Below is my sermon from September 24, 2017, focusing on Matthew 20:1-16. Take a minute to read the parable if you haven’t heard it recently, because it’s definitely a more thought-provoking one. I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments–what does this parable reveal to us about what God is like? About what human beings are like?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“It’s not fair!” Parents of toddlers and small children, how many of you hear these words at least once a day? It’s not fair! In seminary, my classmates and I had to act out this parable during the chapel service, and I was assigned the part of the all-day laborers. The professor wondered if I had it in me to be whiny enough. I assured him, ever since I was born as the younger sibling, I was ready to play this role and declare the unfairness of it all.
If there’s one thing we’re born with it’s an innate sense of what is fair and what isn’t. Just try giving a slightly larger piece of cake to one sibling and see what the other one thinks is fair. It’s not a bad thing, this sense of fairness. Developed to maturity, that sense of fairness is the foundation for justice and equality.
It’s not fair that some people have access to quality education and others don’t. It’s not fair that some people’s water is clean and others’ is filled with lead and chemicals. It’s not fair that some people can afford to see a doctor when they’re sick and others can’t. It’s not fair that some people don’t have enough food to eat while others fill landfills with their excess. That’s the good outcome of a sense of fairness.
But, more often than not, our sense of fairness tends to be ego-centric. It’s certainly true of toddlers, but I think it’s still often true for us adults as well. We assess fairness in terms of what seems fair for us. In terms of our own needs, hopes, and expectations, often with little—or at least secondary—regard for the wants and needs of others.
And so we come back to our parable. What seems great to some seems unfair to others. If you’re like me, this parable offends your sense of fairness. It might be equal, but it isn’t fair. Some have worked all day, through the hot sun of the afternoon, and they receive the same as those who only came an hour before work ended. It’s not fair. They expect to have so much more than these late-comers.
We shape our identities and sense of worth by constantly comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. Rather than being content with what we have or who we are or what we’ve accomplished, we so regularly look to those around us to decide whether it is enough based on what others have or are or have accomplished.
But the problem with this parable isn’t that some people get better things or more than others—it’s that they all get the same. And they don’t all deserve the same. It’s not really about the money, it’s about what the money represents—superiority.
Which is why I love that alongside this parable, we have the story of manna in the wilderness. The Israelites have escaped from Egypt, but are beginning to despair. They have no food in the wilderness and some begin to think they should go back to Egypt. So God provides manna. Appearing on the ground, this miraculous substance gives the people of God all they need.
But manna is a gift that cannot be hoarded. In fact, a little later in the story, when some try to take more than they need, it becomes rotted and maggot infested overnight. Manna is there for one day, and there will be more the next day. Everyone gets plenty, but no one has too much. The leaders of the people and the lowly servants, the people who work all day and the people with little to do, the able and the disabled—all get the same: plenty, but not too much. And it is all a gift.
Wherever we find ourselves in this story, whatever part of the parable we identify with, at the end of the day, the landowner’s question can be asked of us: Are you envious because I am generous? Are we going to be grateful for our blessings, or envious of others? The thing about gratitude and envy is, you truly can’t live by both at once.
Do we count our blessings or our misfortunes? Do we pay attention to areas of plenty or do we only pay attention to what we lack? Do we live by gratitude or by envy? Is our sense of fairness turned outward towards our brothers and sisters and a true sense of justice, or does it only focus on ourselves?
Each week we pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” Give us. Not me. Not my family. But us. This prayer is a prayer not only for ourselves, but that all people might have what they need. In Martin Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, he asks the question: what does daily bread mean? His answer: Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright and faithful rulers, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, and the like.
He includes plenty, but not too much. We ask for it for ourselves, and also for others. That all might have plenty, which is enough. Luther also says that, “we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.” To recognize that our blessings are not our own. They are not earned or deserved, and it is not up to us to decide whether it is enough compared to others.
And so, might we pray that this week we recognize what is our daily bread and to receive it with thanksgiving. May we pray that we can find moments for gratitude this week, to take time for gratitude this week. Gratitude, not just for our own blessings, but for the blessings that others receive as well. May we give thanks with them, and for them, and continue to work towards a day when all truly have plenty. Amen.