Envy and Grace

Matthew 20:1-16

This parable is offensive, isn’t it? It challenges our sense of justice,  It goes against what we think is equitable and fair. One guy works for twelve hours in the hot sun picking grapes And he gets the exact same pay as the guy who spends one hour in the cool of the early evening.

Yes, I understand that they made a deal. The first-hired worker was paid a full day’s wage. And I understand that it was the Master’s money to pay as he wanted. But there’s something that just doesn’t seem fair about the outcome here.

Jesus did not preach this parable to the crowds. It was for a select group of people — his 12 disciples. Peter had just complained to Jesus, “Master, we’ve left everything for you!  What will we get for it?” Jesus tells them, “You will sit on 12 thrones and judge the 12 tribes of Israel.”

That sounded pretty good to Peter. But then Jesus went on to say, “Oh and rest assured, that you’re not alone.  Anyone who has sacrificed for me is going to receive a hundred fold!

Then Jesus says something that must disturb Peter.He tells him, “But many who are first will be last and the last first.”

Peter was one of the first. What does this mean that “the first will be last?” Jesus explains it with a parable.

The parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven. Not a political government, but what it means to be living under God’s reign. We’re not talking about life in heaven. We’re talking about life on earth that continues in heaven. It’s living under God’s reign right now.   And that is something radically different from life as we know it under earthly orders.

Jesus tells them that living under God’s reign can be compared to a master who goes to the marketplace. He’s looking for day laborers to harvest his vineyard.

A day laborer lives a precarious life. He is dependent on being hired each day for a day’s wage – one denarii. That pretty much covers just one day’s living expenses.  So he never has a reserve to fall back on. If he doesn’t work, the family doesn’t eat.

The master goes to the marketplace at 6:00 AM to hire workers. Notice that in the Kingdom of Heaven, the master goes. He doesn’t send someone else. He hires those he finds at a price that is fair and agreed-upon. The Master will return four more times throughout the day. When he does, he will see more laborers looking for work.

Now there is really no indication in the text that the Master needs more laborers. But these laborers tell him that no one will hire them. That means, they will go home tonight and face their family empty-handed.

The Master looks at them and hires them all. But he does not specify a dollar amount that he will pay. He just offers to pay them “what is right.”

Now it’s the end of the day and the payoff comes. The Master tells his steward, “Pay them off!” But he also tells him to pay them in a certain order. Pay the last-ones-hired …. first.

Now why did he do that? Why did the master use this order? If he had just paid the first-hired first and sent them on their way, they would have never known how much the others were paid. Everyone would have left happy. I think Jesus chooses this order to make two points.

The first point is about sin. When the first-hired grumble, the master asks them,  “Do you begrudge my generosity?” Actually, the original Greek says, “Is your eye evil?”

The sin revealed here goes by a variety of names. Call it envy, presumption, resentment. It’s wanting more even if you already have enough. It stems from pride and self-righteousness. You don’t look at what you have, you look at what the other guy has. You compare.

The first hired are paid last. So they can compare. The others worked part of a day, but they get a full day’s pay. So now by comparing, the first-hired can eagerly anticipate a bonus. Not because they worked any harder than usual. A bonus is in order because, in comparison to the others, they deserved much more.

We often do that, don’t we. Someone else receives a blessing, something they didn’t earn. And we ask, why not me?

Notice that in this parable, those paid first must’ve also compared. But they didn’t complain. They raised no voice of protest.

We don’t complain when we receive undeserved blessings, do we? We delight in them.  We thank God for them! But what we don’t say is,  “Hey God!  You gave me too much!  This just isn’t right!” We don’t grumble when we receive mercy.

I read an interesting analysis on envy this week that quoted two different theologians.   They explained how envy takes its toll on us in two ways:

First there was Father Charles Hoffacker in Port Huron, Michigan. He says that envy makes us unable to love. And that has an effect on our hearts.  

Envy makes our hearts hard, it causes us to murmur against God. We are actually saddened because someone else has received something good from God. And since God is the author of all good, our complaint is really directed to God Against His mercy!

Envy takes its toll on us in a second way. And that’s based on what the second theologian Parker Palmer calls: “The Scarcity Assumption.” The envious make an assumption when they look at the world. They assume that whatever it is that we need is in short supply. So if we don’t get it, someone else will and then we’ll be left out. It causes us to take more than we really need and then horde what we take. It’s an attitude that works against community life and stops us from acting compassionately.

Envy closes our eyes to the needs of others It blinds us to seeing Christ in others.

Lee Iacocca tells a story that his father told him about envy. His father began the story with the warning, “Be grateful for what you’ve got.  Envy won’t only turn you green, it’ll kill you.” 

Then he began: There was king who had two sons. But this king was partial to the older son, and that rankled the younger son. The king took his younger son aside and told him, “I’m going to do something wonderful for you. I’m going to grant you anything you want.  You name it: Your weight in gold, Arabian stallions, a harem of beautiful young women. It’s yours for the asking!”

The son was delighted and asked for one day to consider the king’s offer. “But,” his father added, “Because your brother is older, he will get twice whatever I give you.”

The son went away and thought about it that evening. The next day he came to his father and said, “I’ve decided what it is that I want.” “I want my right eye poked out.”

Makes you kind of cringe, doesn’t it?

Well I said that Jesus told this parable to make two points. The first was about sin – in this case, the sin of envy. I believe the second was to illustrate God’s grace. The master in this parable was showing us an example of how grace operates in the kingdom of heaven.

First of all, grace takes the initiative to reach out to us. The master didn’t send his servant.  Instead, he took the initiative to go to the marketplace and he kept returning all day long. Grace means that God takes the initiative to reach out to us. We don’t seek God, God seeks us. He stands at the door of our hearts and knocks.

Second, grace is not earned. The first-hired received grace by being chosen for employment. They didn’t have to wait and wonder the whole day if there would be opportunity for them. But their wages were earned.  They were paid a day’s wage for a day’s work.

The later workers though were different. They earned part of their wages, but grace supplied the rest. It was unmerited, undeserved. It was a gift from a gracious and merciful Master.

So when the first workers complained, they really were complaining about another worker receiving grace.

One last[point about grace: In the kingdom of heaven, grace is sufficient no matter when we receive it in our journey.

Imagine being in the shoes of those late workers as they waited all day long. What must it be like to wait and hope for opportunity? And as each hour goes by, hopes of a family meal for that day begin to fade.

Some of us came to Christ early in our lives and we labor in God’s vineyard. It isn’t always easy being a Christian, is it? The Christian life is opposed to the worldly life. What’s often okay for the secular culture is not okay for Christians.

The secular world applauds sacrifice, but sacrifice in order to better ourselves. Christians sacrifice for God with no expectation of return.

So, yes, sometimes it’s hard to labor as a Christian. Yet, imagine a life without Christ, without God. Is that really living?

Those late workers sweated it out all day wondering how they would make ends meet. But when they received their pay, it was enough for the whole day. Grace makes up the difference. Grace provides enough no matter how late we receive that grace.

So Jesus tells us something about the sin of envy and the grace of God’s.

There’s a remedy for envy, for “the evil eye”. It’s two fold. The first part is to practice thankfulness to God. It’s not just thanking God for the big events — the big gifts we receive from him. But also thanking him for the plain, everyday mercies that he shows to us. As you do that, you’ll recognize God’s glory shines through all around us everyday.

Last night I took a walk and saw the moon for the first time in over a week. It was just a little sliver, but it stole all the attention from the few stars that were visible. After a week of smoke, what a glorious sight. I wonder how many people in Oakhurst missed that event?

God’s glory is all around us.

The second part of the remedy for envy is to show kindness to others. And not just to the saints.  It’s easy to show kindness toward the ones who are deserving. But instead, try praying the most for the people you like the least. You Democrats can pray for Trump. And you Republicans can pray for Pelosi.

Showing kindness to the undeserving acts like a blowtorch to soften the heart. It doesn’t come naturally to us.  It’s a radical change from what we’re used to. But it’s the way life is lived in the kingdom.

Jesus concludes his teaching about kingdom living. He repeats what he told Peter in the beginning, “the last will be first and the first will be last.”

Many interpret this to mean that in heaven, there will be a reversal of order. All the high muckty mucks will be at the end of the line. I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying.

Instead, I think Jesus is again explaining the radically different nature of life in the kingdom, life under God’s reign. Under God’s reign, numerical positions are abandoned. Under God’s reign, there is no ordering of position. It doesn’t matter if you got the party early or late. What matters is: You got there!  And your joy is no less than the ones who got there before you.

So yes, this parable is offensive and it is does challenge our sense of justice. Some workers did not get what they deserved.

Right after Jesus tells this parable, he tells his disciples that they are going to Jerusalem. And he explains that when they get there, he will be mocked,  and flogged  and crucified.

It wasn’t fair that God’s Son had to be mocked and flogged and crucified It’s offensive,  it challenges our sense of justice. It’s not what he deserved.

But to get us into the kingdom, that was the price of grace.