Fairness or Grace?
Matthew 20:1-16; Jonah 3:10-4:11
September 21, 2014
When I was beginning my sixth year as a lawyer, I took a position with The May Department Stores Company in St. Louis. May Company had a mid-sized and well respected Legal Department. I was one of about 17 lawyers. I remember so well when the head of the Department gave me the speech about money—a speech that he gave to every lawyer in the department. He told me in no uncertain terms that when it came to setting salaries, giving raises and awarding bonuses, he tried as best he could to be fair, as he understood what was fair in each lawyer’s situation. He knew the egos of the lawyers working for him, and he just didn’t want to deal with the complaints of 17 lawyers crying, “it’s not fair!” His solution was to prohibit talking about salaries or bonuses with anyone else in the department. If his rule was violated, the offending lawyer would be fired. His rule seemed a bit harsh, and I was curious if he was speaking metaphorically, or did he mean that literally. So one day, I asked him. He assured me of his literal intent, but he said with just a bit of a twinkle in his eye that no one had dared to test him yet.
Later on, when I became the head of a legal department, and when I had to listen to the complaints of employees who worked hard for the company, I understood why my boss had drawn his boundaries where he did. I tried to follow suit. To be honest, I don’t know that I really stopped anybody from comparing their paychecks; it may have simply driven the conversation underground. We have this drive to compare ourselves with others, and what we get with what other people get. I might add that preachers are not immune from this temptation, any more than the lawyers are!
Our Gospel Lesson this morning is disturbing to our sense of fairness. We calculate fair pay on a comparative basis, and (not surprisingly) we usually feel that we are deserving of more!
So we hear the story about the day laborers, and we understand why the first set of laborers are upset. It’s not fair, we cry! Surely, when we bring this injustice to the lord of the manor, he will respond with greater reward to those who worked all day in the hot sun. But instead, we find this cryptic “moral” to the story, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). We have been exposed as having been caught in the “fairness trap,” in which we measure who we are by what we get compared to everyone else.
It is critical to the story to note that their complaint is not that the landowner failed to live up to his agreement. He did exactly what he said he would do. Nor is the complaint that the wages were unfair, below market. Indeed, he paid them “what is right” (v. 4), the “usual daily wage,” the going rate for day laborers (v. 10).
The landowner knows that there is a much deeper issue at work here. He confronts the complaining laborers with the source of their discomfort. He asks them, “are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15).
One of the commentators I read this week pointed out that the Greek text actually put that question more bluntly. A more literal way of translating Jesus’ question is this: “is your eye evil?” If we shudder at the word “envy,” we really squirm at labeling this very human emotion as evil.
In our day and age, our culture seems to have lost recognition of envy as a sinful passion, but not so the early church. Christians quickly came to recognize envy as one of the seven deadly sins, right up there with wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, and gluttony. We tend to look at that list and say that those sins aren’t hurting anybody; they are internal attitudes that everybody has. As long as we don’t act on them, why are they so bad?
When we look at them that way, we miss the obvious point. Those passions are wrong because they do hurt someone. They hurt us, because they separate us from God. When we turn our gaze and compare ourselves with someone else, we turn our focus away from God and the gifts that God gives us. We lose gratitude for what we do have because we become focused on what we don’t have. As our hearts fill up with envy, they have less space for God.
This is another application of the point we made last week, when I quoted a spiritual principle from a man I call Fr. Joe: “God can only occupy the space that we offer to Him.” If our hearts are filled with other passions (last week, we were talking about anger, bitterness and resentment), we have no space for God. In the same way, if our hearts are filled with envy, we miss the gracious gifts of God because we think we are entitled to something more. We miss our own sinfulness.
This entitlement trap comes up in another context in the Old Testament Lesson. Jonah complains at the unfairness when the worm eats the plant that gave him shade. “It’s not fair,” Jonah cries, even though he had nothing to do with the plant growing near him in the first place. That plant was the product of God’s grace. Jonah was given the grace of shade from the plant for a day; that did not mean that Jonah was entitled to receive it on a continuing basis. Rather than giving thanks for the day that he received shade, Jonah focused on his loss when it was gone. Why did this happen to him? He was a good person. Hadn’t he gone to the people of Nineveh to preach faithfully the Word that God had given to him (never mind the detour he took through the belly of a whale!)
Be very sure. The sense of entitlement and attachment can drag us down and separate us from God.
That is one of the reasons that the spiritual giants teach the importance of detachment—of letting go to our attachments to things around us. Those attachments cause us to become so focused on ourselves and on what we have that we lose sight of the most important thing—our relationship with our Creator who gives us every good and perfect gift. Often, the sin is not in the objects themselves that we seek and collect along the way; the sin is in the attachment, the binding force that makes the collection of things so important. Jesus knew how important it was to hold on to the things and even the people in our lives “loosely.” Not that we don’t care about them; but we don’t cling to them, and we don’t make them the center, the focus of our lives. We adopt what Ignatius of Loyola called an attitude of “indifference” in which we no longer focus on whether we are healthy or sick, rich or poor, whether we live a long or a short life. Instead, we desire and choose “only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created”—namely, “what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.”
And yet, we find those attachments in our hearts, everywhere we turn. Even when we want to let go of them, we find them creeping up in our hearts and lives. How can we be freed from the bondage of these feelings?
Does anyone remember the similar cry we heard from the Apostle Paul earlier in the summer? “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). He answers his question with thanksgiving: “thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 7:25). It is because of Jesus Christ that Paul can urge us against being “conformed to this world” but, instead, being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). He calls on us to make our bodies into “living sacrifices,” giving up those attachments in favor of the fruits of the Spirit that lead to the kingdom of God.
That is a very practical reason for the Christian practice of self-examination and confession. We don’t focus on our sinfulness so we can feel guilty; we identify our sinfulness so that, in awareness, we can offer our sinfulness to God for God’s transforming, redeeming, life changing power. As we become freed from these attachments, as we exchange our self-centered egos for God’s will, we can open our eyes to see the gifts that God offers us daily.
Is there anything wrong with working hard to earn a living, to make our lives better? Of course not. The problems come up when making money, when creating creature comforts become the central focus of our lives, rather than a means of serving God. The problems are compounded when money, things, and even relationships becomes a means for comparing ourselves to others, depriving us of any ability to give thanks to God for the graces that He gives to us.
Fairness or grace? In reality, that is the wrong question. Everything comes to us through grace.
It is only when we allow the transforming power of God to change us that we are able to seek first the Kingdom of God. When we do, the promise is that “these other things will be added to us, as well.”
May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost. All rights reserved.
 Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
 Patrick J. Willson, “Matthew 20:1-16: Homiletical Perspective” in Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, gen. eds., Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2, Chapters 14-28 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 127.
 I first heard this characterization from the Rev. Dr. Thomas K. Tewell, formerly the pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.
 Ignatius of Loyola, trans. by David L. Fleming, Draw Me into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises—a Literal Translation & a Contemporary Reading (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996), 26-27.