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09.21.14 When Just is Not Fair, Matthew 20:1-16 Sermon Summary

by on September 22, 2014

There is perhaps no other parable that offends us as much today, especially in America, as it did Jesus’ original audience as this one.

Summary Points

  • The parable of the generous Landowner and it’s parallels in the parable of Jonah
  • Why Jonah couldn’t rejoice over God’s generosity towards others
  • How God’s grace extends even to an isolated and resentful Jonah
  • How Paul’s example guides us to receive and share God’s grace

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” So begins a parable unique to Matthew. The Landowner hires Day Laborers throughout the day: at 6 AM, 9, 12 PM, 3, and finally at the 11th hour, (5 PM), with 1 hour left in the work day. He pays them a denarius, the subsistence wage for a family. According to Old Testament law governing the economy of the poor, the Laborers must be paid at the end of the day. The Landowner pays everyone what they need to support their family, what we would call a “living wage.”

The first hired Laborers grumble. They’ve worked all day in the heat. The Landowner recognizes that they have an “evil eye,” which means they viewed him with resentment and accusation of unfairness, and their fellow Laborers with envy.

Jonah had the same view. He was miraculously saved by big fish and delivered to Nineveh to proclaim repentance. When the people repented and God did not punish them, it made Jonah “very displeased.” Jonah would rather die than give up his bigotry.

God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” This is the precise question to ask an angry person, because it forces us to examine our hearts. But it is also the hardest one to hear. Jonah is so angry he doesn’t even answer God, but flees again. He heads “East,” which is the Bible’s way of saying he departs from God’s presence (remember the Garden?), and watches to see what will happen. He still wants Nineveh to be judged.

Jonah builds himself a booth, a little shelter from the elements while he watches. And here we get an insight into his core problem. Jonah is too self-reliant. He wants to be recognized for what he’s done, and he wants others to be punished for what they haven’t done. Jonah is preoccupation with rewards—who has them, who doesn’t. This blinds him to the presence of grace (remember the fish?) in his life. Because of this, he can’t accept the presence of grace in the lives of the Ninevites.

Think about this: Is there anyone who, if they end up in heaven, it would make you mad? Standing next to this person, would you accuse God of injustice? Or back in this life, how do you respond when things go well for others? Do you rejoice with them, or are you envious, resentful, watching with an “evil eye”?

The good news is that God doesn’t abandon Jonah in his anger. Or to his self-reliance. God provides a shade tree for a day, a shelter better than the one Jonah has made for himself. The next day, however, God removes the shade tree and sends an extra hot sun and wind. Finally God asks again, “Is it right for you to be angry?” God returns to Jonah in his isolation and resentment, and invites him back to God’s grace—a grace that includes Nineveh.

Likewise, the Landowner speaks to “one” of the Grumblers—interesting because up to now the Landowner has dealt only with groups of Laborers. As God is gracious to the 120,000 Ninevites (and their animals!), he is gracious to the lone petulant prophet on the Eastern hill. The Landowner addresses the one Grumbler as “Friend.” He invites him into the generosity of grace. In paying everyone the daily living wage, he reminds the Grumblers that God provides what we need, not what we deserve. We need daily bread; but so does everyone else.

Paul and Jonah make an interesting study in contrasts. Both are commissioned to proclaim the good news of God’s grace. Both at one point preferred death. Jonah wanted to die because he was resentful of God’s grace; Paul because he desired to be in the fullness of God’s presence. The irony is that because Paul shared God’s grace with others, he already enjoyed God’s presence. But because Jonah would deny God’s grace to others, he was already dead.

How do we live like Paul and not Jonah? How do we live in God’s grace? Paul’s example teaches us that it starts by (1) being grateful, grateful that we have been called. Grace is that, whether at 6 AM or in the 11th hour, that the Landowner came looking for workers. Grace is that, when we flee from God, he comes looking for us. Gratitude for God’s grace helps us to (2) be content with what we have. Out of this gratitude and contentment, we are able to (3) rejoice with others over God’s generosity towards them. And finally, Paul teaches us to (4) find a way to serve others with our lives.

If we follow Paul’s example we’ll discover like he did that it’s better to die in God’s service, than to die in our resentment.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Share a time when you had the “evil eye,” a negative attitude towards God’s generosity towards others. How did that make you feel? How is your relationship with that person? What affect does this attitude have in your relationship with God?
  • In what ways are you building your own sanctuary “East” of where God is residing? How are you trying to do things on your own instead of depending on God? Knowing that God comes looking for us, how might you make it easier for God to find you?
  • Who are the people which, when you think about God judging them, it gives you a sense of satisfaction? What do you suppose God’s attitude is towards them? What would you do if you ended up on the same floor in God’s heavenly house?
  • What are some ways God has been gracious to you? Do you spend time in grateful prayer for this grace? How might meditating on God’s goodness to you help you be more gracious towards others?
  • Paul found purpose in serving others. How are you serving others, out of gratitude and while on this side of death?
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