An Open Table where Love knows no borders


A sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 by Nathan Nettleton

Yesterday morning I was in charge of running a competition day at the dog club where I teach dog training. During one of the classes, one of the dogs, who is normally fairly capable, failed spectacularly by running off out of the ring, not once, but three times. The rules of competition are quite clear — if the dog leaves the ring, it is all over and the judges give it a zero. Occasionally we are a bit more lenient, and although the dog will be given a fail score, we allow judging to continue so that the dog and handler can show what they’ve got and get some practice and feedback. But yesterday, on the third departure, the steward correctly called it off. The handler was furious, and spent much of the next hour or so grumbling loudly to anyone who would listen and looking for someone to blame. At one point I was standing nearby and heard her saying to someone, “There’s no mercy in this club. Everything has to be by the rules. No mercy. No mercy.”

Now you can imagine that for me, as one who spends my Sundays preaching about the necessity of mercy and the all-inclusiveness of mercy, overhearing this in a context where I was in charge was rather confronting, to say the least. Only last Sunday I preached a sermon here in which I repeatedly said that God does not put limits on mercy, and neither should we. So here I was standing accused of overseeing a complete lack of mercy. Ouch!

Now I pointed out to her, and I think she more or less accepted it, that this was not real life, but a competition, and a competition is an artificial context in which any expression of mercy to one competitor causes an unfair disadvantage to others. What if we allowed her a second go, and someone else’s well behaved dog was edged out of the placings by her dog’s outside-the-rules second chance performance?

Well, as I say, I think she accepted that, and with my competition manager’s hat on, I still stand by that, but as you might be guessing it causes me some discomfort when I bump into today’s gospel reading. Jesus tells a parable to stir up our thinking about the nature of Gods grace, and the main impact of the story is to show how it strikes us as radically unfair. Nothing about special exemptions for situations of friendly competition; just God’s grace and mercy seem unfair in the real world.

Getting what we deserve is at the heart of how most of us think the world should be. We have been taught since we were little kids that if we work hard, we will be rewarded for it. If we do the right thing, we will get what we deserve and all will go well for us. A very large percentage of the laments people give voice to are about coping bad things they didn’t deserve or being short-changed on the good things they did deserve. And when you look a little closer, it is apparent that there is an element of competition in this, even in the real world. We don’t just want to get what we deserve. We want to be seen to have deserved more than others. This is very apparent in the story Jesus told. The workers who had worked the full day would have been perfectly happy with their wages if the half day workers had been given half as much. No one was underpaid, but some people were overpaid, and that provokes envy and resentment among those of us who want to be sure that we got to sit in our rightful place in the league ladder of just desserts. I need my reward to be a just acknowledgment that I was more deserving than him. And so the desire to be paid more becomes a competitive sport about proving our worth to one another.

Now those of you who read the sports pages of the paper will have seen that exactly this question has been all over the news in this last week. In fact I think it might have leaked out onto the front page too. There have been two big stories from the Australian football world that have illustrated some of these dynamics beautifully. And for those of you who take no interest in football, bear with me, because these stories were not really about football either, but about who gets paid what and why, and what happens when these things become over-inflated and overly competitive.

Two football people changed teams this week for massive amounts of money, and I’m one of the many people who think both of them may soon come to regret it. Early in the week, it was announced that Tom Scully had signed to play with the new Greater Western Sydney team next year on a contract that will see him become the highest paid player in the history of the league. Now that’s the second year in a row that we’ve seen a player sign with a new club and become the highest paid player ever, but there is a big difference. Last year’s one was Gary Ablett, widely regarded as the best player in the league, in his mid-twenties, at the peak of his powers, and an instant captain for the new club. Everyone expects Gary Ablett to be the highest paid player in the league. But Tom Scully is only 20, has played only 31 games, and clearly has lots of potential but is, as yet, largely unproven. Nobody thinks Tom Scully should be at the top of the pecking order of getting-what-you-deserve in footballer pay. Now you can’t really blame a twenty year old kid for taking the best package on offer, so why do I think he’s likely to regret it. Well, as I said last week, you have to live by the rules of the world you choose to live in; the world you create by the choices you make. And in an environment as competitive as professional footy, where every performance is up for public scrutiny, you can put yourself under unbearable pressure if you overreach yourself. Next season, Tom Scully is going to run out onto the ground and run into the likes of Garry Ablett and Chris Judd and Adam Goodes who are going to look him up and down and say, “OK rich kid, here’s your chance to prove that you’re worth more than me!” And I don’t think that pressure is going to improve his chances of ever being as good as them.

Later in the week, Ross Lyon took the football world by surprise when he quit as coach of St Kilda and signed up for a million dollars a year as coach of the Freemantle Dockers before their present coach even found out he had been sacked. Now the combination of big money, double dealing, and someone else getting knifed are going to ramp up the pressure on Ross Lyon and the Dockers. He’s now got to prove he’s worth it, and while he is undoubtedly better placed to cope with that pressure than young Scully, that pressure and the hostility and resentment generated are going to make that million dollars a year a lot harder to enjoy. But if we choose to live in a world where we chase the highest possible paycheque to prove what we’re worth, to get what we deserve, then those are the rules we’ll have to play by.

But juxtapose all that against this story that Jesus tells, and what have we got? What exactly is it that Jesus is challenging about the rules we play by and the world we live in and our ambitions to secure for ourselves what we think we deserve?

Firstly let me remind you that it is always important to remember that the parables Jesus tells are not simple, one-dimensional, moral fables, with a straightforward explanation and just one meaning to be discovered. Jesus tells stories that provoke and tease and stir up debate and can be fruitfully looked at from many different angles. I don’t mean that they are difficult to understand; just that the first truth you see in them is probably not all there is to be gained. And, in a story like this one, the fact that the employer in the story is clearly supposed to be an analogy for God in some sense doesn’t mean that everything that is said about the employer in the story is thereby true of God. Often Jesus’ stories represent God in conventional but dubious ways precisely for the purpose of exposing the problems caused by such an image and asking us to wrestle with them.

And so this story both buys into and questions our conventional perspective of getting what we fairly deserve in the world and the ways we try to fit God into that view of the world. Last week’s story raised questions about mercy versus punishment. This week it is grace versus reward for effort. But one of the things our reactions to the story expose is that we actually treat reward and punishment as two parts of one continuous spectrum. The workers who worked the whole day feel almost as though they have been punished when the half day workers are treated as their equals. If my rewards are cut, or if they do not adequately proclaim my worth relative to others, it feels the same as a punishment. And therefore, this thing about expecting that God should be rewarding us in accordance with our relative effort is all bound up with that old conception of God as a punishing judge who is measuring everything and is just as eager to deal out harsh punishments as to hand out rewards. And once again, this is exactly the image of God that Jesus wants to unsettle and overturn.

Think for a moment about what it is that makes the workers resentful here. The most obvious answer is true, and that is that their work seems to have been devalued by being treated as the equal of those who did half as much or less. But dig a little deeper into the assumptions that underpin that. You don’t have to dig much deeper to see that they are also assuming that the employer has enormous resources and therefore plenty more that he could give. You don’t resent not being given something that doesn’t exist. The resentment is based on the assumption that the employer is holding something back from us. In our earlier reading we heard about God’s provision of food for the Hebrew people in the desert, and the same issue comes up later in this. The people soon complain that the food is boring and inadequate. Again they assume that God could give more but denies them what they want.

And so, what Jesus is exposing is not only our expectation that we should get more than those who deserve less than us, but our belief that God is withholding things from us. God could give us more, but doesn’t. Jesus wants to expose this as a lie, as a false dragging of God into the systems and structures of our world.

The God made known to us in Jesus is a God who is constantly giving everything. The Apostle Paul spoke of God as “self-emptying”. There is nothing that God could give that is held back from us. We might frequently turn our backs on what is given, but there is nothing that is held back. In Jesus, God becomes flesh among us and is offered to us, body and soul, even if it means being consumed in the fires of our hostility and resentments. And yet even then, even when we have responded to God’s self-giving with the most deadly violence; even cast into the grave, God does not stop giving. Even as the executed victim of our violent resentments, God comes back again and again, offering everything, self-emptying, overflowing with love and mercy. There is nothing that is held back. There is nothing to be resentful about here. There is nothing that we have been denied or that we have missed out on.

And so, in the end, the parable unmasks our presumptuousness. We were feeling outraged and resentful because we were identifying ourselves with the ones who had worked so hard all day in the hot sun. But in fact, it turns out that Jesus is the one who did all the work. Jesus is the one who has done all the heavy lifting. Jesus is the one who has borne the full weight of the world’s sin in God’s massive self-offering, and unlike what we would do, Jesus is not begrudging us being treated as only he deserves. We are the jonny-come-latelies who are being given everything when it was Jesus who did all the hard work. And he stands there applauding loudly as we, like him, are given love and mercy and blessing and resurrection life and the bread of heaven and every blessing that flows from the self-emptying love of God.


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