Pentecost 18, Year A

Pentecost 18, Year A

Ps 105:37-45 & Matt. 20:1-16

Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Justice and Mercy”


Justice and mercy. In today’s psalm and gospel passages, we are given similar examples of God’s justice and mercy. Both examples, it seems to me, reveal a lot more depth and complexity than we may see at first. Even today, individuals and societies struggle with justice and mercy. Sometimes we, like the people in biblical times, misunderstand or misinterpret the motives of others, and consequently, this may very well distort the administering of justice and mercy. For example, consider the following humorous story.


Amusing things happen even in the law courts. For many years John Arthur Robert Cairns was a magistrate, and on one occasion an elderly Irishman was brought before him accused of being drunk and disorderly.


The defendant protested that he was not drunk, but hungry and weak from loss of sleep. He continued: “It was after enterin a church I was, to ease the poor feet and sowl of me, but I thought I was not worthy to enter that holy place, and I lay down on the cold steps before the door, and there it was I lay in an attitude of prayer, when the policeman hisself found me and locked me up.”


“You say you were praying?” inquired Mr. Cairns.


“Indade I was,” came the reply. “Indade I was yer Honour.”


“You were holding a service by yourself I take it?”


“That is so, yer Honour.”


“Ah well,” murmured Mr. Cairns, “we will now take up the collection. Seven and sixpence!” 1


Although this story is humorous, it is a good illustration of how people misunderstand and misinterpret each other’s motives. In the mind and heart of the Irishman standing before the magistrate, he had not broken the law or done anything wrong. In fact, what he really needed at the time was a little mercy on the part of the policeman. However, the policeman only saw in the Irishman a layabout who was drunk and disorderly. Therefore, the policeman was motivated by his role to exercise the rule of law and enforce the letter of the law. In so doing, likely in the mind of this policeman, justice was done. This interpretation of the Irishman also seems to have influenced the motivation of the Magistrate and therefore caused him to misunderstand and misinterpret the motives of the Irishman. The magistrate was not in a merciful mood. He did not see the need to show compassion on this poor, hungry Irishman who needed an evening resting place. Instead he saw only a layabout “lawbreaker” who had been drunk and disorderly. Thus as an administrator of the law, he sees himself as doing his duty and exercising justice by ordering the Irishman to pay a fine.


As I read, studied and pondered Psalm 105, verses 37-45, as well as our gospel for today; it struck me that a similar kind of thing is occurring in these passages as in the story of the Irishman. Justice and mercy are, it seems to me, intricately woven together in our psalm and gospel passages. Yet, it seems to me that they reveal a lot more depth and complexity than we may see at first.


In verses 37-45 or our psalm, we learn of the Exodus event and how God preserved and protected, led and guided the ancient Israelites out of Egypt. In doing this, most of us likely believe that God was exercising his justice and mercy on the situation. God showed justice by taking the side of the poor, oppressed Israelite slaves to free them. God also showed justice by giving poor, oppressed Israelite slaves some wealth in the form of silver and gold. I’m sure the Egyptians would not interpret this as an act of justice; rather, they’d likely think that the silver and gold belonged to them and that the Israelites stole it and didn’t deserve it. The psalmist tells us how the Egyptians felt by being on the short end of the stick of God’s justice: “Egypt was glad when they departed, for dread of them had fallen upon it.”


In verse 44 of the psalm, God exercises justice again; this time against the various peoples of Canaan. The LORD’s mercy towards Israel comes across as his rule of justice against the other nations, the psalmist puts it like this: “He gave them the lands of the nations, and they took possession of the wealth of the peoples.” One wonders how the non-Israelites who had lived on this land for who know how long felt about losing their land and their possessions and wealth.


Then, in our gospel today, we are told of the justice and mercy of the vineyard owner--who represents God in the parable. The vineyard owner goes out and hires various labourers at different times of the day to work in the vineyard for the agreed upon daily wage. At the end of the day, it is the ones who started work last who are paid their wages first. Moreover, they are paid the same wages as everyone else. Now to those who worked in the heat all day long this did not seem fair or just, and they were envious, so they protested. But Jesus insists that God’s ways of justice and mercy are different than our misinterpreted and misunderstood notions of them; and concludes the parable by telling them: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”


One of my favourite singer-songwriters is Canadian musician, Bruce Cockburn. In one of his songs a few years ago, he included this very thought provoking line: “Everyone wants justice done on somebody else.” I think there’s a great truth in that line. Who really wants to be on the short end of the stick of justice? For a moment, place yourself in the feet of the Egyptians losing your silver and gold; or the nations losing your land, possessions and wealth; or the workers in the vineyard who worked in the heat all day long, yet were paid last and given the same wages as those who worked only one hour. Most of us, truth to tell, would rather be on God’s side, wouldn’t we? Most of us would rather be the Israelites and the labourers who worked for only one hour in the parable.


In the Hebrew language, it’s rather interesting that one of the English translations of the word justice is “loving-kindness.” I rather like that word, since it certainly links up to the meaning of mercy in the Bible. It is true that out of loving-kindness for God’s Chosen People, God exercised justice and mercy on them--giving them freedom, wealth, a land to live in, and many other blessings. They, at the time, were the underdogs, the weak, the poor, the oppressed, and God is clearly a God who is on the side of such people. We see that consistently throughout both Testaments of the Bible. God’s justice does take action to favour the most needy. Yet, God’s justice is also expressed as loving-kindness. I would hope and believe that God had mercy even on the Egyptians and those people who lost their lands and wealth to the Israelites. Indeed, this very point is made in one Jewish Midrash story, where God is crying after Israel is freed from the Egyptians. Someone asks God why he was crying, and God replies: “The Egyptians are my people too.”


From a faith point of view then, it seems to me that even the short end of the stick of God’s justice is an expression of God’s loving-kindness and mercy. I believe that this is especially true in our gospel parable today. God exercises justice in the sense that first, the vineyard owner finds as many idle labourers as he can to go to work. In employing these idle labourers, the vineyard owner is giving them a new sense of dignity and making it possible for them to obtain the basic necessities of life with their wages, rather than remain idle and unemployed and lacking dignity. Secondly, the owner of the vineyard is exercising mercy in the sense that every labourer is treated equally and receives the same wages. In God’s eyes, we are all favourites, regardless of what we’ve done or how long we’ve been workers in God’s vineyard. The point is not that we work for or deserve God’s mercy--we don’t, all of us are sinners. The point is that God treats all of us equally as his people precisely because we are all his people and thus we are all his favourites. In the details of equal treatment, there will most certainly be differences, because God sees into our hearts, minds and souls and knows exactly what each of us needs the most. What each of us needs the most is likely going to be different from person to person precisely because God created each one of us as unique people. In the end however, the issue regarding God’s justice and mercy is not who gets what and why. Rather, in the end, ultimately the real issue is the quality of our relationship with God. That’s what really matters. God wants each and every one of us to live a life of trust, love and gratitude in relationship with him and with one another. May each of us be granted the endless resources of his justice and mercy to do just that!         


1         Cited from: F. Gay, The Friendship Book, 1985 meditation for August 15.


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