Matthew 20:1-16 — The Grace Beyond Our Limited Notions of Fairness


A sermon preached on September 20th, 2020 based upon Matthew 20:1-16, entitled “The Grace Beyond Our Limited Notions of Fairness” 

A while back a couple of animal behavior psychologists developed an experiment that demonstrated monkeys have an innate sense of what we call “fairness.”  Two monkeys were placed side by side in separate cages.  With relative ease these smart little monkeys were trained that if they gave the scientist a stone they would receive in return a piece of cucumber, an arrangement with which the two monkeys were quite willing to participate. At a certain point, however the scientist began rewarding the monkey in the right cage with a grape in exchange for the stone.  Apparently grapes are the crème de la crème in the monkey world.  The monkey in the left cage quickly took note of this, and when his stone continued to bring a return of a piece of cucumber – well, take a look at this video to see how the monkey reacted.

(Here I showed a short video you can find on Youtube that shows the monkey throwing his cucumber at the experimenter, shaking the cage with his hands, and  hitting the floor with his fist. Not a happy monkey.)

When we hear this little parable that Jesus told about laborers in the vineyard, and how the laborer who worked a measly one hour gets paid the full day’s wage – same as the laborers who put in a full 12 hours of work – well, our reaction may be similar to this monkey’s.  Are you kidding me?  That’s not fair!

There is an innate sense of fairness that is hardwired in human beings – scientists have seen signs of it in babies as young as nine months of age.  It evolved over thousands and thousands of years in human brings to keep social relations from descending into a self-destructive chaos.

And so over time contracts and laws and courts and consequences for breaking laws and contracts were developed in an attempt to level the playing field, so to speak — laws that attempt to provide some semblance of equal opportunity so that hard work is rewarded.

As a side note, the primary explanation anthropologists have for how it was religion came to evolve is that it provided a way to reinforce the concept of fairness as human societies grew larger.  Your neighbor may miss the fact that you lie and cheat, but don’t think you can get away with it – the gods are watching and there will be consequences.  Certainly there is some truth to this theory.

Often these anthropologists don’t’ believe that God is real. What, I find myself wondering would such anthropologists make of this parable that seems to contradict our basic notions of what is fair in this world?  Or for that matter, the story of Jonah and the Ninivites that we heard about in the children’s story, in which some truly wicked people fail to get the punishment they surely deserve because with a bit of sack cloth and ashes, and “we’re sorry, we’ll never rape and pillage again!” God lets them off the hook?

Our hardwired intuitive concepts of fairness and the ways our societies reinforce them are necessary for societies to function.  But the thing we all generally lose sight of is that our human notions of fairness and justice are ultimately far from perfect because we have only the barest notion of all the factors that impact a person’s life.

A couple of weeks back, we heard Jesus rebuke Simon Peter when he tried to persuade him from the way of the cross:  Said Jesus, “You know only the things from a human point of view; you don’t see things from God’s view.”  The same can be said when we talk about fairness.

There is this interesting moment in the parable:  The landowner asks the eleventh hour guy, “Why are you standing idle all day?”   It is a question that suggests the possibility that it’s the man’s fault that he isn’t working, earning a wage.  Perhaps he’s a slacker — simply lazy?  Does he want life handed to him on a platter?  The answer the eleventh hour guy gives is, “I’m standing here idle all day because no one has hired me.”  “No,” he implies, “I’m not a lazy slacker. I just haven’t been given an opportunity to work.”

I find it fascinating that we aren’t told exactly where the truth lies.  How much is lack of effort, and how much is lack of opportunity?  It’s left in the air, perhaps because only God knows the answers to these questions definitively.

If we were outraged when we heard this parable in a manner akin to the angry monkey throwing cucumber pieces at the experimenter, it probably means that we have identified with the twelve hour workers in the story.  We like to think of ourselves as hard workers – people who have done their job and stayed out of trouble.  We deserve better.

But, we human beings are complex.  Each of us have ongoing problems in our lives that in certain ways we have tried hard to solve, and in others we have avoided addressing altogether. Maybe we work hard in ways that come easily to us to address the problem but avoid working in ways that would more directly address the problem because this kind of work is outside our comfort zones.

Go with me now as I imagine two distinctly different men.

One man enters life in with what we would regard as exceptional good fortune.  In the genetic lottery he’s seems to have won big time:  his genes make him naturally smart, healthy, and good looking (and studies show good looks have a way of opening a lot of doors in this life.)  He has no genetic pre-disposition for mental illness or addiction.  He is born into a stable, loving family for whom financial stability will never be an issue, with ample opportunities available both in terms of education and to make all kinds of helpful social connections.  Good work habits and respectable behavior are modelled for him from the outset.  He doesn’t struggle with self-esteem issues because he frequently hears people praising him.

He works hard, but then again, it’s hard to say just how hard he actually works because, as we said, he is naturally smart which in many cases means he doesn’t have to work as hard as others to master skills and get good grades.

He goes to an Ivy League School and then lands a job on Wall Street.  He works extremely hard at his job for a decade or two and becomes very, very rich – a billionaire. He pays a lot of taxes but still, he has more money than he will every truly need in life. He gives away large amounts of money to a variety of important charities that do a lot of good in this world.  He never once breaks the law.  He piles up dozens of honorary degrees and is admired by millions.

Another man is born into this world with what the world might consider a less generous genetic pay out. He grows up in poverty.  His family is what the world would call a good deal more dysfunctional then the first man’s family.  For a variety of reasons he falls behind early on in school and ends up dropping out of high school.  He tries the only job he can get, working in a fast food restaurant.  The job isn’t very gratifying and it doesn’t pay enough money even to afford his rent.  The boss doesn’t like him for various reasons including the fact he fails to show up at work on time.  His poor work habits lead to his getting fired. Before long he’s selling drugs, because, hey, he can make a lot more money doing that then working fast food.   He ends up in prison, not once, but a couple of times. Along the way he has a hand in fostering the addiction of several people, commits various crimes, some that include violence.

Somewhere in midlife though – perhaps while attending a Bible study in prison – the man suddenly sees his life clearly.  He commits to a 12 step program.  God becomes real for him.  He takes responsibility for the harm he has done others – the harm he has done himself.

Eventually he leaves prison behind for good.  He’s a felon so he takes the only steady job that is available to him, working in a warehouse, a job for which he is grateful.

In little ways he begins doing what he can to help younger kids – particularly at risk young men – people whose lives are very much like the life he once lived.  He does what he can to mentor them. He never knows what impact he has on the lives of these young men.  Nonetheless, his work with them is the most gratifying part of his life.   He lives out the rest of his life staying on the straight and narrow.  His life is noticed only by a few.

Both men die.  As Paul said in last week’s lesson, “All will be accountable before God.”

Both men stand before God.  God who knows everything there is to know about them.  The stunning thing for both men is the unconditional love God has for them.  In the presence of this love, God reviews with both men the life they have lived.  The thing about the review is that God doesn’t focus on a lot of the things the world focuses on.  What God seems focused on is what the men did with the opportunities presented to them to express love.  When, did they choose love, and when they choose something other than love?  When did they stand idle in the marketplace, so to speak, and when did they seize an opportunity to express love?

In reviewing the billionaire’s life, God seems pretty disinterested in the accolades, the honorary degrees, the buildings named after him.  God points out that a lot of the good stuff the man did, he did less because he wanted to help people, but because he really enjoyed the praise these deeds brought him.  God points out all the opportunities the man was presented with to offer love in this world – and the great many times he just stood there idly, never doing the good of which he was capable.

It is very, very painful for the man to see all this.  The man realizes he was, in some sense, an eleventh hour worker in the vineyard.  And nonetheless, the truly amazing thing for the man discover was that in spite of having been such a slacker in God’s vineyard loved him unconditionally.

The other man’s life is also reviewed.  There are some very painful parts for sure.  He witnesses the people he harmed early on in his life. Having already owned up to the evil he had committed in his life, this experience is less jarring than it was for the billionaire.

The man sees things the world overlooked but God took note of – the times when he could have done much more harm but chose to restrain his darker impulses.

And he also sees the influence he had on those younger men he sought later in life to mentor.  There were a couple of them that he was truly able to influence – profoundly impacting the direction their lives took.

I gave a eulogy this past Monday for 25 year old Rachel Weiss, the beloved granddaughter of Anna and Michael.  When I do a eulogy, I like to take time hearing the story of a person from those who knew her best.  There were challenges in Rachel’s life growing up, but for the most part she absorbed a great deal of love.  Around the age of 18, Rachel made some foolish choices – choices that weren’t uncommon among many of her peers — experimenting with some pills.  For most of her peers, the experimentation was just a phase they passed through, but what Rachel didn’t realize was she was genetically pre-disposed to addiction.  She embarked on a seven year struggle that eventually took her life, not by overdose but from the toll her addiction had taken on her body as she attempted another detox.

The thing about Rachel that I learned listening to her story was that although she didn’t get to live out the dreams she had for herself in life, she expressed a great deal of love in her life.  To her family, to her young nieces who adored her, but also to the people she came in contact with from all walks of life through their shared journey towards recovery.   On her Facebook page there were countless testimonies by young women traveling that same road who talked about how Rachel was the person who would answer their phone calls in the middle of the night when they were at their darkest.  She was the one who shown some light for them to make it to another day.

It seems to me that through what Rachel suffered, and the spiritual wisdom she accumulated seeking the path of sobriety, that there was very possibly more authentic love in Rachel than you find in your typical 25 year old.

In the eyes of the world, Rachel might be judged to be an eleventh hour worker in the vineyard.  But I suspect that when God looked into the heart of Rachel, God saw something quite different.  Maybe Rachel got to the vineyard a whole lot earlier than a lot of us did.

Rachel’s Facebook postings stood out.  In a setting where you can find such divisiveness and negativity, Rachel seemed determined to post only things that were positive, grateful, inspiring. Every other day she seemed to post another quote that one could spend a day pondering.

I want to finish with one that stood out to me:

Your job is not to judge.  Your job is not to figure out if someone deserves something.  Your job is to lift the fallen, to restore the broken, and to heal the hurting.

I don’t know whether Rachel was aware of it or not, but she was channeling Jesus with this quote.