“It’s Not Fair”

(A sermon for Proper 20 September 21, 2008 Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16)

“It’s not fair!”

Anyone who has ever been a child, and I believe that includes all of us, has surely said these words at one time or another. I remember complaining bitterly to my mother that other children could stay up until 9, when I had to go to bed at 8:30, and this was preventing me from watching “Bewitched!” I worked on my mother, and worked on her until finally she said “yes” and I was allowed one night of staying up a little bit later than usual.

There are certain things that we assume are true. We all pretty well know that life is not fair. But we have a different expectation of God.

You see it in the story from Exodus this morning. The Israelites have been liberated from slavery. They’ve been out in the wilderness for about six weeks, the first part of which they spent singing songs to celebrate the drowning of the Egyptian army and the defeat of Pharaoh, who was so unfair to them.

But now they realize where they are, which is to say they realize that they don’t know where they are. They complain to Moses and Aaron, who saved them from slavery with the help of God, and say, “Maybe we were slaves back home, but there was always plenty of food in the cafeteria!!” They seem to have forgotten the cruelty shown to them by the guards, or the time several chapters back that Pharaoh ordered their boy babies to be killed.

All they know is they are hungry now, and they are frightened.

Moses and Aaron appeal to God for help, and God provides. At the end of each day, quails come to the camp, where they are apparently easy to catch, and in the morning, with the dew, will come manna, a flaky substance left on the grass which will serve as bread. There will even be twice as much on the sixth day, so that on the Sabbath they will have no need to do the work of gathering and preparing food.

They were God’s chosen people, and God helped them when they were in need. God did not leave them alone. God did not desert them. Even though they were grumbling and complaining and showing, well, not too much faith, God provided for them.

It’s a familiar old way of looking at God. It says that God picks out certain groups of people and protects and defends them, no matter what. The good news is that God doesn’t base that choosing on the perfection of the people, because nobody’s perfect. But the bad news is that God in the Old Testament loves only these certain people.

And I’d like to say to that, “It’s not fair!”

If you’ve ever wondered Jesus has been called a revolutionary, you only have to read this morning’s gospel lesson to see why. He upended the accepted wisdom that God’s love was limited to certain people who deserved this love because of their faithful practice of religion or their family names. In this story, he makes it clear that God is ready to give an equal welcome to everyone, no matter how long they have been in relationship with God. God not only welcomes us, God seeks us, even when we have been the shiftless layabouts or the excluded poor.

But let’s take a moment to put ourselves in the places of the workers in today’s story.  Let’s imagine that L.L. Bean himself announced an immediate need for pickers and packers, and the people sitting up front here today showed up just after sunrise, ready to work. You were promised $100 for a 12-hour day and were glad to take it, the economy being the way it is. Who knows? If you do a good job, you might get work tomorrow, too!

At 9 o’clock, L.L. decides a little more help could be used and takes another look outside, to see if more workers are waiting. These are the folks who ate a good breakfast, or got their cup of coffee, and then came to look for work. Those of you over on the right, that’s you. They, too, went off and agreed to work for “whatever is right,” for what would be a ten hour day.

At noon, there were still some people hanging around, unemployed for the day. That’s all of you sitting midway. Did you arrive late? Did you try for another job that didn’t work out? Whatever the reason, L.L. opens the door again and hires a few of you, too, promising to pay “whatever is right.”

At 3 o’clock, too, Mr. Bean comes back to see who is left. How about those of you in the back corner, you imagine yourselves as the 3 o’clock people. Are these people who usually work nights? Or people who showed up late hoping they could wander home later and say there was no work today? He gladly hires them anyway.

This all may sound peculiar enough, but picture L.L. going back one last time, when the day is nearly over, and seeking workers once more. All of you sitting near the door there, imagine you’re in this position, still hanging around, maybe wondering if you can bum a cigarette. Then Mr. Bean asks, “Why didn’t you work today?”

And you answer, “Well, sir, no one asked us.”

Were they there all along? Had L.L. Bean simply overlooked them? Or did they avoid being asked, not really wanting to work at all?

No matter; they, too, are hired.

I want you to imagine yourselves lined up to receive your pay, especially those of you who showed up at Bean’s at the crack of dawn. You’re probably feeling pretty good about the money you are going to bring home for your long, hard day at work. You’re thinking about how much quicker you got as the day went along and you learned the routines. You’re hoping you’ll be hired again tomorrow! That money will buy food or medicine or fill your car with gas.

And then you see the last workers hired get their pay. 5 o’clock hires, count it up! It’s $100 for two hours work! Woohoo! You 3 o’clock workers, you’re happy with your pay envelopes, too. Noon and nine o’clock workers, maybe you’re wondering why everyone is getting the same thing; it seems strange to you.

Up front here, you folks who left the house earliest and worked longest, what do you expect to see in your pay envelopes? A bonus?

You receive the pay you were promised.

“It’s not fair!”

It’s not hard to imagine the grumbling. Probably you’re accusing the latecomers of spending their pay on things they don’t really need. Oh, come on, you know you are. Those people back by the door are going to waste their money on beer and cigarettes while you use yours to pay the electric bill, right?

And what about tomorrow? Think you might sleep in instead of getting there so early?

And now do you see why Jesus was such a revolutionary? Instead of one group of chosen people, his story tells us that God chooses all people. Jesus wants us to know that God’s love is available to all of us, whether or not we show up early in our lives, whether or not we are God’s from the beginning.

That is such a relief to many of us, but it may feel bitter to those of us who feel like we try hard all the time. We come to church, we volunteer our time, we may even pray and read our Bibles! Shouldn’t we get the greater reward? It’s not fair!

Is it not fair? You bet it isn’t. And that’s the Good News, my friends. That’s the Good News.  It’s never too late. God’s grace embraces us whenever we show up; it has nothing to do with our actions or inactions, we can’t earn it. We have only to turn toward God and receive it.

And…there’s a hard part to this, a part that goes against all our American ideals of self-help and independence and success.  We have to acknowledge that God’s grace extends to everyone, whether we like the time of day they show up for work or not, whether we like the way they spend their paycheck or not. Jesus calls us to receiv
e God’s radical love and acceptance, and to extend it to others as best we are able. We have to let go of the expectation that our own goodness or faithfulness entitles us to anything, that our actions can earn God’s approval. Whatever we do that is good or faithful is a response to God’s grace, not an application for it.

“It’s not fair.” And that’s the Good News for all of us, early birds and latecomers alike. God welcomes all of us, loving arms thrown wide to embrace us. Thank God, it’s not fair. Amen.

8 thoughts on ““It’s Not Fair””

  1. whoa–nice. I totally wish I was preaching on jesus instead right now…because I would be begging for permission to use your sermon. SB, you’re fab. I love the way you’ve made it local for you and also hit home on one of the biggest judgmental issues in the church. thanks!

  2. Great message.
    I guess I’m dealing with a “It’s not fair” situation from a different angle. Fenway’s x-ray results show bone cancer.

  3. You and I went in similar directions. But I always love your gentle touch… I know it preached straight to the heart.

Comments are closed.