“Grace Isn’t Fair – And That’s Good” September 30, 2020

“Grace Isn’t Fair – And That’s Good”

A sermon based on Matthew 20:1-16

A few years ago, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal, two zoologists at Emory University, decided to study the evolution of fairness.  They wanted to explore where our distaste for unfairness comes from.  Is it a cultural add-on – something we learn – or is it hardwired?

To study this question, Brosnan and de Waal designed an experiment using capuchin monkeys.  Pairs of monkeys were placed in cages side by side where they could see each other, and trained to take turns giving small granite rocks to their human handler.  Each time a monkey handed over a rock, she would receive a piece of cucumber as a reward.

Capuchins love cucumbers, so both monkeys found this arrangement satisfactory, and handed over their rocks with enthusiasm.  But then, the handler changed things up.  After a few fair and even exchanges, the handler rewarded the first monkey with a chunk of cucumber as usual, but gave the second monkey a grape — the equivalent of fine wine or caviar in the monkey world.

Seeing that the game had changed for the better, the first monkey perked up, and couldn’t wait to hand over another rock, expecting, of course, to receive a grape, too.  But no — the handler gave her another piece of cucumber.  To make things worse, the handler then gave the second monkey another grape for free!

The results — which you can look up on YouTube — were striking.  The first monkey just about lost her mind.  Not only did she refuse to eat the cucumber; she hurled it at the handler’s face.  She then proceeded to bang against the bars of the cage, throw her remaining rocks in every direction, and make furious gestures at her grape-eating companion.

The experiment has since been repeated using other primates, and the results have been astonishingly similar.  Scientists have also studied the development of fairness in human babies, and found that infants as young as nine months old will react quite strongly and in a negative way if they perceive they are being treated unfairly.  Clearly, as Brosnan and De Waal concluded after their experiment, fairness is a concept that is deeply rooted in the human psyche. We can’t help ourselves – fairness is part of who we are. (Debie Thomas 2020)

Now, I’m sharing this little science moment with you to establish that, yes, fairness is important to us. When we say the words, “With liberty and justice for all” in the Pledge of Allegiance, we are voicing that basic belief; a belief in equality, in fairness, and in the understanding that “all men (and women) are created equal,” to borrow from our constitution. And so, when Jesus throws this bombshell of a parable at us, it can be a problem. There’s no need going through it line by line – you have the idea already. But there are a few things we need to point out. The first is in vs. 21 as Jesus begins by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” This is how the parable begins, and as we hear this our first reaction might be, “Oh, he’s talking about the Kingdom of Heaven here; he’s not talking about real life,” And unfortunately, you would be correct – up to a point.

So that’s the setup: Jesus speaks of this imaginary situation of workers in a vineyard in this imaginary reality where everybody gets paid the same no matter how late they came into the game. So far, so good.

But the kicker comes when the landowner settles up with his laborers, because all of a sudden we are snapped back into reality. He orders the late comers to be first in line to get paid and when it becomes obvious they are getting a full day’s pay for little work, the grumbling begins. (vs. 11) 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’ And this leads us to our second point to consider, because here the landowner replies, (vs. 13) ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion?Then in vs. 15 we read, 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous? And there you have it, “Are you resentful because I’m generous?” or to put it another way, “Are you resentful that I wasn’t generous to you?”  

“The Kingdom of heaven is like…” I think it’s safe to say that the Kingdom of heaven is like nothing that we could ever imagine. Yet, here it is before us. So what can we take from this parable? I guess we can postulate that this is a description of the sweet by and by; that this is what to expect in a heavenly realm. But if Jesus preached anything at all, he continually preached of a kingdom – the kingdom – here on earth. That seems to be the plan; that’s the long range goal. Starting with John the Baptist an emphasis was always on repentance: a turning around, a change of heart. From what I’m hearing today, the first step to true repentance comes from the knowing that you don’t deserve such a thing as salvation – it’s a gift. Just as the workers in the vineyard were made a promise, so are we if willing to turn to the one that redeems. For some of us (like me) there’s going to be a lot of work involved, but the prospect, the possibility, of living in God’s kingdom right here and now makes it all worthwhile. This parable is not about work or wages or showing up early or late – no, it’s about grace: the grace of God that, really, none of us deserve. Grace ain’t fair – but you know what, that’s a good thing. Because with God’s grace, everyone is welcome at the table.

So I’ll leave you with a question: why do we go to church? Why is it that we yearn to come together in community and in worship? Well, there are lots of reasons. The fellowship of believers is one. It is rich and rewarding like no other. We do church to better our community is another reason. We pool our resources to feed and clothe and help out members of our world that are in need. There are lots of reasons, but what I’m hearing today is that we do everything in our power to assemble as the body of Christ because it gives us a taste. It gives us a taste of the Kingdom of heaven. Sure, we may bang heads; we might disagree on everything under the sun. Yet, we gather to worship because it is here that God’s heavenly Kingdom comes down to earth. This is a gift given freely to us that we might pass it on. There’s no waiting list, no dues to pay, no rejection notices. This is Christ’s kingdom – a Kingdom of grace. So, when you find yourselves praying the words, “Thy Kingdom come, the will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” remember this parable. It’s all about grace and grace isn’t fair. But you know what? – that’s a good thing.

Amen & Shalom

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