Matthew 20:1-16 Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
“That’s not fair!” You have said it too in your lifetime. Am I right? At some point. As a child maybe – especially if you have siblings. They are notorious for demanding fair treatment from their parents. Or did you say it last week? Can you feel the anger of the workers who slaved in 40 degree celsius heat with the hot sun bearing down on them for hours? How can they be paid the same as the labourers who only harvested for an hour? This parable has several layers of meaning.
For the author of Matthew, who was writing to a mixed, but mostly Jewish congregation, it was a message of acceptance. Yes, the gentiles were coming later into the Kingdom of Heaven, but they were still full members with equal rights. He was encouraging them to not treat the newcomers into the congregation as second-class citizens somehow less worthy of having a say – or a seat – as it were at the table. Even newcomers are full members in the Kingdom.
But there is another layer of meaning to this parable, which I find far more helpful to understanding God’s presence in our life, and it is supported by the story of Jonah. I love the story of Jonah. Man, he did not want to be a prophet! Sadly, his days spent in the ‘belly of a whale’ get too much of the attention when we tell the story. The meat of the story comes after Jonah emerges and actually goes to Nineveh.
Nineveh was the Capital city of Ancient Assyria. The remains of the city were found just opposite present day Mosul. It was very large – one estimate puts it as 60 miles long, very wealthy, and very corrupt. Jonah was called to tell Nineveh to repent and turn from its wicked ways. And it does! Earlier in chapter 3 the scripture reads, “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Well why wouldn’t they? What would you do if a man showed up at your city gates bleached white from the juices of a whale’s belly and stinking to high heaven? That probably scared the daylights out of the Ninevites. However, it is Jonah’s reaction to their repentance that is telling. Instead of rejoicing that the city repented, what does he do? He sulks!
He goes outside the city and complains to God! He wants to commit suicide! Jonah is thinking only of himself. He feels that God betrayed him by not fulfilling the prophecy of a destroyed Nineveh. And that is a very human reaction – what about me? Jonah sits outside the gate in the heat waiting to die. So God – in His mercy – causes a bush to grow up beside Jonah to shelter him from the heat. When the bush dies, Jonah is angry. Then God really rebukes him. “You have more pity for this bush for which you have had no responsibility then for all the people of Nineveh!!” Remember this is a god who “does not delight in the death of the wicked.” Jonah even spills out that he is angry because “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Can you imagine saying those words in anger at God?!
Was it fair of God to forgive the people of Nineveh? What is fairness anyway? Isn’t it about getting what you deserve? Did Nineveh deserve God’s forgiveness? Did the labourers who had worked only a few hours deserve the same pay as those who ‘bore the heat of the day’? So here is a key to the Kingdom of Heaven that many of us do not want to admit. ‘Fair’ is not a measuring stick in the Kingdom of Heaven! ‘Fair’ is not a measuring stick in the Kingdom of Heaven! God isn’t about ‘fairplay’. ‘Fair’ is helpful to humanity. It generally keeps us from killing each other, although even agreeing what is ‘fair’ has led to more than a few scuffles. If ‘fair’ had power in God’s realm, that (pointing to the cross) would not have happened! If God gave us only what we deserve, would you be here in this place today? I wouldn’t be. God isn’t about giving people what they deserve. Isn’t it funny that we only scream, ‘It’s not fair!’ when we feel we have been cheated? Why don’t we cry that when we got more than we deserved? Getting more isn’t fair either. But that is what God has for us – so much more than we deserve!! God isn’t about fair, but mercy – more mercy than we deserve, more grace, more love. God is generous.
Another aspect to the parable of the labourers in the fields that was raised by Donald Hagner in his commentary on Matthew – is that the last labourers hired were last because of some flaw: “The teaching of the parable focuses on the grace shown to those enlisted in the eleventh hour, those regarded by others as not worth hiring. Only in the realm of grace is the equal treatment of all the workers possible.” Remember in sports in school when the teacher would divide us up into teams, assign a captain for each and then tell the captain to choose his or her team? The same kids were always the last to be picked – usually because it was known that they were clumsy or slow. The labourers chosen last were like the kids chosen last for the teams. Something was ‘wrong’ with them – either they spoke a foreign language or were physically handicapped or known to be lazy. Those workers’ never stood a chance of earning a full day’s wage! Think about it.
Not all of us have the same opportunities in life. A friend of mine in her own sermon told the story of losing her first child. The baby had not even survived its first day of life. In her pain and grief, the mother cried to her husband, ‘Why us?’ His answer was awfully wise, he said, ‘Why not us?’ It is the human condition. Some don’t breath their first real breath while others live to great old ages. Some of us experience good health and others suffer all kinds of maladies. Some of us are born with all our limbs, and some of us aren’t. Some of us thrive mentally, while others have a knack for creating hell for themselves no matter what people do to help them. Tragedy and hardship strikes every family eventually, but here in this verse in Matthew lies our hope: In the Kingdom of Heaven, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. God’s measuring stick is not the same as man’s! All will be bathed in the generous and healing love of God when they come into the Kingdom. We are not to be like Jonah and sulk because God is generous, but rather rejoice and participate in that generosity! We serve “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” God isn’t fair! Hallelujah.