Today’s sermon continues our 10-part series on Jesus’ parables from Matthew’s gospel. Our scripture is Matthew 20:1-16, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. More than anything, today’s sermon challenges our attitude.
“Do you want to be miserable in life?” I ask. “Spend your time comparing yourself to others. I promise you this: You’ll never measure up… You’ll never make enough money. You’ll never have as nice a house as you want. Your children will never be as successful as you want them to be. You’ll never drive as nice a car as you want. You’ll never be popular enough. You’ll never be pretty enough. You’ll never be appreciated enough. You’ll never get the recognition that you believe your work deserves. You’ll also resent God a little for ‘blessing’ others more than you.”
Our cure for this bad attitude is gratitude. Through Jesus Christ, God has given us everything we need to be truly happy.
Sermon Text: Matthew 20:1-16
The following is my original manuscript.
Parents know that almost the first complete sentence a child learns to say is “That’s not fair!” When a child begins saying it, they have only the vaguest idea of what fairness means. To a very young child, “That’s not fair” usually translates “I don’t like that!” But children somehow know, almost instinctively, that appealing to justice is a powerful rhetorical weapon. “I want a cookie,” the child says. “No, it’s too close to supper. You’ll spoil your appetite.” “That’s not fair.” Well, it’s not really a question of fairness, now, is it?
Pretty soon, however, children do begin to learn the meaning of fairness, especially if they have brothers or sisters. They become hypersensitive to any perceived slight. Older siblings resent that younger siblings have less responsibility than they do when it comes to chores around the house. You ask a child with a younger brother or sister to clean up his mess. In my experience, the next three words out of the child’s mouth will be “but what about…?” Fill in the name of their younger brother or sister. Younger siblings, meanwhile, resent that older siblings have a later bedtime or are able to watch more grown-up TV shows or movies. “That’s not fair!”
But I’m not meaning to pick on kids, because we adults often get out of sorts when we feel like we’re being treated unfairly. Did you hear about Florida Gator coach Will Muschamp? The Saturday before last, he went crazy on the sidelines, screaming and yelling and dropping F-bombs over a bad call from the refs. “That’s not fair!” He apologized publicly and said the worst part is that he had to go home and face his children after such an embarrassing display. The point is that the feeling of being treated unfairly is one of the most powerful emotions.
This feeling lies at the heart of today’s parable, which is why it’s both so easy to relate to and so easy to be bothered by. Forget about whatever theological point Jesus is making for a moment. Try to imagine hearing the story as if you knew nothing about the Bible or the gospel or Christianity. What would you say if you heard this story? You would say, “That’s not fair!”
It’s not fair that these 11th-hour workers, who were hired to do one hour’s worth of work in the cool of the evening, would get paid the exact same amount as these workers who sweated it out for a full 12 hours in the heat of the day. The people who worked the full 12 hours naturally complain. “That’s not fair!” And when the landowner tries to reason with them, they respond, in so many words, “But what about… those guys who only worked one hour?”
But what about… these other people? These first-hour workers would have been perfectly happy if they hadn’t seen what the other people were paid!
You want to make yourself miserable in this life? Ask yourself, “What about those other people?” Comparing yourself in this way is evil. It is of the devil. If you want to do Satan’s bidding, make a habit of comparing yourself to others! If you spend your life comparing yourself to others, I promise you this: You’ll never measure up. You’ll never know peace. You’ll never be satisfied. For example, if you spend your life comparing yourself to other people, you’ll never make enough money. You’ll never have as nice a house as you want. Your children will never be as successful as you want them to be. You’ll never drive as nice a car as you want. You’ll never be popular enough. You’ll never be pretty enough. You’ll never be appreciated enough. You’ll never get the recognition that you believe your work deserves.
Oh… And, by the way, if you spend your life comparing yourself to other people, you’ll never be “blessed by God” enough. And you’ll resent God a little because he’ll seem to bless other people more than you. And it’s not because God actually does bless other people more than you—but it will seem that way. This is one reason why it’s helpful, for example, to go down to Pine Street and minister to the homeless one Saturday afternoon. Because otherwise you might start thinking that God’s blessings are mostly measured in dollars and cents. When you minister to people who are poor, you begin to see that they minister to you at least as much as you minister to them.
Surely you don’t think, for example, that you’re blessed by God simply because you’ve got all this stuff? Are you kidding me? Our stuff can be as much a curse as a blessing! Some of you who’ve been to Pine Street have met a homeless man who calls himself Dr. Love. He’s not the guy who’s in the rock band Kiss, either. He’s an artist, and he will happily show you his portfolio of paintings of biblical scenes. He has almost nothing by our standards, and yet he would be the first to tell you that he has everything.
Why? Because he has God. And what God gives him is everything he needs. If you feel the need to compare yourself to someone, compare yourself to someone like Dr. Love, and you may ask yourself, “Who’s really poor here?”
People of Alpharetta, stop all the striving! What do you think is the source of true happiness. Who do you think is the source? You’ve got everything you need to be happy right here, right now. Granted, it may not be what you want right now. In the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, I read that he didn’t do any market research when Apple designed the iPad. Market research attempts to tell companies what people want. In his characteristically brash, some would say arrogant, style, Jobs said, “People don’t know what they want. We’ll show them what they want!”
The One who designed us, the One for whom and through whom we exist, knows what we really want—much better than we do. And he’s already given it to us through Christ. It’s right here for the asking.
But maybe you’re still not convinced about this parable. Maybe you still think it seems unfair. Or, I should say, maybe I still think it’s unfair. Is it because I wish that I could waste my time for 11 hours before working the last hour and still get my full salary? Is it because I wish I could get by doing as little as possible and still get paid in full? Is it because, for example, I secretly envy the thief on the cross, who gets to live his entire life in a self-centered way, doing as he pleases, thinking only of himself—until nearly the last moment of life, when he repents and inherits eternal life?
I became a Christian when I was 14. I made a profession of faith and was baptized. And when that happened, the Holy Spirit got a hold of my life. Being faithful to Jesus was very important to me. At times, my faith put me at odds with some of my friends and classmates. Unlike some of them, I didn’t drink or do drugs. I didn’t party. I didn’t have premarital sex. I spent an inordinate amount of time at church. I was painfully aware, at times, that these choices made me different. That I wasn’t like most people. That I was going against the grain. Was I missing out? Would I have had more fun if I’d waited to be a Christian until later? Would life have been easier back then if I hadn’t followed Jesus? Maybe some teenagers in our church are wondering the same thing.
But here’s where the first-hour workers got it wrong: Working for the first 11 hours is its own reward. It’s better to do this work than to do anything else.
Do you believe this? Have you learned this for yourself yet? Do you understand that eternal life isn’t something that we sit around waiting for until Christ returns or we die and go to heaven? It’s a quality of life, a new kind of life, that begins in the here and now. I’ve experienced eternal life this way—at least occasionally, imperfectly, in fits and starts. And I know for a fact that many of you have experienced it this way, too.
Many of you here at AFUMC have experienced the joy that comes from faithfully following Jesus Christ. You do things that go against the grain all the time. Like coming to a Bible study at 7:00 on a busy weekday morning to hear God’s Word and learn how to be a more faithful Christian. You take a week of your vacation and pay your own way to go on a mission trip to Honduras, Paraguay, the Gulf Coast, or Romania. You spend a chilly Saturday in the fall feeding and caring for the homeless.
A couple of weeks ago, on HBO, there was a documentary directed by Martin Scorsese about the life of Beatle George Harrison. From what I’ve read, the documentary describes, in harrowing detail, the incident in 1999 in which an intruder broke into Harrison’s home one night and very nearly stabbed him to death. His wife described the attack. She said that her husband “thought that he was being murdered, and he didn’t want to die on someone else’s terms. He told me, ‘I was lying there, thinking, I can’t believe this is happening! Well, I’d better just start getting with God, preparing.’”
I like that. It reminds me reminds me of a prayer from our United Methodist Book of Worship for funeral services. One petition in the prayer asks that we would learn to live as a people who are prepared to die.
Live as a people prepared to die. Isn’t that a worthy goal for living a Christian life?
And we know, deep down, that living this way—which means working on behalf of God’s kingdom, giving everything we have for Jesus Christ, opening our lives to the Holy Spirit and letting him use us for his service—we know that this is the way to live. We know this because think of how differently we’d live if we knew our days were numbered! Suddenly our priorities would change and shift and be rearranged. Many things we thought were so important before would become much less important now. We would stop fooling around with sin in our lives. We would devote a lot more time to prayer and Bible study. We would live our lives with a renewed sense of urgency, purpose, and gratitude… That is, if we knew our days were numbered.
Wait a minute… They are. Maybe this is the eleventh hour. How are we going to spend it?
Because our days are numbered, we have only a limited amount of time to accomplish the work that God has set before us. We have only a limited amount of time to do what the vineyard owner does in this parable, which is to invite as many as will come to do this good work. Like the day laborers in the parable, there are people waiting for that invitation! God wants you to extend that invitation. Time’s a-wasting… Will you invite them?