"Calculating Our Worth”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – September 18, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Matthew 20:1-16


     Years ago a book was printed entitled, “The Humor of Christ” by Elton Trueblood.  In it the author chronicled a number of instances where Jesus played with people either to observe their responses or to capture and hold their attention for a lesson that he wanted to teach them. 

    A typical example was the time when Jesus was enjoying a vacation in a small community on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea.  He was staying with friends in a home located near the city of Tyre.   Jesus did not want anyone to know he was there.  However, word of his arrival preceded him.

    A Samaritan woman from the area approached Jesus and begged him to deliver her daughter from a demon that was occupying her body.  Because we were not there to witness his verbal exchange with this woman, we missed watching Jesus banter with her. 

    Jesus was being playful when he used the race card in his response to her.   Jesus said, “Let me first feed the children of Israel.  It isn’t right to take what belongs to my people and throw it to the dogs.”  If he were being serious, we could not imagine Jesus ever responding this way to anyone, particularly when he admonished his followers to love their neighbors. 

    The woman apparently understood Jesus’ intent and quickly responded with a brilliant retort.  She said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table get to eat the children’s leftovers.” No doubt, Jesus had a smile on his face from her imaginative response. He said, “Go home and you will find that your daughter is well.” (Mark 7:24f)

    Another example that Trueblood described in his book was our lesson for today.  Jesus used a bait and switch method as once again he enjoyed watching the response of his listeners.  He told them the story by beginning with these words, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this.”   We can almost imagine the dramatic hush that fell over the audience as once again he was going to tell them what the experience of Heaven is like.

    He told them this story:  Early in the morning, a winemaker hired men to work in his vineyard.  He negotiated with them to pay each the regular wage of one silver coin. They agreed and went to his vineyard.  He made the same offer to other workers at 9:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m., and at 5:00 p.m.  At the end of the day, he told his foreman to pay everyone the wage for which each worker had agreed.  

    It did not take long for the winemaker to hear grumblings of discontent coming from of the workers.  “Wait a minute!” exclaimed a spokesman, “We worked for eight hours and you are paying us the same wage as those who worked only one hour?”  It is interesting how the winemaker responded to the workers.  He said, “That’s what I decided to do.  Don’t I have the right to spend my money as I wish?  Or, are you jealous because of my generosity?”

    What happens to our thinking when we put ourselves in the shoes of the workers that were hired first?  If there is any parable of Jesus that evokes a visceral response from us, it is this one.  The reason we have this reaction is that we want to be treated fairly.  Whether or not we care to admit it, many of us spend time comparing our life-experiences with those of other people.  We always want life to present us with a level playing field.

    For years women have questioned why it is that they can perform the same job as a man in a similar position with their company and often there is a sizeable gap in what they are paid.  Women want to be treated fairly.  They have every right to question their salary level just as a number of the vineyard workers did at the end of the day.

    Our society has made a science out of teaching us why it is important to compare everything.  We want what is best for us.  For example, when we hear advertisements that cause us to compare Bayer Advanced Aspirin over other pain relievers we want to buy a product that really works.  When we go to the voting booth during the next election, we want to elect the political candidate that truly places Bermudians first above all the special interest groups.

    We have been thoroughly trained to want the very best for ourselves and our families.  Self-interest is at the heart of many of our countless decisions.  This is why Jesus’ story was so challenging for his listeners to interpret.  In spite of how generous the winemaker was, what he did was a terrible business practice, particularly if he wanted to hire workers in the future.

    Knowing how quickly his listeners were identifying with the poor laborers who worked all day and how the winemaker paid all his workers the same wage, Jesus had his audience right where he wanted them. They had to pay attention in order to hear how Jesus was going to bring his story to a satisfying ending.  They may have gotten so caught up in the drama of his story that they missed hearing how he started it -- “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this . . .”   

    The point of Jesus’ story had nothing to do with the wage of a silver coin being given to all workers in spite of how long they worked.  His point was that this is how God treats everyone in spite of when or even if they awaken to God’s presence in their lives.  His parable was not about how fairly people were being treated; it was about how generous God is in loving all people equally.

    This interpretation of God’s nature was confusing to his listeners, particularly when religious practices and faithfulness had been influenced and defined by the Pharisees. These men spent their lives modeling total obedience to the Hebrew Laws.  Obedience was the goal of these righteous men who sincerely believed that this is what God wanted from all humanity.  They had been taught to think this way by their teachers.

    The people listening to Jesus could not begin to approach the faithfulness of the Pharisees.  Many of them felt that there was little they could do to improve their relationship with God.  This is the reason why Jesus told them this story.  All his listeners were God’s beloved children whether or not they felt worthy of that honor.

    Some years ago a woman was dying of AIDS and her priest came to visit her. He found her very depressed. She said to him, "Father, I have disappointed everyone who has ever loved me.  I made a terrible mistake and I cannot repair the damage I have done to the love of my parents, my family and my friends.  I have no one to blame but myself.  Soon the ravages of this disease will consume me.  What then, Father?” 

    The priest looked away from her and said, "Tell me about the picture on your dresser. Who is that lovely young girl?" The woman said, "She is my daughter." The priest asked, "If she made a terrible mistake in her judgment, would you ever abandon her?  Would you refuse to go to her if she had a need?" The woman said, "No, in spite of how sick I am, I would make every effort to be by her side."  Then the priest said, "I happen to know that God has a picture of you on his dresser."

    She smiled and said, “You think so?”  The priest said, “No, I don’t think so, I know so.  The love you have for your daughter cannot be greater than God’s love for you, Sarah.” Then he quoted the words written by the Apostle Paul to that small community of Jesus’ followers living in Rome, “Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.”  (Romans 8:38)

    This was the point of Jesus’ story about the winemaker.   There are always going to be people around us that appear to be more worthy in God’s sight.  We believe they make fewer mistakes and live more faithful lives.  Their spoken prayers are beautiful.  They can quote Scripture better than most pastors.  They seldom miss any function happening in their churches. They are obedient and faithful in their responsibilities.  They know in their hearts, minds and spirit that they are among the saved.

    These are the people that worked the eight hours.  However, if these Christians grow unhappy when they discover that they received the same degree of God’s love as those who awakened to God’s presence very late in life, they will have missed the mark.  They did not hear the end of Jesus’ parable, “I choose to give the man I hired last the same wage I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money?  Or, are you jealous because I am generous?” 

    If there is any doubt about the message Jesus was teaching, he told another parable that contained the same message.  A tax collector and a Pharisee went to the Temple to pray.  The Pharisee was quite confident of his personal salvation but the tax collector could only say, “God, please be merciful to me.  I am a sinful man.”  Jesus said, “The tax collector and not the Pharisee was the one who knew he was dependent on God’s mercy.”  (Luke 18:14).  What is it about some people that cause them to feel more deserving of God’s love?

    While living in my former community, I was a close friend with the Rabbi of a large Jewish congregation that was located near my church.  He had a problem.  His synagogue was too small to accommodate the large number of Jews that always attend services during the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – their holiest of days.  I gave him the use of our building without cost simply because I felt it was the right thing to do for our brothers and sisters of another faith.

    Sheepishly, the president of his congregation came to me and asked if his people could take some liberties with our sanctuary.  He asked if they could build a structure out of PVC pipe from which curtains could be hung that would shroud the gigantic wooden cross located near our altar.  He also asked if we could remove all the Christian symbols from the sanctuary as well.  I understood his point completely and readily complied with his wishes.  Our Altar Guild removed everything and they built their shroud.

    At the same time, classrooms were being used in our building by another church in town for their high school students while their church was experiencing a renovation program.  A woman from that church was on her way to pick up her son and she confronted me when she learned what the Jews had done in our sanctuary.  She said, “How dare you allow the Jews to come into your church and also give them permission to shroud the cross on which our Savior, Jesus Christ shed his precious blood.”

    She caught me totally by surprise.  I said to her, “Do you think that when Jesus entered his synagogue to worship that he would have felt comfortable being faced with a Roman execution device that someone had erected in his sanctuary?”  I went on to tell her, “When the Jews are in our sanctuary, that space has become their temple.  Instead of the cross, they have their Ark in which the Torah is housed.  I have granted the Jews freedom to express their faith without the distraction of being surrounded by symbols that are only meaningful to us.”  

    She just glared at me with complete distain. She briskly turned and walked away to retrieve her son.  Perhaps she had forgotten that Jesus was a Jew, a Jew that never became a Christian.  Perhaps she had forgotten what love enables us to do when we are asked to accommodate others of a different faith.   

    Perhaps it is the self-interest in our human nature that causes us to believe that we are more deserving of God’s love than other people.  Our value system is different from God’s creative processes.  Rather than understanding that life is a constant evolutionary process of our spiritual growth, many of the faithful believe that people are either saved or remain among the lost for all eternity. 

    When we grasp the meaning of Jesus’ parable, we understand that the final response to each person who ever lived is up to God alone, just as the amount to pay each worker was the winemaker’s to decide. God is very generous!  This insight into God’s nature is what Jesus was teaching his listeners.  Now that understanding is ours.  This story was preserved in Scripture to give us hope that the best part of life still awaits all of us.