A sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 by Nathan Nettleton
The night I sat down to finish writing this sermon, the phone rang. It was a chaplain from the Alfred Hospital. “I’ve just spent a couple of hours with a bloke named Phil, who I understand you know.”
I do know Phil, he’s a young bloke from the House of Hope, who was in hospital because he tried to kill himself by shooting up on battery acid, and in the process got a serious infection in his heart which threatened to finish off what the battery acid left behind.
“Well, Phil’s just been telling me how he’s going to kill himself tomorrow, he’s got it all planned out, and he’s left me a letter to pass on to you explaining what sort of funeral he’d like you to conduct for him.”
This was no huge surprise. I’d seen Phil twice in the last week and he’d done a lot of talking about how he wants to be dead, but a detailed plan sounded pretty serious, so there goes my sermon preparation time, and its back into hospital in one more attempt to talk a spark of hope into him.
Phil’s still alive but I’m not yet confident that he’ll stay that way for long. He makes me angry in a way. He’s got so much going for him, he’s not stupid, he’s very good looking, he gets along with people quite easily, most people like him, he’s got a lot to give. If much is expected from those to whom much is given, Phil would be expected to produce more than a talent buried in the ground. And yet every thing looks black to him and he’s trying to chuck it all in and quit out on us. And in the process he’s selfishly draining enormous amounts of time and energy from a number of people who care for him.
After I’d left that night at about 11 o’clock, and headed back towards the ominously blank page on my desk, I had an image of a possible scenario come to mind, and it rocked me a bit. Suppose Phil pulled himself together and decided not to die yet, and I was driving him home from the hospital. On the way we swerve to avoid a pedestrian and splatter ourselves over the back of a stationary vehicle at 60 kph. Both dead.
So Phil and I both front up at the Eternal Reward Allocation Centre in the Kingdom of Heaven. Phil’s first in the queue and is received joyously into glory and given a thousand credit points worth of eternal reward. And I’m thinking, “You beauty, imagine what I’m going to get.” My turn comes and I’m received joyously into glory and given a thousand credit points worth of eternal reward.
“Now hang on a minute. Where’s the justice here? I worked my guts out for years down there trying to minister the gospel to blokes like him. I lost two and a half hours of valuable sermon preparation last night while he just selfishly sponged up my time and energy. You’d reckon there could be a bit of a bonus here, a bit of justice or something.”
“Now keep your hair on, son, what was the sermon all about.” That’s St.Andrew speaking, St Peter’s on a rostered day off because I can’t do Israeli accents.
“Matthew 20: 1-15.”
“Well read it out then son, give us a bit of a listen.”
Don’t you hate it when the word of God is like a two edged sword piercing right where it hurts! I mean this passage reads pretty good if you place yourself as the final hour worker. God’s extravagant grace looks pretty good. But from the other side it seems like an injustice. Put it into Jeff Kennett’s Victoria and see how it looks. Another factory is closing down and all the workers are made redundant. Two of them sit down together and open their redundancy notices to see what sort of package they got. One was a new apprentice, 16y.o. who’d been with the company for three weeks. He tried hard, but he wasn’t really cut out for the job, and he knew from day one that he probably should have stayed in school. He opens his notice to find that his pay out is two years wages at tradesman’s rates. Overjoyed. He’s going to be the richest kid in school when he gets back. The other opens his notice. He’s a loyal and seasoned tradesman. He’s been with the company for 27 years and has only ever used about a weeks sick leave. He knows all there is to know about the production, and one year he gave up his annual leave to help the company meet the quota for a big order. He opens his notice to find that his pay out is two years wages at tradesman’s rates.
It gets you a bit hot under the collar just thinking about it. And yet it is not because anyone got underpaid. Someone got overpaid. The long term workers got a generous pay-out. And my thousand credit points of eternal reward are pretty generous for a bloke who’s not even thirty yet. (Just thought I’d remind you of that!) So why do I have trouble celebrating the joy of another? If I’d turned up alone and got that pay out I’d have been wrapt, but when Phil gets the same it sours on me. God’s extravagant grace seems to bring very little joy to those who think they deserve it? Marx’s idea of “from each according to their ability and to each according to their need” doesn’t sit well with our reward for effort mentality.
Why do I get all puffed up so I want recognition and thunderous applause for every act of love or service? If my reward is a generous one then the only thing I’m begrudging is the fact that Phil was made equal with me. I feel that somehow my status is reduced because Phil’s is raised. And I liked the gap. I’m happy for Phil to be massively rewarded so long as our relative standing in the eyes of the community is maintained. I’ll celebrate the blessings lavished on him so long as I feel that mine are of relative value to what I deserved.
Something has gotten screwed up in my attitude. Do we really serve others only for what we’ll get out of it – status now and reward later? How do we get so focussed on what we might get and not on what we can give?
I mean let’s rearrange the order in the queue a bit. I find my self next to Jesus in the queue. Does Jesus get all sullen about his thousand points of eternal reward next to mine? After all he laid it all on the line for me and I haven’t always been too fabulous with it. He went through a gruesome execution, completely devoid of justice, for the sake of not just me but the whole human race, and yet what would I find Jesus saying in the queue? “Give him every blessing I received. Treat him as though he were the Christ, as though he were as blameless and worthy as the one who laid down his life for those who not only didn’t deserve it but didn’t show a great deal of gratitude for it either.”
It’s crazy. We get so screwed up. We celebrate our socks off over the extravagance of God’s grace when we’re on the receiving end of it, yet when those we put so much time into serving and leading towards healing and wholeness get there too we have trouble getting excited for them. We can give them everything we’ve got to give but we’re not sure we want God to do it too. We’ve probably all said it’s more blessed to give than receive, and yet when it comes to the crunch do we really believe it? We still want to see our receiving measured in proportion to our giving.
And yet what have we lost? When I really take a good hard look at myself, I don’t believe that life in this world as a Christian is so bad that I’d never do it if there wasn’t a fabulous payout at the end. Most of the time I wouldn’t live any other way for anything. I have found from experience that living life following Jesus and serving others is actually a fair dinkum fulfilling way to live. There is actually enough reward in the journey to make it worth it even if their was nothing at the end. When I really think about it I don’t envy those whose lives are so caught up in career paths and mortgage repayments and contents insurance that they’ve got no time for anybody else.
And when my love stops being some kind of contribution to my own superannuation scheme and starts really caring for others, I begin to get as much joy out of their their successes as I get out of my own. I’ve always heard that that was real love. To be hurt by another’s hurts and to be overjoyed at another’s joy. The extravagant generosity of our gracious God can be a cause of great celebration if we don’t trap ourselves into trying to assess who deserves most, and who’ll be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They say if you give some people and inch they’ll measure it. And I don’t want to stand in the queue guilty of that.
If my heart is in the right place, when I give up my sermon preparation time for Phil, my overriding goal will be to see him receive every blessing that God has to offer, in this life and the next. And if that is truly where my heart is, if I’m absolutely fair dinkum in that, then when I stand in that queue and Phil receives every blessing, my joy will be absolutely doubled as I see a dream I worked for fulfilled. I will not only have received my own fair reward but an extravagant unmeasured portion of joy to go with it. And isn’t that what we really strive for?
Let’s pray: God of grace and mercy, You have shown us what it means to love without asking for a return. You have shown us what joy there is in heaven over each lost sheep that is found. Transform us, in the image of Jesus, so that in pouring ourselves out for those who need your love so much, we might discover the true joy of giving and share in the joy of heaven. For the sake of your love, and the sake of your grace, Amen.