Sermon for 18th September 2011. The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Boniface Church, Siesta Key FL
When you’ve looked at a bin of onions in your local store have you ever thought “that vegetable has a dry and brittle outer skin, it can’t possibly be good to eat?”
When you’ve looked at a bible have you ever thought “that book has a distinctively unattractive and slightly forbidding cover, it can’t possibly have anything worth reading”?
The business of understanding the books of the bible is a bit like peeling an onion. We need to get beyond the obvious surface, and then go layer after layer. In that process we discover that biblical texts are capable of a multitude of meanings.
One of the layers in today’s story raises the question “why did Matthew include this story as he assembled his writings?” If you know a bit about the gospels you will recall that “Matthew” is a nom de plume for the leader or leaders of an early part of the Jesus movement. In the first place, all the members of this movement were Jewish. Then Gentiles became attracted to the Jesus movement and its message of the Kingdom of Heaven. To some, these Gentiles were “Johnny come latelys” who were getting the same benefits of the mercy of God without having “worked all day”: that is without having to be faithful to the Torah with its challenging requirements for living a Godly life.
We can suppose that some were saying: “it’s not fair. We have been slogging along all day long to be faithful to God and these Gentiles – these lazy un-documented - oh I meant un-circumcised Gentiles are getting the same mercy as God has given us. It’s just not fair”.
“It’s not fair”. We probably learned to say that soon after we learned to walk and talk. We have an immature expectation that life should be fair, particularly if that “fairness” is weighted in our favour. It may not be fair that a younger sister or brother had a slice of cake which was smaller than ours, but it’s certainly fair that we got the bigger slice!
Much of our spiritual and emotional growing up has taught us that life is indeed not fair. It wasn’t fair to the almost 3,000 people who perished in the World Trade Centre atrocity, nor was it fair to their dearest family members and friends. It isn’t fair to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been rendered homeless by flooding in Pakistan.
And, truth to tell, life has been very unfair to me. If I had gotten only that which I’d deserved I most certainly would not have been living this comfortable retirement life in Sarasota. I don’t deserve this. It’s all been a gift.
“That’s not fair” was probably in our minds and almost on our tongues as we heard the gospel again today. We cannot but hear it through our ears which have been tuned to the free market capitalist system. The story sounds “all wrong to us”.
Hold on will you! What we have read is a story! It’s just a story. It’s a story which is designed to shock us, and at that level it works.
But it is not a story about economics or labour practices. It is a story about mercy. And mercy is to be valued far above and beyond our notions of fairness, because mercy is rooted in justice.
Our Assistant Rector Andrea Taylor helped me to understand this. She pointed out that those day labourers who were not hired until the eleventh hour had also had a tough day if it. For their day had been filled with anxiety and a sense of impending doom that if no one hired them, then they would have to return to their homes shame-faced in the knowledge that their families would not have food the next day. Remember these are day labourers who lived from pay check to pay check – on a daily basis. The landowner’s action was not rooted in fairness, it was rooted in mercy. “Blessed are the merciful” says Jesus, “for they shall obtain mercy”.
And yet, we still do not like this story. I think that it’s because we see ourselves as exclusively members of that first group, those who work all day, those who we think, surely deserved more.
We have absorbed the message that what we do is more important than who we are. And ... oh my goodness ... I do so much for God --- for the Church --- for my family. None of them are very grateful. I receive a mere pittance of thanks. And in this downward spiral of self justification and self pity I forget that it’s all about mercy. I forget that my desire to serve God and the Church is rooted in gratitude for mercy. And God offers all the mercy I need.
Let’s take another look at the story. Let’s imagine ourselves not as the workers, but as the landowner. Let’s imagine that we have been richly blessed in any number of ways. Blessed with education, Blessed with holy friendships. Blessed with food and shelter. Above all blessed with something we never deserved or earned: blessed with the mercy of God. Oh, life has been so unfair to us. God has been so unfair to us. It’s so unfair that we have received such blessings. (It’s hard to preach with my tongue in my cheek!).
“Imagine that”, hell no! It’s a fact. We are indeed the rich landowners who have received so much, and it’s all been a gift.