Matthew 20:1-16

by | Aug 8, 2021


Matthew 20:1-16
Meg Peery McLaughlin
August 8, 2021

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.© 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?24 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[f]

His eyes caught mine in the rearview mirror.
“Meg, life isn’t fair.”
I was a child in the backseat of a station wagon.

My dad’s voice was definitive, unwavering, matching my righteous anger.

My older brother had said he’d divide the arm rest between us
split it straight down the middle.
He was armed with a blue ball point pen,
ready to mark the midpoint of the leather.
But wouldn’t you know,
he made the mark at least two inches into my side of the arm rest.

I couldn’t let Dad know about the miniscule damage to the leather,
but had to let him know about the massive injury to equality.
It’s not fair. His eyes met mine. “Meg, life’s not fair.”

He’d tell me that many more times over my life,
in my teenage years, when I was learning history,
and couldn’t wrap my mind around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict,
I kept asking him to recount what happened in 1948, 1967,
whose land is whose. I doesn’t seem fair, I’d protest. You’re right. He’d say.

Early in my ministry, when I kept coming up slackjawed
at how cancer kept robbing dear saints of time.
Life’s not fair. Over and over again.

Did you know that we’re made to expect fairness early on in our lives ?
I mean really early.

One research experiment with infants shows
two puppets who are given an unequal amount of toys.
Babies who can’t even walk yet can identify the unfair condition.

Another experiment with toddlers has two actors playing with toy blocks.
The actors are told that they’ll each get a sticker if they put away their toys.
One actor cleans up and one does not.
Yet they both get stickers. And the toddlers won’t have it. It’s not okay with them.


It doesn’t take long for us to expect fairness,
to expect that those who work should be rewarded,
and those that don’t shouldn’t be.

Friends, I wonder what our current reality is doing to our steady sense of fair’s fair.

Take Covid:

Across the nation, ICUs beds are filling.
The mental health of our healthcare teams falling.
Anxiety about business, leadership, school, safety is omni present.
And yet in NC, ½ the state is not vaccinated.
What is the fair thing when personal freedom and public health are head to head
with death on the line?

Or, take Race:

What is fairness there? In our nation? With our history?
I’ve been mindful of this question watching the Olympics.

In the pool: everyone starts in at the same place, on the blocks.
But on the track: the inside loop is shorter than the outside.
So the fair thing is actually to stagger the runners.

When conversations about reparations and racial justice arise,
are we thinking about the pool or the track?
Fairness or equity?

All of this is hard.
And so we turn to Jesus.
Except this lesson we learned in infancy,
our hardwired expectation, isn’t what Jesus reinforces.

Jesus never said “Fair’s fair.”
Instead he told this story.

About a vineyard. And a landowner.
And workers who are ready at sun up, and others after breakfast,
others at lunch, still others after their nap,
and even others at Close of Business.

A story about the same amount of money. And about grumbling.
A story about grace.

Can you fathom CEO who pays the same salary to
the employee who shows up suit & tie on time with starbucks & spreadsheet in hand
and the one who is uneducated, unskilled, unkempt, undocumented who actually only showed up to lock up?

It’s not just unfair, it’s preposterous.

Methinks, fairness is not the lesson Jesus is going for here.

Instead, this parable is getting at something completely illogical.

See, fairness can be measured.
Comparison to others is our most exercised hobby, is it not?

But what happens here,
makes. no. sense.

The generosity of God
is beyond our calculations
–and clearly beyond our comfort.

Biblical Scholar Karoline Lewis says:

I think we have a fundamental discomfort with, even a suspicion of, generosity.
Here’s the rub of this parable: that generosity is not something to be understood. And that we have an inherent resistance in receiving generosity. Our human nature is to anticipate a quid pro quo situation:
to assume that we did something to deserve it.
“Really? Me? Why? For no reason? Are you sure? What did I do? What can I do?”

We relegate generosity to equality. Demeaning the abundance that it displays.
This parable is a reminder of the absolute gift of generosity that does not demand response, that does not account for reciprocity. God is about unreckonable grace.

And frankly, we don’t know what to do with that.
I don’t.
I’ve figured out by now that Life’s not fair.

But it’s hard to wrap my mind
around the kingdom of God where God just freely, joyfully, fully
gives to anyone and everyone.

Because I like to think I’m one of those
super responsible, prompt Presbyterian types,
whose served on the committee, done the time, paid the tithe,
ordered the nametag, for God’s sake.

And God sees right through my calculated entitlement
and throws the love and grace and meaningful work and forgiveness and joy
all around the dang place and chuckles at me saying:
am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
Or are you envious because I am generous?

That last part is more literally translated, ‘is your eye evil because I am good?’

Tom Long says that this ‘evil eye’ language takes us back to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus described the eye as a symbol for the spirit of the whole person.

See, in the ancient world the eye was considered to be a source of light that illumined reality. So, the critical issue is what one sees. “If one’s eye is healthy – that is, if one essentially sees the world in a benevolent light – then one’s total life will be abundant. On the other hand, if one basically sees the world in a pinched and selfish way, then one’s whole existence, even acts of apparent charity, will be begrudging.”12

How are our eyes?
Are we able to see the generosity of God?
Are we actually able to let it in?

You know those experiments I was talking about earlier?
How the babies and toddlers could tell what was fair and not fair?
Ever wonder how the scientists could tell what the babies were thinking?

It was because of their eyes.

The researchers would note how long the babies stared at the puppet getting less unequal toys. How long the toddler looked at the actor who got the sticker even though they didn’t clean up their toys.
Children will stare longer at a person or event that they find surprising or out of the ordinary. It’s called the violation of expectancy.

And dear ones,
I have to wonder if we are all wide eyed now.

Staring into the incalculable mystery of God,
God who chooses to
give indiscriminately and love abundantly.

It does indeed violate all our expectations.

It’s not fair.
But we know Life’s not fair.

Isn’t it better that instead God is good?

For the benediction:

William Blake
We are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.