to our God of justice and grace. Amen.