A bit of a poll to begin today’s sermon. Three quick questions:
#1. How many of you think we would be better off if schools taught Christian values?
#2. How many of you like it when schools give ribbons and awards to everyone who participates no matter how well they did?
#3. In light of answering number one and number two, think about what I read just a few short minutes ago in our Gospel lesson, and let me now ask you if you want me to continue my sermon or just stop right here?
You may have voted for me to stop, but let’s chase this rabbit for a little while, shall we?
Why is it most of us say we want Christian values taught, but when confronted with the reality of the Christian faith, we run from those values? Why is it we say we need to teach Christian values in schools, but then recoil when everyone gets an award so that no one gets hurt?
Well, speaking as a parent, I don’t want schools to hand out awards for just participation because the world doesn’t operate that way, does it? The world of business; the world of commerce; the world of dog eat dog, rat race, what have you done for me lately does not reward you for just showing up. It doesn’t give you a pat on the back and a six figure salary for just walking in a door. The world judges you based upon your performance–not your being. And if you do not contribute–if the world sees that you are not doing what it expects you, it punishes you; it shames you; it only gives you what it thinks you deserve.
And I would like to submit to you this morning, that we actually want it that way. Yes, we do. In a very real way, we want the world to operate this way. Why? Because we want our work to matter. We want what we do to count. We want our actions to affect our outcomes because then we have control over our lives and how the world treats us. What do I mean by that?
Well, think about it. If your work matters, it is valuable. And we want to be valuable. We want to believe we are important and that our work is meaningful. And if my work is valuable and meaningful, then I can expect to be rewarded for my work. I can expect people to care about what I do. If I choose to work hard, the world owes me something. If I put in the hard work of studying and getting the right answers at school, then the school owes me an A plus. If I bust my tail end and invent something, I can demand payment for its usage. If I study and learn something, I can demand people cite me and see me as an expert in what I have learned. Do you see how I have control? Do you see how I have a say in my life and how it plays out? And who of us really wants to give that up? Who of us wants to cede any form of control and put ourselves at the whim of others? None of us really. We like control. We like to think we are owed for what we do.
Which is why I think, deep down, many of us don’t like it when everyone gets rewarded no matter what kind of work they do. Most of us don’t like everyone getting a ribbon in a race with no first place, second place, third place, or what have you–it doesn’t give anyone an incentive to strive for excellence–to be the top dog–to reach for the winner’s circle.
And yet, look at how Jesus describes the kingdom of God in our Gospel lesson. Christian values. A land owner goes to the marketplace to hire workers. At the break of dawn, he finds several guys in the marketplace, and he hires them for a day’s wage. They trudge off to work. The land owner goes back to the market at about 9 a.m. He sees others standing idle. He hires them promising to pay what is right. At noon, the landowner does the same thing. Then at three. Then at five. “Why aren’t you working?” he asks the last group.
“Because no one has hired us,” they reply.
“Go to work,” the landowner says. And they go.
Here’s where things get testy. At the end of the day, the landowner brings everyone together for payment. For some reason, he starts with the guys he hired last. He could have saved quite a bit of grumbling if he would have started with the guys he hired first. Then, maybe, no one would have been the wiser. But, that’s not what happened. The landowner calls in the guys he hired at five o’clock. And he pays them a full-day’s wage. They only worked a couple of hours, and they got a full-day’s wage!!!
And so does everyone else. From those who worked two hours to those who worked twelve, all of them get one day’s wage. They are all paid equally for completely unequal work.
Of course, as you imagine, those who worked the most are outraged!!! This isn’t the way the world works!!! If you work more and longer, you should get paid more!!! If you bear the heat of the day, you should be compensated more than those who worked only in the cool of the evening!!! It isn’t fair!!!
And if this story were all about you, you would be right. If this parable were all about your work, you would be correct. It isn’t fair. It isn’t just. It isn’t right. It’s not the way the world works. However, this parable isn’t about you. It isn’t about your work. It isn’t about the way the world works. It’s about the landowner.
“Are you envious because I am generous?”
Short answer in response, “Yes, we are envious, but we are also terrified.” What do I mean by that? Why would I add terrified to the end of that question?
Timothy Keller tells a short story about a woman he was once trying to convert to Christianity. He was sharing the Gospel with her, and she responded, “You know, this grace stuff is pretty scary. I’m not sure I like it.”
Keller pressed her, “Why?”
She responded, “Because if salvation is based upon my works, then I have some control of my life and my salvation. But if salvation is based upon grace and what God has done, then there is nothing He cannot ask of me.”
Keller explains that this woman understood the Gospel more than many Christians. She understood that if her salvation was based upon what she did, then she has rights. If you pay into Social Security, then you are owed the benefits promised by Social Security. If you pay your taxes, you are owed certain government services. If you pay for your car to be repaired, it must be repaired correctly. If you follow the rules, you should not be detained. You have rights. You can make claims. However, if you do nothing and still receive the benefits...what happens then?
Let’s take Jesus’ parable to the next level, shall we. Remember, this parable isn’t about the workers; it’s not about their work; it’s about the landowner. It’s about his generosity. It’s about his willingness to do what he chooses with what he has. Jesus is obviously pointing toward God the Father. He is obviously telling us something about the nature of God. And what is it?
Just this: it’s not about our labor. It’s not about the work that we do which earns you payment from God. It’s not about us doing all the right things so that we will reap the great rewards. It’s not about us just having enough faith and God rewarding us with health and wealth and perfect relationships. No. Not at all. It’s about the payment already given, and it’s much, much more than a day’s wage.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.”
You see, were it not for Jesus and the payment He gave for our sin, we would be in a world of hurt. “For the wages of sin is death,” St. Paul writes. And none of us, I mean none of us, can labor enough to get out of our sin. None of us can escape the reality of this world. We want to have control. We want to call our own shots. We want to have our cake and eat it too. We are genuinely selfish and self-centered–just like those workers in the parable. They were angry because they were focusing on themselves and not on the generosity of the landowner. And the reasons we get angry and frustrated and upset generally have to do with the fact that things are happing that we think shouldn’t happen. The world is not doing what we think it should. It’s not functioning according to our will. We want to be at the center of things calling the shots, and in this scenario, who do we really want to be god? Yeah, ourselves. And the more we try to make things about ourselves, the more angry; the more frustrated; the more unsatisfied we become. The more we try to take control–the more it slips through our fingers.
And so Jesus says, “Let me show you another way. Don’t focus on what you do. Don’t focus on trying to earn your way. Don’t try to justify your existence with your work and your toil and your labor. These things don’t justify you. These things don’t save you. These things don’t give you worth and value. I do. I have already justified you. I have already saved you. I have given you all by dying for you. I paid the price for you. When you should have received the wages of death, I took those wages. When you should have received the wages of the wrath of God, I took that for you. And I replaced it with the wages I should have received. I replaced it with eternal life. I replaced it with my righteousness and clothed you with myself. Not because of what you did but because of what I did. Not because of who you are but because of who I am. Are you still envious because I am so generous?”
At this point, what can we say? I mean, really, what can we say? If this is what Jesus has done; if this is the generosity of the landowner; if this is the wage we receive not based upon our work but upon God’s work, how in the world should we respond? Should we get angry at God’s generosity, or should we rejoice? Should we rejoice that we who deserved to be last are now first? Should we rejoice that others who were once in the same boat as us are now accepted and loved just as we are accepted and loved?
So, when Jesus asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?”, let us replay, “No. Not at all. In fact, I am extremely thankful you are generous, for without your generosity, I would perish. Thank you Jesus, for being so generous and paying me what I didn’t deserve.” Amen.