I remember times growing up where I’d look around me and see something that was “unfair.” It’s amazing how, as little children, we are starting to get a feel for what is right or wrong, what is fair or unfair. This includes playing games, sharing toys but also moves to getting in trouble. Or not getting in trouble, as the case may be. We are taught from a young age that certain actions have consequences. If you do something bad, it is only “fair” that you get punished. It is only “justice” when the scales remain even.
And beyond our childhood, we grow up believing that you get back what effort you put in. Practice makes perfect. Good things happen to those who wait. We have instilled a sense of pride in being able to control the future outcome based upon what energy we expend.
But of course, life doesn’t always work out that way. And when life seems to award those who don’t “deserve” the good that happens, those who didn’t earn what they receive, we cry out and complain.
And we understand Jonah’s complaint against Ninevah who deserved to be destroyed but was shown mercy. And we understand the workers’ complaints against the owner who paid everyone the same amount for unequal work.
Isn’t it comforting to read stories that are thousands of years old and realize that we have inherited the same sense of justice and fairness?
Let’s think about Jonah for a minute. Here we have a prophet. He ran away from his call to preach to the sinful city of Ninevah. But he eventually found his way. And he seemed to take delight in being able to tell the people to repent or else be punished. This town was bad, evil. And they deserved to be punished. And Jonah was looking forward to the show. His sense of fairness was going to be satisfied only if he watched them suffer fairly.
But God was merciful.
The people of Ninevah repented. They ended up on the gracious end of God’s mercy where their lives were saved. Jonah, who could have been proud to have been the messenger who sparked their change, instead is upset because his sense of fairness went unsatisfied.
And then, to top it off, he’s given a shade tree that one day is perfect and the next is gone. So Jonah is bitter once again about the unfairness of God at work in a world that is not catering to Jonah’s ideals of what should be happening.
Because God is beyond his sense of fairness. God knows more about the world and other people than Jonah, and God chose to show mercy to those who repent and to remind Jonah that he is not God by his saving a town and by destroying a tree.
God is God and Jonah is not.
And then we read the parable today where we once again encounter a merciful God who is beyond our understanding of right and wrong, of fairness or justice.
The landowner goes out to hire workers. In those days, just as in some places still, the owners start their day knowing how many people they need to help them that day. Think of how during harvest time, extra hands are needed and you almost always know exactly how many you need to get the day’s work done. So he goes and sets a price for their labor. It may not be the best price for a day’s wage, but it’s fair enough that they agree to go.
What is astounding is that he keeps hiring people at intervals. Didn’t he know how much work was to be done at the beginning of the day? And the story tells us that he will pay them what is fair. In our minds, we jump to the idea that these workers will receive a portion of what the first receive. We leap to the hourly wages of our world instead of a set rate for the day, no matter how much work is put into the work. And we understand completely how the first workers get upset that they don’t earn more than those who didn’t even do an hour’s work.
But the landowner is merciful.
The landowner’s sense of fairness is beyond their comprehension. Jesus is telling us that God is merciful and that the sense of justice is different. For the landowner, it doesn’t matter how many hours were worked or how many grapes are picked or bushels of wheat bundled. What matters is that they were hired and that they will get paid for working that day. And the rate for working that day is the same for everyone.
And that same wage for uneven work seems unfair to us.
Because we connect so deeply to those who put in the effort. How many of you, when you heard this story, put yourself in the shoes of Jonah watching a town be spared and understanding his emotions when his shade tree is unfairly taken? How many of you, when you read the story of the landowner, thought of how it feels to be the first workers of the day?
We connected with those who sense of justice was thrown off kilter by God’s mercy.
Because it is not easy for us to think that we are actually on the receiving end of mercy.
We are the Ninevites who are shown mercy when we repent and turn back to God. Though most of our actions would deserve punishment, God is merciful.
We are the workers who show up at the last hour of the work day, who only put in 1/12th the effort that others do but receive the same reward. Though our actions don’t deserve the full wage, God is gracious and generous.
Because our God is beyond our understanding of what right and wrong is, what is fair or unfair, what is just or unjust.
God just cares that we turn to Him, that we show up when we show up, that we realize that God is God and we are not.
- Posted in: sermons