Sermon for 17 Pentecost, Year A
Based on Matt. 20:1-16
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
In a Charlie Brown cartoon, Lucy is walking home from school with Charlie, carrying her report card in her hand. She turns to Charlie, and, in self-righteous indignation, complains: "It isn't fair Charlie Brown, it just isn't fair! I studied for a whole week for my final math test and Sally only studied for two hours the night before the test and she got an A, but I only got a C. It just isn't fair!"
Several years ago, my wife and I went to the movie Amadeus. It was the story of the great musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The movie portrayed Mozart as a rather eccentric, almost schizophrenic-genius who, without question, was a very gifted musician and composer.
In terms of social conventions and etiquette of the court of Joseph II of Austria, Mozart was an oddball. He didn't abide by the accepted forms of protocol and behaviour. One of the most interesting characters in the movie, besides Mozart himself, was Joseph II's court musician, Solieri, an Italian. Time and time again, Solieri is driven by his self-righteous indignation toward Mozart.
Solieri despised Mozart and considered him immature, flippant, arrogant and obnoxious. Why should Mozart be such a gifted musician and composer when he didn't deserve it? After all, Solieri was the Lord's servant, in obedience to his Saviour Jesus Christ, why shouldn't Christ give him this gift instead of Mozart? because he was a better person and he deserved it.
Adding injury to insult, Mozart's creative musical genius was going beyond the bounds of what was traditionally acceptable ~ nonetheless, still gaining the favour of Joseph II. For instance, on one occasion, Mozart asked Joseph for permission to compose a German opera. Up to this point, it was unheard of to compose an opera in German. All operas were composed and performed in Italian. Solieri, being and Italian, was both insulted and threatened by Mozart's proposed German opera.
Much to Solieri's dismay, Mozart's opera turned out to be a smashing success. Everywhere Solieri turned, he was surrounded by the perfect beauty of Mozart's music; which even he loved, yet, which he himself wanted so badly to compose. Solieri knew that God gave Mozart the gift of musical genius ~ which, he insisted, that he deserved to possess and not Mozart.
In a moment of despair, Solieri feels that his Lord Jesus Christ has forsaken him, so he removes his crucifix down from the wall and burns it. Solieri could not live with God's love and grace. He wanted fairness and justice; he wanted from God what he thought he had worked for, earned and deserved. However, as we see in our gospel today, God's love and grace is far different than human principles of fairness and justice.
Just as Lucy and Solieri in self-righteous indignation make their protests that it just isn't fair that others should get more, when Lucy and Solieri worked harder and deserved more; so too in our parable today, the laborers who worked all day protested that "it just isn't fair" when they were paid last ~ receiving the same amount as the laborers who only worked for an hour.
In terms of ordinary human standards, this parable doesn't make much sense. How many of us would want to work as a laborer all day for the same wages as another laborer who only works for one hour? I think that not to many of us would be willing to do this. Looking at it from a laborer's point of view, our wages should be determined by our seniority and the hours we work. That would be the fair and just way of looking at it. But even looking at it from the point of view of the owner of the vineyard; surely he would be concerned about the productivity of his laborers.
As the owner, it would make sense ~ and in the long-run be of his own benefit to give his laborers some incentive to work and be rewarded for their work. Once the laborers caught on to what the owner was doing, I don't think the owner would have too many laborers working for him for the whole day, if they received the same wages as someone who worked for only one hour. If the hiring policies of the owner remained unchanged, the owner would have many laborers who'd want to work for one hour, but very few who'd work for a whole day!
By worldly standards, the owner's hiring policies just don't make sense. Laborers want to get paid for a day's work if they worked a whole day, and owners don't want to pay someone for a whole day's wages if they only worked for one hour.
What, then, is the point of our parable in the gospel today? Well, the point is that human standards of fairness and justice are not the same as our Lord Jesus Christ's standards of love and grace. Christ totally shatters our human standards of fairness and justice.
By worldly standards, people are certainly not equal in their economic, political or social status. Worldly standards make distinctions concerning whom or what is of more value and less value. However, going beyond worldly standards, there's a deep-seated need to recognize the true values in life: the fact that every human being is precious in God's sight. Jesus seems to have dealt equally with all: rich, poor, employers, laborers, priests, royalty, outcasts, prodigals, tax collectors, women, children, everyone. He loved everyone, without making distinctions.
Jesus totally shatters our human standards of fairness and justice by giving each one of us his love and grace: without us having to work for it or deserve it. In a sense, we too are sometimes like the laborers who worked for the whole day. In self-righteous indignation, we too cry out that it just isn't fair when someone is given what we have and even more than we have. Why should they receive the same as us if they didn't work for it or they don't deserve it?!
Sometimes we forget that Jesus gives each one of us an equal measure of his love and grace, whether we deserve it or not. We are all equal in God's eyes. Therefore, in another sense, we are also like the laborers who worked only one hour. When we look at our lives and see what God has done for us; what God has given us in spite of our blunderings; in spite of our many faults and failures; we then realize how unworthy we are to receive God's gift of love and grace. In spite of everything, God loves and accepts us no matter what we do or fail to do to deserve it. Now that's Good News!
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