Big surprise – life isn’t fair. And thank God that God isn’t fair either. Replacing our sense of fairness with a sense of gratitude can change our lives.
15th Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, September 21, 2014 – Matthew 20:1-16
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“Seeing Gratitude” – Pastor Evan Davis
A father is making mango smoothies for his two little girls. Sounds good to me – a great dad! After daddy whips up the smoothies and the girls are enjoying them, he realizes he has one extra slice of mango. He spears it with a fork and gives it to his older daughter. You know what happens next. The deprived younger daughter, “can I have a mango pop?” meaning the extra piece of fruit on the fork. Dad says, “no, there was only one,” and he keeps on cooking dinner. She says, “that’s not fair! That’s not fair, daddy!” Dad says, “what?” “Lily got a mango pop and I didn’t get one.” “Yeah.” “Well, that’s not fair!” This was a scene in the show Louie, which stars stand-up comedian Louis C.K.1 It’s not the first place I’d look for a sermon illustration, but it’s such a classic example!
Parents, you can tell me stories, can’t you? Everyone, remember when you were a kid? “Dad, why can she use the car?” “Mom, why does he get a Nintendo DS? It’s not fair!” “Why does she get to go on the trip?”
Good thing we grow out of that, huh 🙂 In Jesus’ story, when the landowner asks, “are you envious because I am generous?”, the Greek is literally “is your eye evil because I am good?” Our eyes always seem to wander to our neighbor’s stuff. It’s an amazing story we hear from Jesus today. The workers who labored all day in the scorching heat were probably going to be satisfied with their daily wage, until they saw somebody who worked only an hour or two get the same paycheck. This little girl was totally happy with her smoothie, until her eye catches her sister getting a piece of mango too. Brett and I go out to dinner, and I’m hungry, and the dish that I ordered is set before me and it looks good…until my eye wanders over to what my wife got that looks so much better, and then I’m not so satisfied anymore. So easily we become fixated on what everybody else has.
Of course, we can understand the wandering eyes of these workers – they just want equal pay for equal work. Their righteous indignation isn’t surprising at all.
The truly interesting character in this story, the one who surprises us, is the landowner. And, of course, to understand him, we need to see through his eyes. His eyes are also wandering around, but they’re not eyeing the other landowners’ estates , or staring at his peers’ shiny new chariots. Instead, what he keeps noticing, every time he goes out, are more people standing around idle in the marketplace. It’s a common sight around the world. A crowd of desperate men gather in the marketplaces of the earth every morning, hoping against hope to be hired so they can put food on the table that night. You might see such a crowd outside a Home Depot or a U-Haul place. Can you imagine what it’s like to go stand in that crowd every morning? Some days you might work, some days you don’t. Some days you put food on the table, some days you don’t. Can you imagine the anxiety? The blows to identity and confidence? Many of you may have spent a time without a job…you know what it feels like. In a society that defines you by what you do, to not have a job, to not be able to provide, is devastating. Who you are and what you’re worth gets lost.
Most people, I’m sure, tended to ignore those hopeful laborers and their families, as we tend to ignore whomever’s on the edges of society. But this landowner made a point of going out, again and again, to find them and give them a job. Now let’s think about this. Wouldn’t he have hired as many as he needed at the beginning of the day? So why does he keep going out? But he does. At 9am he finds some still idle, and still more at noon. He goes back out at 3 and there are some still who haven’t been hired. Now they have a job, now they’ll eat tonight. And at 5…really? He’s still getting more to come on and work at 5?!? – but he saw more out there, more who needed finally to get a shot. And not only does he hire all these workers he probably doesn’t need, when evening comes, he has his manager pay the last arrivals first, and every worker gets the same wage!
It’s crazy! I think of those car salesman with their hokey commercials…they’re like, “we’ll give credit to anyone! We’ll pay off your old car loan NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU OWE!!! Because we’re CRRAAAZZZYYYY!” The landowner, whom of course in Jesus’ story represents God, is crazy. If he’s a businessman, profit is not his game. He’s up to something else. No, all this landowner cares about, all our God cares about, is making sure everyone is ok.
This God is just trying to care for all his children. And if God’s a landowner, God has plenty of cash to spend on payroll. This Heavenly Father always has more abundance and more love to share with his children. So this God keeps going out, all day long, to keep bringing in one after another of his children whom the world has disregarded. He wants to give a job, a purpose, a vocation, a meal, to one more child. Like any parent, God doesn’t care if it’s fair, God only wants to make sure we’re all ok. If he has to go out all day, he will if that’s what it takes to make sure YOU know you are loved and that YOU have a place in the kingdom.
Do you know that? Do you know that you are loved, whether you’ve been a faithful servant of God your whole life or even if God found you drifting without a purpose two weeks ago? It’s true! Whether you’re relieved to finally have a place in church or if you’re grumbling that all those late-arriving new people are messing everything up, God has chosen to be generous with you. You don’t need to have better clothes or a fancier car. You don’t need to be skinnier, you don’t need to have accomplished anything, you, right now, are loved more than you could ever imagine.
You can believe that and can claim that for yourself here today. And as you do that, you’ll find you can also be grateful for love, for life, for your place and purpose, for all God has made you to be. Gratitude changes things. You know how Louie the Dad resolved things with his daughter? After telling her that life would never be fair and she really ought to get used to that now, he counsels her, “the only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough.”
Gratitude gives us new eyes. We don’t look to see if we have as much as our neighbor anymore, we look to see whether she has enough. Especially if we already do.
Gratitude means we can actually celebrate what our neighbor has. It means that we can celebrate our sister’s mango pop, entirely happy with our smoothie! It means that each new worker in the vineyard does not take away or reduce God’s love for us. It means there’s one more sister or brother in Christ to share in the work of the kingdom. It means also that we can celebrate also every time God graciously provides groceries, or a place to sleep, or medical care, or a chance at a good education, to our neighbor, no matter how undeserving they seem to us. No matter whether God provides it through a paycheck, or charity, or a government program. We can rejoice that one more person has a job today, that one more person will eat tonight, that one less person will be on the streets tonight. We don’t have to be looking into their bowl to see if we get the same. Instead, knowing our bowls are full, we can rejoice that theirs are too. We can rejoice in returning whatever is flowing out of our bowls back to the God who first provided it, because we know God will use it to bring one more idle brother or sister to the vineyard, to the water, to the table, to love and life. Amen.
1Scene from Louie, a television show on FX, from an episode that aired in 2011. As explained in Christian Piatt, “Louis C.K. on Our Neighbor’s Bowl and What “Fair” Is,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christianpiatt/2012/10/louis-c-k-on-our-neighbors-bowl-and-what-fair-is/ (accessed Sept. 20, 2014). Video found at http://jezebel.com/5815172/a-little-girls-lesson-in-fairness-courtesy-of-louis-ck (accessed Sept. 20, 2014).