Sermon: Doing Life Together – Generosity & Love
September 24th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Matthew 20:1-16
We have been following the Gospel of Matthew as assigned in the lectionary readings for each Sunday. This week we will again hear Jesus telling a story, a parable. If you recall, last week, Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant in response to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive someone who had wronged him. The point of that story was to illustrate that as long as Peter was keeping count of wrongs, it was not forgiveness. Today Peter is still counting and keeping score – this time instead of wrongs, it is rewards.
I’m getting to like Peter more and more! He gives me hope! If he could be a rock, a foundation and leader for Jesus’ community, maybe with Jesus’ help, I can, too; and so can each of you. Peter gives us courage. He may put his foot in his mouth as many times as he says something profound, but at least he has the courage to be honest and open. He doesn’t hide his thoughts and feelings from Jesus. May we also have that courage and honesty!
Before I read the scripture passage I want to take a minute to fill in what happened just before Jesus tells the story we hear today. A rich young man had stopped to talk to Jesus and wanted to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life and get into God’s kingdom. Jesus says to him, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” The young man confidently replies that he already does that, to which Jesus responds, “Then go, sell all your belongings and give the proceeds to the poor, then come, follow me.” The man walks away sadly, because he is very wealthy. Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Peter and the other disciples who have been watching this whole exchange, are getting a little upset. They have always been taught that if you are good, then God will reward you. Which means that if someone is wealthy, like that young man was, it must be evidence of that God is rewarding him for his goodness. So when the rich young man is turned away, they are confused. If a rich guy isn’t going to make it, how do poor fishermen like them, have any hope? It doesn’t make any sense to them.
Matthew writes, “When the disciples heard this, they were stunned and asked, “Who then can be saved? Who has any chance at all?” Jesus looked at them as said, “It’s impossible for human beings. But all things are possible for God.” And that is when Peter blurts out exactly what is on his mind – what is probably on all their minds but the others are too embarrassed to say it, or too self-righteous to admit they are thinking it. He says to Jesus, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you. What will we have? What do we get out of it?” (CEB and MSG)
Peter is concerned that he be rewarded according to what is fair for the time and energy and commitment that he has put into Jesus’ kingdom-building venture. It reminds me of Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally. Do you remember the scene in the classic Charlie Brown Christmas special where Sally is writing a letter to Santa? She complies a long list of toys she wants and then adds a disclaimer at the end, writing, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.” When Charlie Brown groans over his own sister’s greed, Sally indignantly responds, “All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me.” (sermons.com illustrations)
In answer to Peter, Jesus assures him that anyone who sacrifices home, family, business or farm because of him will get it all back a hundred times over, plus get eternal life. And then he tells this story (our reading for today): Matthew 20:1-16
It’s so unfair! What was the landowner thinking when he decided to pay the ones who worked hard for a full day in the hot sun the same as the ones who just put in a hour at the end of the day? Even worse, was he trying to provoke a riot, when he made the first group stand there and watch the others get paid before them? Jesus told parables to provoke reflection – to make those who listen, recognize something about themselves or about the way the world works, as it contrasts with God and with the way God works. Jesus is calling out attitudes of heart that don’t fit with God’s values and God’s heart. As we have been thinking about doing life together in community within this community of faith, it made me wonder how this parable might provoke us to check our hearts.
Doing life together – Self-concern vs. Concern for Others
The first attitude that Jesus is calling out is one of self-interest, self-concern. We hear that in the punch line of the story when the landowner asks, “Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” Peter is keeping score of all the things he has sacrificed to follow Jesus and expects that he should be rewarded in like measure. It’s not just Peter who is concerned about getting what he deserves. Shortly after Jesus finishes telling this story, the mother of disciples James and John comes to Jesus to ask that her sons be given the most honored positions in Jesus’ kingdom. She’s looking out for her family, seeking to ensure her security and reputation.
Concerns about being rewarded and recognized commensurate to work done is part of human nature and a strong part of the American work ethic. Don’t we watch carefully to make sure the inheritance is divided evenly? Don’t we keep score at work, at home, even at church, watching to see if everyone is pulling their own weight? Don’t we feel resentful when someone who didn’t do as much as we did gets the attention and accolades? I know in our life as a nation, the opinion is often expressed that those who arrived in this country recently should not be allowed the same benefits as long-time citizens. There is resentment against those who put little into the system but get more out. In a speech this past week, our president expressed the view that every nation ought to look out for itself and put its own interests first. That worldview believes that our privilege and our power gives us the right to have more, to know more, to use more of the earth’s resources. It believes that self-interest should override the interests of the wider global community.
There is a play based on this parable, which depicts two brothers who are both trying to get work to feed their families. Those brothers, John and Philip, go together to the town square where landowners seek out the day laborers. John is a strong, capable man; his brother Philip is just as willing to work, but he lost one arm in an accident. When a landowner arrives, John is taken in the first wave of workers. The scene changes to the field, and each time another group of laborers join them, John looks hopefully for Philip, knowing that his brother needs work just as much as he does. Finally, when the last group of laborers arrives, there is Philip among them. John rejoices, knowing that his brother will be able to provide for his family that day. When it come to his turn to stand before the landowner and receive his pay, instead of complaining with the others who were hired first, John puts out his hand and says with tears in his eyes, “Thank you, my lord, for what you have done for us today!” (Philip W. McLarty, illustrations in sermons.com)
John’s attitude about his pay at the end of the day is transformed by the fact that he is as concerned about his brother as he is about himself. When we actually love our neighbor as ourselves we are concerned about their welfare. Instead of an attitude of self-concern, Jesus’ story directs Peter, and all of us, to put concern for others first.
Doing life together – Resentment vs. Gratitude
In that play, John’s first words to the landowner are “Thank you.” In Jesus’ story the full-day workers grouse and grumble. They complain against the landowner. Another attitude that Jesus is calling out in this parable is the lack of gratitude in the first workers. Their hearts are filled with resentment instead. If we are honest and open like Peter, will we find resentment hidden in our hearts? Do we keep score of one another? Do we compare ourselves to others in church attendance, or ministry participation, or potluck dishes, or pledges and offerings? Are we envious of other churches that seem to have more, newer buildings or the latest equipment, when we need to budget and make tough choices to make ends meet?
I remember a Christmas shortly after David and I were married. His parents wanted to ensure that the Christmas gifts to each of their 5 children would be fair and there could be no accusations of favoritism. So they decided to make the gifts even, exactly the same. One child needed a table lamp for a new home, so they bought all 5 children table lamps, the exact same table lamp. I recall now with regret that my initial reaction was not one of gratitude for the gift, but one of resentment that David and I had to get something that we didn’t necessarily need and in a style that we would not have picked. What had been an attempt to be fair, ended up not feeling fair at all. But the gift provoked me to recognize a lack of gratitude in my heart.
Karl Jacobson, a pastor in Minneapolis, writes, “The scandal of this parable is that we are all equal recipients of God’s gifts. The scandal of our faith is that we are often covetous and jealous when God’s gifts of forgiveness and life are given to others in equal measure.” (workingpreacher.org) Instead of comparing, of keeping score and feeling short-changed, we need to be filled with gratitude to God for the amazing gifts we have received – for being welcomed into God’s family, for love and laughter and life.
Doing life together – the work is the reward
Which points to another attitude of heart that Jesus calls out in this story, the attitude toward what the reward actually is. It seems clear in the story that the workers regard the pay they receive at the end of the day as their reward. The landowner, on the other hand, seems much more focused on the work itself. It is so important that he goes out himself to look for workers rather than sending his foreman. It is so important that he goes out five times in the course of the day to look for people. The landowner expresses concern to the group he finds at five o’clock, asking why they are standing around without a purpose. We are quick to assume that they have been lazy, slept in perhaps, or didn’t want to work. But instead we learn that they have wanted work, but are standing there because no one has hired them. For the landowner, giving people work and a purpose is the real reward, not the money they get paid at the end of the day.
A story is told of Yogi Berra, when the New York Yankees were at their peak and were negotiating contracts for the next year. A group of reporters interviewed players as they emerged from the owner’s office, and one of them asked Yogi Berra about the terms of his contract. In his plain-spoken style, he said, “I’m gonna get to play baseball again next year for the Yankees, and would you believe it, they’re gonna pay me besides!” (sermons.com illustration)
If we examine our hearts and attitudes, what do we see as the reward of our faith in Jesus Christ? Is it just that we will gain eternal life and at the end of the day go to heaven to be with God? Or is the reward just as much about having a purpose in this life, of having work to do and a mission to fulfill? Do we see a life of faith as rewarding in itself, or is it just a long road of obedience to get to payday? Reflecting on this parable, a seminary professor wrote, “Faced with God’s boundless love for the world, especially when it is lavished upon others, we reveal whether we view our own labor as a gift from God or as benefit to God, as the joyful fulfillment of our created purpose or as the mere endurance of scorching heat.” (Ira Brent Digger, workingpreacher.org)
God loves the whole world, and longs for each and every person to find their purpose and their reward in His kingdom. We are invited to examine ourselves individually and as a community in order to align our attitudes of heart with God’s attitudes – so that love and concern for others overrides self-concern and self-interest; so that an attitude of gratitude overrides comparisons and resentment; so that we find purpose and fulfillment in a life dedicated to following Jesus.
Immediately after this parable, Matthew writes that Jesus takes his disciples aside and tells them what is going to happen to him. “Listen,” he said, “we’re going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die. Then they will hand him over to the Romans to be mocked, flogged with a whip, and crucified. But on the third day he will be raised from the dead.” Jesus will put his self-interests aside. He is filled instead with love for His Heavenly Father and gratitude for God’s plan to rescue the world through him. That same love and gratitude can fill your hearts as well. It can give your life and work meaning and purpose and joy.
Closing Song: “Hail, Jesus, You’re My King”