No Fair!

Pentecost 16 – September 20, 2020 – Just Peace Sunday

Does this parable seem strange to anyone else? I know, most of us have been conditioned to accept all of Jesus’ teachings at face value, or at the very least, to incorporate them into our consciousness after deeper consideration, but this one might challenge that way of thinking. It’s just strange. It doesn’t sound like “Jesus the champion of justice” to which we’ve become accustomed. It just doesn’t seem fair. Shouldn’t the guys that worked all day get more pay than the ones who worked for only one hour? What’s going on here?

I remember being very confused and disturbed by this parable the first time I heard it. And it turns out I wasn’t alone. In a Bible Study that a friend and I were leading about 20 years ago, we asked the group to let us know what passages of scripture challenged them the most, and then we would prepare a study-session those passages. Remarkably, out of the ten or twelve responses we got, three of them asked about on this parable. And to a person, they chose this one because it seemed, “so unfair.” And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge of this parable. Fairness.

It seems to me, however, that the challenge that this passage presents exposes something about the culture in which we live.  I think we may be suffering from an over-developed sense fairness. What does that mean? Well, as a people, we tend to define fairness in terms of merit. In other words, we decide if something is fair or unfair based upon whether a group or an individual deserves what they received.

Here’s what I mean. There was a meme on Facebook sometime back that really illustrated this well. The first frame showed two people, one tall and one short, standing by a fence. The tall one could see over and the short one could not. The second frame was labeled “Fairness” and each person was standing on a box. The tall person could still see over the fence, but it still wasn’t high enough for the short person. The final frame was labeled “Justice” In this scene the tall person had no box and the short person stood on both boxes and, like the tall person, could now see over the fence. The point here is that fairness isn’t always just and that justice cannot always be accomplished through fairness.  

Another example. Little Johnny runs to his mother and says, “Timmy hit me in the arm,” to which she responds, “what’d you do to deserve it?” This is an example of a response based on fairness. Timmy wouldn’t have punched Johnny without a good reason, right. The flip side of that coin, however, is justice. The mother’s response if it came from a place of justice might go something like, “Timmy, don’t hit your brother, hitting is wrong.” And please don’t misunderstand me here, it’s not that fairness isn’t a good thing, sometimes, but fairness and justice are not the same thing. We think we sometimes confuse the two.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus shared a parable about a vineyard owner who paid his workers on the principle of justice rather than on one based upon merit. Theologically speaking, this story illustrates what Matthew called “the Kingdom of Heaven.” Now, a grandiose phrase like Kingdom of Heaven might lead us to think that about some otherworldly realm, but that’s simply not the case. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a place, rather it’s a way of living, in this world, in the here and now. It’s a way of living that puts God’s justice and peace and liberation for all people into practice. It’s finally the goal toward which everything in Scripture is moving. It’s the hope that continues to inspire our faith as we seek to live as the people of God.[i]

Having said that, however, I think we need to circle back around to my first thought on this passage and consider the cultural “strangeness” of seeking such an existence as it relates to fairness.  I mean, the vineyard owner in today’s text realized that his first hiring of day-laborers wasn’t going to be enough, so he hired more people to harvest grapes a various times during the day. So far so good. But when it came time to pay them, this is where things got a little strange. The vineyard owner paid all of them the same wage! Those who worked only 1 hour get a full day’s wage, just like those who put in the full 12 hours! [ii] 

And again, this makes no sense if we only view life from a perspective of fairness. But if we were to expand our perspective to include justice, then the meaning of this passage begins to emerge. The story of the workers in the vineyard insists that the kingdom God envisions is a realm in which God’s justice and peace and liberation is for all people and, here’s the key, we cannot earn it. God’s grace isn’t based on a merit system. Grace is a free gift offered to everyone. Whether we’ve been at this faith thing for a long time or we’re just getting started, God’s grace is a gift. We don’t have to be better in order to ensure that God loves us, because God loves us completely already.  It’s like Desmond Tutu said, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more” and “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”[iii] 

My friends, God loves us. And we are all invited to express our gratitude for that love though acts of lovingkindness, through caring about others and creation, and by sharing hope, the hope that this kingdom, that God’s Realm here on earth, may someday become a just place for all.  May it be so. Amen & amen.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             


[i] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 97-99.

[ii] Alan Brehm. Nothing to Earn (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2011

[iii] Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, 32

Seventy-Seven

Matthew 18:21-22

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather seventy-seven times.” 

Today’s lesson teaches us that forgiveness is the only faithful Christian practice for settling moral debts. Let me say that again because it’s so important! … forgiveness is the only faithful Christian practice for settling disputes or disagreements. Not an eye for an eye nor a vengeance is mine mentality, but forgiveness. Now, I know, this can be tough to hear, particularly in the context of all the strife we’re experiencing right now, both individually and as a nation, and especially considering the political climate in which we find ourselves. But Jesus has been pretty clear over the course of these past few weeks that peace is only possible through forgiveness.

But how does that work? Well, there was a wonderful novel written a few years back that really puts this narrow understanding of forgiveness into perspective.  It’s called The Shack by William P. Young.  As the novel begins, Mack, the main character, has sunk into a depression he called “The Great Sadness” Mack is depressed because his youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted and murdered four years prior. And in the darkest moment of this sadness, Mack received a note in his mailbox from “Papa”, saying that he would like to meet with Mack that coming weekend at the shack. The shack being the place where Missy’s body was discovered. Mack was puzzled by the note, but in his grief, decided to the shack, unsure of what or who he might see there. Mack arrived and initially found nothing, but as he was leaving, the shack and its surroundings were supernaturally transformed into a lush and inviting scene. He entered the shack and encountered manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity. God “Papa” takes the form of an African American woman; Jesus is a Middle Eastern carpenter; and the Spirit physically manifests as an Asian woman.

Now, The bulk of the book narrates Mack’s conversations with Papa, Jesus, and the Spirit as he comes to terms with Missy’s death and his relationship with each of them. [i] The primary undercurrent of this story, however, is forgiveness. Will Mack be able to forgive Missy’s killer? And as we attempt to navigate our own “sadness’s”, and as we seek peace in these turbulent times, we too must come to terms with the nature of forgiveness.  

In our lesson for today, Peter said, “Lord, how many times should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Seventy-seven times? Doesn’t that number seem kind of random? Arbitrary even? What gives? Why that number? Well, this is where we once again turn to context. Seventy-seven wasn’t arbitrary. Jesus used an ancient figure of speech here that meant “an uncountable numbers of times.” (seventy times seven or seventy seven, both are correct translations from the original Greek) And this choice of phrase is important in another way as well. It’s meant to remind us of another biblical figure who also used this same figure of speech but in a very different way. Lemech, descendent of  Cain, was a tribesman who lived by a code of blood revenge. It’s Lemech who boasts in the book of Genesis of the moral warrant to avenge wrongdoing with unlimited violence. In the “Song of Swords” Lemech sings, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lemech will be avenged seventy-sevenfold.” Lemech’s practice of settling disputes is that of seventy-sevenfold or unlimited vengeance toward one who had wronged him.

But, in polar contrast, we have Jesus. If we were to tease-out the full meaning of Jesus’ response to Peter’s question, it would go something like this. When it comes to conflict and to moral offenses, forgiveness is to Christians as vengeance was to Lemech. As unlimited and unrestrained as Lemech was in wielding violence as a way to right wrong, so will the Christian wield forgiveness in unlimited, unrestrained, and even indiscriminate fashion. For this is God’s way of curbing the lethal tendency in us all.

Lemech vowed to avenge unlimited times. Jesus commanded his followers to forgive unlimited times. This is to be our practice, our way of being in the world. We are to spread it wherever we go. The power of God is in love and forgiveness, not in vengeance and bloodshed.[ii]

Now, this concept of non-violence is vital as we think about all the troubles we’re experiencing today. It would be easy for us to adopt the mindset of Lemech – an eye for an eye mentality as it were – especially as we find ourselves mired in a contentious election season. But it’s a much greater thing, a more noble things, a more faithful thing to accept and then live-into the endless forgiveness that Jesus espouses.

Two weeks ago I invited all of us to explore the possibility of Being a Blessing to others rather than cursing them, even when we disagree. And today, Matthew takes us even deeper into that concept. Maybe think of it like this. If we bless rather than curse, if we forgive rather than hold a grudge, it will lead us toward the peace we’re so desperately seeking. Both an internal sense of peace, well-being, but also an ever-widening peace that transcends political, racial, or ideological lines.

But how do we do that? How do we go about becoming a blessing by letting forgiveness nurture our health and well-being in these troubled times? How do we go about choosing Jesus’ difficult way forgiveness over Lemech’s easy way of vengeance?

Well, theologian Thomas Longsaid it like this. “We know too well that the little boat in which we are sailing is floating on a deep sea of grace and that forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose.”[iii] …a fire hose!

Mack ended up needing to dispense a “fire-hose” kind of forgiveness. Not because his daughter’s killer deserved it, but because there was no other way to overcome his “great sadness.” Forgiveness literally saved Mack’s life. And forgiveness, God’s forgiveness, saves us as well. This is the foundation of what it means to be a blessing to others. This is the core of peace. There can be no peace without forgiveness, a fire-hose of forgiveness, for others and ourselves.  

Let me leave you with this today. Henri Nouwen once said, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”[iv]

As we move into this time of community prayer, may we share the forgiveness, the “love practiced” that we’ve received; may we be a reflection of all the blessings that have been bestowed upon us; and may we, as a people of faith, find a way to begin to practice the peace that we desire for all people, for all nations including ours; may we finally, become peacemakers, and assume the title, Children of God.[v] May it be so… Amen & Amen.


[i] Synopsis of The Shack found in Wikipedia.

[ii] Courtney Cowart An Exhortation to Forgiveness (www.Day1.org) 2011

[iii] Thomas Long Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion.

[iv] Quote found at (www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) September 13, 2020

[v] Matthew 5:9

Peace As A Way of Life

  Matthew18:15-17, 20(A Paraphrase) Restoration within the Church

If your brother or sister insults or disrespects you or commits a transgression against you, go and correct them when you are alone. If they listen to you, great, then healing has begun. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others with you and confront them so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, bring it to the attention of the leadership of the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

This is the quindecinnial passage about church discipline, right? This is the one that gets dragged out when we have a dispute. This is the passage we hold up when someone in our congregation misbehaves. And this is a passage, I would contend, that often gets abused and misused. How? Well, first of all I’ve seen this formula used to beat-down the other side. It get used as a proof-text that I’m right and your wrong… Oh, and by the way, God’s on my side. In short, it’s been used to exclude people from the fellowship of a congregation. But what was Jesus really trying to do here? Is this passage really about exclusion or is there a better more theologically appropriate way to view this important teaching?

The answer to that final question is yes. There is a better way to understand this passage. Jesus’ guidance about settling disputes within the church is finally about restoration and not punishment.

How do we know this? Well you all know it’s important to look at the setting of the passage, its context within the larger canon. And here it’s especially important. Just before these verses, Jesus had spoken of God’s great care and concern for “the little ones,” and, although we have often heard these words in reference to innocent, lovable little children, contextually, they can be better understood as describing the newest members of the faith community. But it doesn’t end there. It also applies to those of us who have been around for a long time, a lifetime even, because we too get off-track once in a while.

That’s why we need a higher power, something beyond our own intellect and desire to guide us. God’s persistent and tender care, Jesus says, is like that of a shepherd who leaves the flock in search of just one little one who is lost, because it’s all about finding and seeking (think about the parables of the lost coin or the treasure in the field) and restoration (think Prodigal Son, and each one of us).

If God wills that not one little one should be lost, then the process outlined by the earliest church in this gospel passage is not about punishment or or proving that I’m right or exclusion; it’s not about one person or faction of a congregation having power over another. Rather, it’s about a methodical, respectful, earnest, and always hopeful, movement toward restoration.[i]

You know, Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.”[ii] And that in a nutshell is what lays at the core this text. Acts of love verses fear of punishment. The former invites us to move toward a place where a church community can heal and begin to move forward. The latter, fear of punishment, only stalls a congregation. Fear paralyses while love liberates.

And this understanding is important! It’s important because if we read this passage in terms of reconciliation over and above punishment or exclusion, we are free to replace the word “discipline” with the word “restoration” as we seek to settle our disputes and move toward peace within our congregations. This concept frees us to convert this passage into a marvelously humane and even compassionate process that translates something of Jesus’ teaching into the workings of the life of the early church in a way that we can also use in our shared congregational life today.[iii]

But how do we go about converting this passage when our human temptation is to punish or exclude those with whom we disagree? How do we find the peace we seek?

Well, perhaps there’s a clue right here in our lesson. Consider the line, If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. I mean, this line invites us to ask ourselves the question: How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?

Well, as you all remember, he broke bread with tax collectors and invited them to change their ways and become his followers. (remember one called Levi, who became Matthew the disciple or Zacchaeus, the wee little man who scrambled with a Sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of the Messiah as he passed by, he welcomed Jesus into his home and promised to return, with interest, all that he had extorted from his community) And as for Gentiles, those of other nationalities, religions, Jesus treated them as equal human beings. Think about the Canaanite Woman or the Tenth Leper or the Good Samaritan. These are all examples of how we should treat others, even when we disagree.

This is how God calls us, all of us, to seek restoration, to adopt “peace as a way of life.” And, my friends, that’s the bottom line here. We must walk that path of peace in our interpersonal relationships first, before we can even hope to spread peace beyond our church, or beyond our borders.
Now, as we move into this time of sacrament and prayer, I invite you listen to these words from the late Marcus Borg; words of liberation, words about God’s will for our shared journey, words about what adopting peace as a way of life might look like, and feel like, from a perspective of faith. Borg writes, “God wills our liberation, our exodus from Egypt. God wills our reconciliation, our return from exile. God wills our enlightenment, our seeing. God wills our forgiveness, our release from sin and guilt. God wills that we see ourselves as God’s beloved. God wills our resurrection, our passage from death to life. God wills for us food and drink that satisfy our hunger and thirst. God wills, comprehensively, our well-being–not just my well-being as an individual but the well-being of all of us and of the whole of creation. In short, God wills our salvation, our healing, here on earth. The Christian life is about participating in the salvation of God.”[iv]


[i] Katheryn Matthews A Reflection on Matthew 18 (www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) 2020

[ii] Gandhi quote found at (www.azquoted.com)

[iii] Ibid Matthews.

[iv] Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (Quoted found at (www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) Sept. 6, 2020