Saturday, February 07, 2009


I Corinthians 9:24-27
Matthew 20:1-16

It doesn't seem fair- those laborers who worked all day in the hot sun received only as much as those who came in the last hour. The owner of the vineyard either is too generous or too stingy, and for one reason or the other, he is grossly unfair. In fact, he is unfair because he is too fair. Should he not be just? Where is the justice in giving everyone the same reward? We ought to object to this blatantly unfair fairness on principle-it cannot be just.

It is easy to sympathize with the laborers who worked all day for a penny, even though they agreed to work for no more than that standard day's wage. It is easy also to sympathize with the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or with the priest who walked on the other side of the road rather than risk touching a man who may, for all he could see, have been killed. A Levitical priest needed to avoid uncleanness as he went to Jerusalem from Jericho, to the temple. Perhaps a Samaritan-even maybe, if it could be imagined , a good one-might come along to help the man. But, the priest has to remain kosher.

It is all too easy to sympathize with all the wrong people in the Lord's parables, sometimes to agree with the wrong people on principle, on the basis of deeply felt religious scruple. The father was too weak to make his son face the errors of his ways, so he lacked what they call "tough love." The priest needed to walk by on the other side of the road; after all, the rubrics! the rubrics! And, the owner of the vineyard was clearly without any sense of justice.

We see the unfairness of the owner of the vineyard reflected in God himself. That is, if we really notice what goes on in His Church. Some people give themselves to the church for years, even for decades, and some give their money in large amounts. Along comes some new member, perhaps a convert who has lived in notorious sin, or maybe even a (dare I say it?) liberal. This new person, once he becomes a full member, is suddenly equal to the people who have given their money to build the church, have given their time and effort, and done everything they could to make the church what it is. And, in case you thought it was a man-made system of unfair fairness (that great leveler that makes the brand new convert equal to all the people who have served and been on the vestry, and sung in the choir for thirty years) what makes the new convert equal is the Lord's very own sacraments! Once this new person is baptized, and confirmed (or ready and willing to be confirmed), he is receiving not only the same absolution (and to the same degree) as the long faithful members; he even receives the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament. His reward is the same, and if he truly believes, his joy is full.

It just isn't fair.

We may look at the way St. Paul mastered himself, exercising discipline with fasting and prayer. In other places he tells of his sufferings and his life of hardship, with constant persecution. He endured three shipwrecks, beatings, stoning and imprisonment. He did all this because he saw himself as a debtor to every man alive, saying "woe is me if I preach not the Gospel." Surely, though he saw himself as an unprofitable servant who needed no thanks, and though he did all for the love of Christ simply for one reward and none other, namely to know Christ and the power of his resurrection; nonetheless, if we may offer a brief on his behalf as friends of the court, he deserves more. After all his years of labor, why did he always express gratitude and joy? Did he not have anything to say about getting a special reward equal to what he earned?

Ah! Yes, and that's the point. He did say a lot about that very thing, most notably, "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 6:23) In many places in his epistles, even though he suffered much for the kingdom of God out of his love for Christ, he expresses his gratitude for being spared the special reward equal to his labor.

"For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me." I Corinthians 15:9, 10

St. Paul was very grateful indeed that Jesus Christ is not fair; and though he is just, that justice was satisfied by his by "his one oblation of himself once offered- a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world." He crossed mercy with justice, and hung under the place where the two meet as one. Henceforth, there is one reward for all, and the great joy of laboring for the one who loved us, and proved it when he gave himself on the cross for our redemption.

What more could we ask?

I trust that everyone here knows that we cannot earn our salvation, and that we cannot earn anything extra. We were already disqualified by our own sins. Look at Article XIV

Of Works of Supererogation.

Voluntary Works besides, over and above, God's Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

That last part comes from a parable:

"But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. Luke 17:7-10

As we approach the season of Lent it is time to remind ourselves that we do not want God to be fair; and we want his justice to be merciful, that is, to come to us by way of the cross of Christ. It is not an entitlement, but rather it is mercy, that allows you to sit alongside that new convert who has just entered the Church. Consider what has been given to the one who has arrived in this late hour. He has been buried with Christ by baptism into death, and then raised with the Lord to the newness of life. He has been confirmed by the laying on of the bishop's hands, and thus shares in the full power and gifts of the Holy Spirit who was poured out on the Day of Pentecost. His confession of sin is answered by God's gift of absolution. And, he receives the Body and Blood of Christ, the food and drink of eternal life, when he kneels beside you at the altar rail.

Forget how much you feel entitled to by all your work and giving. Simply rejoice and thank God that you are able to kneel down beside that new member at the rail, and that you are granted the same grace as he.


poetreader said...

Oooh, I LIKE this one - because I don't like it. Love is not fair, but transcends fairness. If I'm demanding fair treatment, I'm not giving God the chance to show undeserved love.


Canon Tallis said...

Actually, Ed, if any of us got "fair treatment," there wouldn't be any salvation. God's action in our Lord's work is an action of love and forgiveness that overwhelms the justice which, unfortunately, all deserve. Why? Because we all remain sinners and unworthy of the glory of God. Since I would never make it on the standard of fairness or justice, I rejoice in His love.

poetreader said...

Exactly, Father.

I'm far more like those 11th hour workmen. I've not earned one little bit of God's goodness toward me. In fact, I never even earned the one hour's pay: I'd be the one who even they would be jealous of, not showing up until the pay is being handed out. It's all a free gift, and what I've earned smells more like brimstone than like frankincense.

Thank you, Lord, for NOT treating me fairly!


Anonymous said...

Another fine sermon, as always.

I have developed this particular Gospel along similar lines for the last 29 Septuagesimas, expounding the theme that sovereign grace knocks down all of our petty notions of fairness, and like Ed I am exceedingly grateful that God has not been fair with me.

But I'm starting to wonder if this digs deeply enough into the parable. In 1st century Galilee, workers did not talk back to their bosses. So another issue (perhaps a deeper one) is that of insubordination and mutiny--the essence of sin.
Also, the husbandman's behavior is downright strange. Going back to the market-place over and over, when he already has enough help?
That is God's persistence in His pursuit of sinners, when He already has plenty of angels of adore Him.
The complaint of those who have labored throughout the day overlooks what we too might overlook: the largesse of the householder is entirely at his own expense, he is generous to his own loss, like the father of the prodigal son. That is the infinite price paid on the cross. And we should not overlook the force of that verb translated "go thy way." This is exactly the same verb (hypage)we will have on Lent I, when our Lord said to Satan "get thee hence." The final word of the husbandman to his mutinous workers is terrifying. I hope Jesus never says that to me.

The wonderful thing about the parables, which makes them exciting to preach, is that we can never begin to plumb the depths. They are inexhaustible.

Canon Tallis said...

Absolutely right on that one, Father Wells. I think this is the reason that you can do 29 Septuagesimas and never tire of the lections or of their message. The more you know them, the more you think and pray about them, the deeper they get and the more facets of divine grace they show. I am always thankful when "Invitation Sunday" comes so that i can remind my people of their duty to go into the vineyard and work for the harvest, meaning that they have to tell others about their experience with Jesus and his overflowing grace and love for them and everyone.