14th Sunday after Pentecost
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? Matthew 20:15
We were returning to Pennsylvania from a visit to my family in Tennessee. My 15-year-old and nine-year-old daughters were already arguing over music selections, seating arrangements, and fast food dining options, and we hadn’t even made it to the Virginia state line. “Mom, it’s not fair. She always gets what she wants,” said one. “No. You do!” retorted the other. Finally, with a massive sigh of exasperation, I pulled off the I-81 onto the shoulder, put on my flashers, and shut off the engine.
“We’re not going anywhere until you two stop fighting and behave,” I told them–to no avail. The laments and accusations continued to fill the interior of our compact car. I crossed my arms and shut my eyes in an effort to drown out the rancorous ramblings of my contentious children.
“Uh-oh,” squeaked the youngest. “The cops are coming! You’re in trouble now.
Sure enough, a state trooper had kindly stopped to check and see if we were experiencing a break-down of the mechanical sort. I shared with him my dilemma, and he did his level best not to laugh. “I understand, mam. You be safe,” he instructed, scowling at the two suddenly silent urchins with me, “and you two work it out.”
If I had a dollar for every time one of my children hollered “It’s not fair” I’d be a wealthy woman. In fact, I can relate to the master in this story when it comes to parenting. Maybe I should have invoked Matthew 20:15 whenever they argued about who rode “shotgun” or who controlled the music selections in the car, or even who got more/better/bigger Christmas presents. Sound familiar?
We value fairness, especially when it’s our version of what constitutes “fair.” Whether it’s the perceived call the ref makes against our football team, or the promotion someone else gets that we think we deserved, fairness seems to rest in the eyes and brain of the beholder. Everything is hunky-dory when life goes our way.
Today’s gospel lesson reflects such human behavior. The workers who put in a full day’s work are angry that the late arrivals, some of whom only worked for an hour, are given the same compensation. It’s not fair! Of course it’s not fair by human standards. It was the vineyard owner’s choice to be generous and decide how to compensate the workers. Everyone received the daily wage offered to the first workers hired.
So what’s the point? Is it that God is generous in ways we humans don’t always understand? Is the point that we should be grateful to be recipients of God’s grace and therefore not stingy with offering grace to others? Or, perhaps is the point that even though we are often jealous and contentious, God still loves us? Well, yes.
If your appointed readings for this week include Jonah’s story, then you have another fine example of someone who was stingy with mercy and unhappy with God’s lavish grace–an imperfect disciple who hollered “not fair.” Do you ever wonder what happened to Jonah? Did he learn anything from God’s work with him? Did he continue to serve God and grow in his ability to be generous and merciful? Did he perhaps even go back and continue to work among the people of Nineveh? Did his definition of fairness change? I’d like to think so.
“If you’re going to care about the fall of the sparrow you can’t pick and choose who’s going to be the sparrow. It’s everybody,” wrote Madeleine L’Engle in her young adult novel The Arm of the Starfish. Likewise, if we’re going to serve God and share the good news, we can’t pick and choose who will be the sparrows worthy of our concern. God’s grace is for all; it’s beyond fair, and that dear friends is very good news.
For Further Reflection:
Click here for Martin Luther’s sermon on this parable.
Play “Fair/Not Fair.” Craft several scenarios (preferably based on real life stories) where youth must take sides and argue whether the outcome is fair or not fair. Use this week’s gospel lesson as a springboard for the game. Ask youth if they have ever worked hard to see someone else benefit. How did it feel?
Have a jar of prizes or healthy treats handy. Choose a few children and ask them to help you with a task for which they will receive a treat. You choose the task that is appropriate to your context. Invite a few more children to help when the task is about halfway finished. Finally, when everything is almost complete, invite the remaining children to help. At the end give all the children a prize. Ask if what you did was fair? If they say no, ask them why. Would they rather their friends not get to share in the treats?
Share the story of the land owner from the gospel and tell the children that God wants everyone to be a part of the family, so sometimes it may not seem like God is playing fair. Ask them if they would rather God be fair or generous and talk about the differences.
Photos copyright 2011 by igordutina and Vedmochka via Big Stock Photo.