Gracious Generosity


A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on September 18, 2011.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 20:1-16 

Our Gospel lesson this morning is often called the “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.”  If you’ve been a Christian for a while, you are probably familiar with this parable.  A landowner goes out six in the morning to hire laborers to work his vineyard and tells them that he will pay them a full day’s wage.  He later goes out again at nine in the morning, twelve noon, three in the afternoon and even five in the afternoon to hire more laborers.  He tells these workers that he will pay them “whatever is right.”  These workers go to work with no guarantee of specific payment, but trusting that they will be paid fairly.  At the end of the day, all the workers are called to receive their wages, and here, the owner does something that was unexpected and guaranteed to create to stir.  Starting with those who worked just one hour, the landowner paid them a denarius, a full day’s wage.  He then paid the same thing to the laborers who worked for three, six and nine hours all in full view of those who worked the full twelve hours.  That landowner was such a tease!  No one could blame the laborers who worked hard the whole day to expect a little more payment because of their faithfulness and long tenure.  But each one of them also received a denarius.  When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.  “These men who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”

I don’t know about you, but I have some sympathy for those laborers who worked the full twelve hours.  It seems unfair that they would be paid less per hour than the other workers.  After all, the first workers were the early birds who took the initiative.  They searched the want ads and pounded the pavement to be first in line for their job interviews.  Once they got their job, they worked hard, paid their dues and were loyal to their companies.  And now, they felt they were being passed over, not acknowledged for their labor, and not being fairly compensated for the amount of work they put in.  Have you ever felt this way?

Last year, Anne Mattos-Leedom wrote an article for beliefnet.com called “Getting Over the ‘It’s Not Fair’ Syndrome.”  She lists ten things to get over the “It’s Not Fair” syndrome, and I want to highlight four of them in light of Jesus’ parable.[1] 

The first step to get over the “It’s Not Fair” syndrome is to Reflect on the Truth.  Mattos-Leedom writes: “With a few possible exceptions, many of the difficult things that happen to us in life that are the direct result of choices we made. . . . Take a hard look at your circumstances that seem so unfair and ask yourself the hard questions about what you did do or not do that might have increased the chances of this happening to you.” 

The landowner replied to the laborers who worked the full day: “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?”  Yes, they did.  The landowner was not being unjust.  The laborers knew that they were going to receive a denarius for the full day’s work, and that’s what they got.  Sometimes, when are in an “unfair” situation, after some reflection, we may actually find that it isn’t so unfair, or that our choices actually played a part in contributing to that situation.  It is hard to acknowledge that truth, but it is the first step in getting over the “It’s Not  Fair” syndrome.

The second step is to Stop Comparing.  Mattos-Leedom writes: “We choose for ourselves what seems fair by comparing our lives and circumstances to those of others around us. Resolve to evaluate your life based only on what you want for yourself and not based on what others seem to have. There is a divine plan for each of us. Having faith in that plan will create a sense of fairness regardless of your circumstances.” 

What got the full-day laborers all upset was that they started comparing themselves with those laborers who worked fewer hours than they did.  If the landowner had just paid those full-day laborers first and let them go on their merry way before paying the others, none of the complaining would have happened.  It’s the comparisons with others that can get us into trouble.  Have you ever had a friend who felt he got a great deal on a new car or TV?  But then he couldn’t contain his curiosity, and started asking other people what they paid for the same car or TV?  If they paid more, he would almost gloat about his deal.  But once he found someone paying less than he did, it took all the joy out of his buying experience, and he ended up feeling like he was ripped off.  That’s the pitfall of not leaving well enough alone and comparing ourselves with others.

The third step to get over the “It’s Not Fair” syndrome is to Give Up on Control.  Mattos-Leedom writes: “There are so many chaotic events in the world and in our lives, and in an attempt to cope we often cultivate a need to control as many things as we can. However, this can be a delicate balance. The sense of ‘it’s not fair’ often comes from the need to control things in our life that in spite of our best efforts we simply do not have ultimate control over. Develop a healthy balance between giving things your best effort and then understanding ultimately it is out of your control. Put your efforts into the process but learn to let go of the need to control the outcome.” 

In other words, do your very best, and leave the rest in the hands of God.  The landowner told the full-day laborers: “Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?”  The laborers have no control over what the landowner was going to do with his own money, and they had to learn to give up on trying to control and impose their sense of justice and fairness on the landowner.  Until we learn to give up on control, we will punish ourselves by being upset and unhappy over things we have no control over. 

The fourth step to get over the “It’s Not Fair” syndrome is to Redefine the Concept of Fair. Mattos-Leedom writes: “Often we look to a divine power to be completely and totally responsible for our lives. We say, it isn’t fair that I didn’t get that job or my marriage didn’t work out, etc. because of how we believe that the universe and/or God should care for us blindly. Our lives are a team effort with the divine. Our part is to do the best we can and then to see past the moment into the bigger picture and knowing that ultimately what happens is part of that plan. Often things are much fairer then we realize at the time. That is where faith comes in.” 

The bigger picture in this parable was that, at the beginning of the story, not a single one of those workers had a job or meaningful work, and all of them were dependent on the landowner to hire them.  The bigger picture was that the landowner wanted to call as many workers as possible to tend his vineyard.  The bigger picture was that the landowner was indeed unfair to four-fifths of the total workers who were hired.  Fair would mean that he paid the workers only for the hours they had actually worked.  But by paying them all a full-day’s wage, the landowner is shown in the bigger picture as not being merely fair, but being downright generous and gracious!   

The Protestant theologian Martin Luther believed that the heart of this parable is indeed “that God does not want to deal with us according to work, according to our deserving, but according to grace.”[2]  It was God’s gracious generosity that sent His Son Jesus to come to earth to pay the debt for our sin that we couldn’t pay.  It is God’s gracious generosity that calls us to work in His Kingdom in the first place.  And it is God’s gracious generosity that we are given a denarius, no matter when we were called or how long we have worked.  In fact, for those everyone sees as the last, the Lord will treat as the first.  And for those who think they are first, the Lord will treat as last.  But in either case, all will be rewarded according to God’s gracious generosity.  As St. Augustine once said, “That denarius is life eternal, and in the life eternal all will be equal.” [3]  That’s the good news!

Therefore, in light of God’s gracious generosity, how then should we respond? “Why do we work for God in the first place?”  Do we serve out of the gratitude and the joy of who God is?  Or do we serve for the reward that God has promised us in the end?  I heard a story about Jesus teaching his disciples another parable.  Jesus said: The kingdom of God is like two brothers who were called by God to give up all they had and serve humanity.  The older responded to the call generously, though he had to wrench his heart from his family and the girl he loved and hoped to marry.  He eventually went off to a distant land where he spent himself in the service to the poorest of the poor.  A persecution arose in that country and he was arrested, falsely accused, and put to death.

And the Lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant!  You gave me a thousand talents’ worth of service!  I shall now give you a billion talents’ worth of reward.  Enter into the joy of your Lord!”

The younger boy’s response to the call was less than generous.  He decided to ignore it and go ahead and marry the girl he loved.  He enjoyed a happy married life, his business prospered, and became famous and rich.  Occasionally, he would give alms to the poor. 

When he died, the Lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant!  You gave me ten talents’ worth of service!  I shall now give you a billion talents’ worth of reward.  Enter into the joy of your Lord!”

The older boy was surprised when he heard that his younger brother was to receive the same reward as he.  He went to talk to the Lord.  The older brother said this to the Lord: “Lord, knowing this as I do, if I were to be born and live my life again, I would still do exactly what I did for you, because doing those things brought me joy.”[4]

God is still graciously calling for laborers.  Let us respond to God’s call with the same gracious generosity as that older boy.  And when we do, we will be less concerned about God’s fairness, because we will be overwhelmed with gratitude and joy in light of God’s grace.  Amen. 



[1] http://www.beliefnet.com/Inspiration/2010/06/Getting-Over-the-Its-Not-Fair-Syndrome.aspx.

[2] Cited in Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 2, The Churchbook.  Revised and Expanded Edition (2004), p. 320.

[3] Augustine, Sermons, 37(97):6:375, www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf106.vii.xxxix.html.

[4] Adapted from Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, p. 117-118.

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Tags: Generosity, Grace, Matthew 20:1-16, Michael Cheuk, Sermons, Unfairness, Workers in the Vineyard