Proper 20a, September 21, 2014

September 22, 2014

The Godliness of Unfairness
Matthew 20:1-16

20:1 “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, 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. 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? 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?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I can’t read this parable without thinking of the way United Methodist ministers are compensated here in Arkansas because it’s equally odd. We preachers aren’t paid the same amount for unequal amounts of time spent in the vineyard. The amount of time we spend at work may vary a bit, but it’s roughly the same. The amount of work we do has little bearing on how much we get paid – what we are paid depends on the vineyard we are working in.

And there is wide variation in the amounts we are paid. I don’t know the full extent of that variation because you can’t get a copy of the salary sheet anymore. The salary sheet is the document that shows the breakdown of all the clergy salary packages in the state. Of course we aren’t supposed to care about such things, but I think it’s information that should be available. When I last tried to get a copy of that document I was told that I could find that information in the Annual Conference Journal, but that really isn’t true. Each church reports these lump sum amounts paid for clergy support without identifying who gets what.

My retired preacher friend refers to the salary sheet as the sin-sheet – which is exactly what it is. Any preacher who looks at that sheet becomes fully engaged in one of those official types of sin. The sin-sheet immediately elicits things like pride, greed, envy, jealousy, anger, or outright malice. And then those sins become compounded by the phone calls that generally follow a view of the sin-sheet. As soon as you see it you are compelled to call another preacher to engage in what Wesley might refer to as non-edifying conversation. I fully understand why our conference administrators keep the salary sheet under tight control. That’s what you call a sin-reduction plan.

I can generate some righteous indignation about the unfairness of our compensation system. And I tell myself that it’s not that I feel under-compensated. I like to think I get worked up about the over-compensation of some of my peers, but when I start ranting about the unfairness of our system I can’t help but notice how much I sound like one of those workers in this morning’s parable – one of those guys who got hired first thing in the morning.

While I really don’t trust the motives of those who keep the salary sheet under tight control I’m honestly sort of grateful they won’t let me have one. I wish we, as a Conference, would engage in some honest analysis of the impact our arbitrary compensation system has on the health and vitality of our denomination, but I’m sure my lack of access to that information reduces the rate of my sinning. And what I also know is that compensating pastors for the work of ministry is always going to be an odd and arbitrary undertaking. How much should you pay a person not to have a regular job? It’s no wonder that the figures are all over the place.

But this isn’t just a problem for United Methodist preachers. It’s hard for anyone to untangle their sense of worth from their compensation package. How we are paid gives some people an inflated sense of importance and it robs others of value. It creates painful divisions among us, and it disturbs our souls. Apparently it’s an old problem because I think these are the issues this parable raises and addresses.

I believe Jesus told this parable to reveal the way in which money messes with our hearts and minds. I don’t think any of us can read this parable without being a bit disturbed by the unfairness of the way these workers were paid. I think most of us could argue that this employer engaged in an unfair business practice, but what it primarily exposes is how much importance we place on our desire to get what we deserve – when we think we deserve more than others.

Because this desire to get what we deserve can evaporate pretty quickly when you fully examine what it is that we actually deserve. When you take in all the factors that impact who we are and how we have what we have I think most of us would be happy to get what Jesus said we all deserve – which is daily bread. In a business sense, it was unfair to pay those who worked a short time the same amount that those who had worked all day, but Jesus wanted those of us who have an inflated sense of what we deserve to let go of our obsession with what we sense to be fair and to recognize that none of us actually deserve to have more than others.

I’m not sure how you put this kind of economic system in to practice. We’ve seen some pretty bad examples of what happens when countries claim to have equality within the marketplace. So-called communist countries might argue that they have established more equality between workers, but as George Orwell said in his allegorical dystopian novel, Animal Farm, which critiqued the Soviet Union under Stalin — all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.

We human beings have a hard time creating fair economic systems. And what constitutes fairness looks vastly different depending on where you are standing. Fairness means one thing to people who have more than they need and a far different thing to people who don’t have enough, and how you define fairness will determine how important you think fairness really is. The workers who were hired last and paid first weren’t so concerned about fairness – they got what they needed and were grateful to have it. And I think that’s the attitude Jesus was trying to promote in all of us with this parable.

Fairness is a fine thing. I don’t think any of us need to be quiet about the various forms of unfairness that surround us, but none of us need to harbor the illusion that we have what we have because life is fair. If you think the world we currently inhabit and the good fortune that some of us have is a product of divine fairness you need to meditate for a moment on the history of the native Americans or the plight of African Americans. Our country has not been shaped by fairness, and it’s not currently guided by fairness. I’m not saying our country is any worse than any other nation that has ever existed, but it’s not fair.

I just finished listening to a book called The Journey of Crazy Horse, by Joseph Marshall. Crazy Horse was the Lacota warrior who is best known for leading the Battle at the Little Bighorn where Gen. Custer had his last stand, but Crazy Horse was known within his tribe as someone who was totally focused on the well-being of his tribe. The clash between the native Americans and the European Americans is a tragic story. I’m not sure how it could have played out in a better way, but I wish we had been more sensitive to the way they lived on the land.

The native Americans had their issues, but they had some good values. They valued courage and honor and the skills of both men and women. They valued having enough meat to get them through the Montana winters, but they didn’t waste meat or any other resource. And they had no idea what this obsession with gold was all about. Unfortunately I think we immigrant Americans have done a better job of teaching the native Americans the value of gold than we have learned from them how to live well on the land, but how to live with others will always be a problem.

It’s hard not to live with an eye of judgement toward one another. We have this inclination to measure ourselves against each other and to get bent out of shape by pride, jealousy or shame. We rationalize where we are by pointing out the fairness or the unfairness of it all, and I think Jesus calls all of this measuring we do in to question.

Jesus turns the world as we know it upside down. By saying the first will be last and the last will be first he messes up all of the ways we generally sort ourselves out. He wants those of us who have much to question the value of our things and our positions, and he wants those who don’t have enough to know that they deserve more. Jesus told this unsettling parable so that we would question the way we see the world and to take note of how much we rely on this concept of fairness or unfairness to make ourselves feel better about what we have or angry about what we don’t.

Jesus didn’t seem to care very much about fairness. Jesus cared about faithfulness. Jesus wanted to produce faithfulness to the God who loves us all equally, and who wants us to do the same. Loving us all equally isn’t an act of fairness – it’s an act of generosity, and that’s what we need to value more than anything else. We don’t just need to treat each other fairly – we need to treat each other generously.

The kingdom of God is such an odd place. All of the standards we use to measure ourselves and one another simply go out the window. What goes on in the kingdom of God isn’t fair – it’s glorious! And we are invited to abide there. It’s an odd journey we are challenged to take, and if you don’t feel qualified you can take comfort in knowing that in God’s kingdom the first are last, and the last are first.

It’s not fair – it’s gracious.
And thanks be to God for that. Amen.


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