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"Envy Gives Way to Thanksgiving"

Matthew 20:1-16

Rev. Alan Taylor

Pentecost 14, Proper 20, series A
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Sun, Sep 18, 2011 

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The message this morning is based on the Gospel reading from Matthew 20, the Parable of the laborers in the vineyard.  A master hires workers early in the day and promises to pay them a denarius.  At various times throughout the day he hires other workers and promises to pay that "what's right."  When the workers hired at the end of the day were paid a denarius, those hired first expected to be paid more.  When the master paid them what he promised they grumbled saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong.  Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?'"

At first glance it's a little difficult to discern whether the chief sin of the laborers hired early in the day is one of envy or of an arbitrary sense of fairness.  On the one hand, they were envious of those hired later in the day because they received the same amount of wage for a lesser amount of work.  They, no doubt, wished they could have worked fewer hours for the same pay.  On the other hand, they also wanted to receive more pay than what they agreed on with the master because it didn't seem fair to them that they should be paid the same as those hired later. 

We're not going to spend too much time trying to parse the situation, to determine whether it was envy or an arbitrary sense of fairness that was the problem in the parable.  The fact is it was both!  And perhaps that's the point.  The two, envy and a hyper sensitive notion of what's fair and what's unfair, seem to go hand and hand.  When we envy what someone else has we also tend to find it unfair that they have it, whatever "IT" is. 

There's an old fable about how Satan's demons trying to tempt a Christian to sin.  This particular Christian happened to have aspired to a high office in the Church in North Africa in the churches formative years.  Every direct attempt to get him to sin was falling short of the intended goal.  Finally, Satan himself stepped in, saying that the methods of his underlings were lacking.  He then approached the man gently and whispered in his ear, "You will not believe this, but your brother, a far less sanctified man than yourself, has just been made the bishop of Alexandria."  Instantly the man's face tightened and he scowled.  "Envy," said Satan, "is often our best tool with those who seek the sanctified life."

Part of the problem with envy is that its demands are insatiable.  Had the man in our little illustration been granted the title of bishop, do you suppose he would he have been satisfied, or, would he have coveted the position of "Arch Bishop?" Or, the laborers in the parable, had they been paid two denarii for a day's wage, twice what they had been promised and twice what the other workers received, would they have been content, or, would they have expected still more?

Envy's demands can never really be satisfied, partly because of the insatiable nature of envy, but also because envy is driven by an arbitrary and hyper-sensitive notion of what's fair and what's unfair.  And the problem is, as you well know, in a world broken by sin, life really isn't very fair. 

I preached last Sunday for a mission festival at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Manheim, Texas.  By the way, thank you for that time away and for the privilege allotted me to deliver Christ to those folks.  Actually, I didn't just preach the sermon.  I actually officiated for the entire service.  Why?  Well, as it turned out, the pastor of the congregation in Manheim was flown to Austin on Friday of last week to undergo some medical tests.  He was trying to help out a pastor whose house was burned to the ground in Bastrop.  In the process he fell off of a ladder and was knocked unconscious.  He's fine now, but, it just goes to show you, as former President Kennedy is often quoted as saying, life really isn't fair. 

But, this parable is not really about life's mishaps, nor is it about the general unfairness of living in a broken world.  Rather, it's about a particular people serving under a particular master.  The Master, of course, is God, and the laborers are those He's called to work in His vineyard.  You could say, in one sense, the parable is about the Jews and the Gentiles, God's covenant people, those blessed from the days of the patriarchs with the very oracles of God, verses the non-Jews, those called by the Gospel without a sacred lineage or history. 

The Jews, you'll remember, endured bondage under the Pharoahs of Egypt, in part, because they were Jews.  They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years seeking the land of God's promise.  They suffered dispersion at the hand of their enemies.  They witnessed the destruction of their temple, the place where God said He would meet with them at the mercy seat.  They suffered Roman occupation and persecution.  They endured many adversities simply because they were Jews, God's chosen people. 

The Gentiles, on the other hand, forsook the True God and worshiped pagan gods.  They tore down the altars of the God of Israel.  They rejected His Word and they persecuted His people.  They even often prospered at the expense of the Jews. 

But then, in time, through the grace of God in Christ Jesus, both Jew and Gentile were called into God's vineyard to work.  And when such diverse people, with such diverse backgrounds, with such diverse hopes and dreams entered the vineyard, they were treated by the master with the same grace and generosity as were those who labored through the heat of the day.  And those who had that laborious history of service to the master grumbled at the inequity of the situation. 

Translated into our day and time, some of us have lived a good part of our lives as Christians.  As children, we were brought to the font of God's grace.  From then on, marked by the sign of the cross, we have endured a certain level of persecution, maybe from friends, maybe from co-workers, maybe even from our families, brothers, sisters, perhaps even parents.  Some of us, looking back, have considered how much we have given up following Christ. 

And then we witness others who have suffered relatively little for the sake of Christ, who have worked less, given less, prayed less, and yet, who have reaped the sweetness of the unbridled, unmerited, goodness of God, and we wonder why we couldn't have been in their situation, or, why we weren't blessed more than they.  Oh how we struggle to push away the notion that life in the kingdom is about work and rewards, rather than about service and grace. 

But alas, envy and hyper-sensitivity to what's fair and what's unfair are not of the Gospel.  Rather, they are of the Law.  What do you possess, my friends, in this kingdom of God's grace, that was not given to you?  What is yours that has not been bestowed on you by God's generosity? 

Mark Guy Pearce, a Methodist preacher of the 19th century, writes, "I was walking along one winter night, hurrying toward home with my little girl at my side. Said she, 'Father, I am going to count the stars.' 'Very well,' said I. 'Go ahead.' By and by I heard her counting: 'Two hundred and twenty-three, two hundred and twenty-four, two hundred and twentyfive … Oh, dear,' she said, 'I had no idea there were so many.' Ah, dear friends, I sometimes say in my soul, 'Now, Master, I am going to count all Thy benefits.' I am like the little girl.  Soon my heart sighs—sighs not with sorrow but burdened with such goodness, and I say within myself, 'Ah!  I had no idea that they were so many.'"

The sentiment of thanksgiving expressed by the Methodist preacher though penned many years later, were put to song in Luther's hymn of praise....

"All blessing, honor, thanks and praise

To Father, Son and Spirit,

To God who saved us by His grace;

All glory to His merit.

O Triune God in heav'n above,

You have revealed Your saving love;

Your blessed name we hallow." 

In Jesus' name.  Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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