Shares and Compensation- A reflection on Fairness & Abundance

This morning I had the opportunity to provide the message or reflection at Woodlake Lutheran Church’s Wednesday morning Matins (Morning Prayer) service. The message was grounded particularly in Matthew 20:1-16, as well as connected briefly to Jonah 4:9-11. What follows is the majority of that message. 

These passages in Jonah and in the Gospel of Matthew can sound like a stumbling block for perfectionists and rules oriented people focused on fairness (like me). “It’s not fair…” Jonah and the laborers may cry. I bet you have said or thought those words at some point in your life too. Certainly you have heard them I imagine from your brothers, sisters, kids and even grandkids perhaps.

One potential depiction of Matthew 20:1-16
One potential depiction of Matthew 20:1-16

In hearing these passages, we are confronted by the notion that our idea of “what’s fair,” doesn’t really matter.  It’s certainly not the same as the way God views it, at least. There is unequivocally no “fairness” as we people identify, in God’s eyes and in God’s kingdom. I say thanks be to God for that.

I chose these passages for their similar type of questions regarding fairness, God’s ways and abundance. I also chose them, because you will hear this gospel again this weekend, as it is the Narrative Lectionary focus reading this week. I figured that it might be good to share some of my thoughts as I hear these words.

You may not know this about me, but one of my major passion areas in ministry is stewardship. In college I studied both economics and religion, a rare combination it seemed in school, but to me the two seem equally important for understanding the way the world works. When I looked at the gospel for this week, I was overjoyed. It is one of my favorite stewardship passages in the Bible.

In the parable Jesus is telling, we hear the landowner say, “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

We are reminded of the reversal of expectations that come with the Kingdom of God. But more than that, we are challenged by this question about ourselves, are we envious? Do we think we deserve something better than our neighbor because we are better? Perhaps we feel like we are a harder worker and deserve a bit more compensation? Perhaps we have given more of ourselves, and think we deserve a better share of the spoils, or at least a greater place of honor around the table?

This is our human nature. We want to be able to earn our way. We want to achieve. I am just as guilty of this as you, if not more so. But in this lesson, we are reminded of where things stand in God’s eyes.

Even if we have worked longer, even if we have been more righteous, a more devout follower of Jesus, even if we have truly and always loved our neighbor as ourselves…

This doesn’t mean we are any different than our neighbor or any stranger in God’s eyes. God’s generous gift of abundance is the same for me, as it is for you, as it is for the stranger we may not even know. God’s generous gift is part of God’s love. This is a love so deep, that it can make possible what doesn’t seem possible to us. Where we see only a few dollars, or a couple loaves and a few fish, God can feed thousands. Where we think that the size of heaven can only be so big, we know that God is capable of anything and is far greater than our ideas or imaginations. When we think that there is only so much possibility, God opens our eyes and shows us, so much more.

God chooses to give in this way, because God loves in this way. In Genesis we are reminded that we are all created in the image of God, and through Paul’s writings we are repeatedly reminded that we are children and heirs of the promise of God. That promise, is a generous one- a promise of life, grounded in love for us and for all God’s children.

The Post-it-Note Wall of Change
Another way that God is generous, is that God is there for us in prayer and hears our prayer concerns and petitions. Some of these concerns might be lifted up vocally, others in written form, others in a little one or two word note like these on a wall.

That’s what it means when we are reminded that God is generous. Not only is God generous for putting up with us, when we get so fixated on what’s fair, the rules, and our desire to be closer and better. God is generous because God loves us, in spite of our created barriers and rules that are meant to divide, exclude and uplift a select few. No, in God’s kingdom, there is inclusion, not exclusion.  In God’s kingdom, God chooses to say, “here’s your daily wage,” or in the words of the Lord’s prayer, “here’s your daily bread.” We don’t hear that you or me get a bigger loaf or slice of that bread, we just receive it.

So often when we think about money and stuff, we feel like we don’t have enough. We often feel like we have to have more- maybe because we don’t have enough, maybe because we are envious of another person who has the most beautiful looking home, the best new car, the biggest TV…

You know the feelings. These lessons today call us to raise those questions that deep down we all wrestle with. These lessons today allow us to confess that we each feel jealous and envious some times. We all worry about the occasional meal, or if we have enough money to make ends meet. I’m fairly certain that those are normal worries in fact. But in hearing the words in the end of Jonah, we are reminded that God is concerned about us and is listening to us and with us. In Matthew, we are reminded that God is generous. That no matter what might happen, the gifts of God aren’t up to us.

So, what’s fairness in God’s eyes? Today’s gospel passage would seem to suggest that the deepest sense of equality of generosity for all, is fairness in God’s eyes.

What do you think?

As for me, I’m grateful that it’s not up to me. I’m grateful that God isn’t limited by our human created ideas of what’s possible. I’m also grateful, that God’s love is so big and God’s generosity so great, that there’s a share for all in the kingdom. Amen.

Image Credits: One depiction of Matthew 20:1-16

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