by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
September 18, 2005
Scripture: Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20: 1-16
“Is your eye evil because I am good?” –Matthew 20:15
This is one of the more memorable of Jesus’ many memorable parables. It is especially memorable because it is an immoral story told to indicate what the kingdom of God is like. It is not the only such parable used by Jesus. We think immediately of the story of the unjust steward, who having been fired for defrauding his master defrauds him again and was praised by Jesus for his cunning and resourcefulness (Luke 16:1-9). What do we make of the fact that Jesus could tell stories whose moral logic is corrupt in order to tell us about the logic of God’s action?
The first thing to understand is that Jesus tells these parables not to give us moral guidance but to reveal the nature of God. By our parable Jesus is not teaching us that it is morally acceptable to take advantage of workers who bear the heat and burden of a twelve hour shift by paying workers who work only one hour the same wage, and when the all-day workers complain insists on the letter of the contract rather than acting in its spirit.
Rather, and this is the second thing to say, Jesus uses this parable to describe the radical graciousness of God’s grace, the outrageousness of the divine love, a love that surpasses human understanding at every level, logical, aesthetic and moral. By these parables Jesus communicates the outrageousness of our Father’s love for us, that is, he reveals the nature of God rather than endorses our human sense of justice. This is the lesson Jesus gives us today, so let us hear it, understand it, believe it and act on it.
I assume we have by now heard it and so may move on to try to understand it. An understanding must come to terms first with the deep human expectation that life is just, that good people prosper and bad people suffer, that virtue succeeds and vice fails. I imagine there have been many sermons recently trying to come to terms with the uneasiness, even outrage, felt by people stricken by the hurricane, drowned in their beds, stripped of their belongings. Why does God allow such things to happen?
I am sure some sermons answered that the inhabitants of New Orleans and the surrounding territory have been like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah greater sinners than the rest of us and so deserve this divine visitation. There are preachers who say that HIV/Aids is a punishment from God for immoral living, and those who said that the 9/11 catastrophe was brought on by sins like feminism, liberalism, and homosexuality. Such thinking has deep roots in the Bible, but not in the teaching of Jesus. Listen to our parable! It says that God does not reward us according to our deserts but according to His outrageous grace.
This is not a complete account of the divine providence. Jesus still holds to the traditional notion that we cannot sin against God with impunity, that we must all account for our lives before the judgment throne of God. So what does our parable have to say to that? Simply this: that God’s morality is not the same as ours, or more precisely, we understand the divine morality only very imperfectly.
The heart of our misunderstanding is that we think God’s morality is like ours based on a strict law of exchange, a system of quid pro quo, of equal actions and reactions, which entails a deep attachment to the idea of equality or fairness. Here are some examples: One of the more destructive features of Communist society was that people resented those who rose above or went ahead of the group. There are several metaphors for this phenomenon, the nail that sticks up is pounded down, or, crabs in a box pull back down any of their fellow crabs that begin to succeed in the climb out of the box. Jesus corrects this view of God’s morality, which was taught by Moses. God does not deal with us by the morality of exchange, but rather by the generosity of grace. If God were to deal with us according to human justice we would long ago have perished.
In our Gospel passage this tit for tat mode of human justice is represented by the saying I have taken as our text, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The evil eye is the envious eye that mourns at the good fortune of the other, that resents the beautiful, and the strong and the successful, and perhaps most of all the fortunate, or in our Christian language, the blessed and the graced. In our parable the eleventh hour workers get a break, receive a gift. They are humbled by the boss’s generosity, struck dumb by his kindness, blessed by his love. The 12-hour group feels that this generosity cheapens their wage, they are chagrined that they did not sign up for more, and above all they are deeply unhappy at the happiness of the others. What matters most to them is their advantage relative to the others, the fact that they should be better off than they. They cannot appreciate the absolute gain of all because they want the relative gain of some, that is, themselves. “It is not sufficient for me to succeed; my friend has also to fail.”
I need not say more about this whole group of shameful and unworthy feelings that have at one time or another afflicted us all. We have all resented even feared the gifts of another, and we all know that it is a sign of spiritual maturity to begin to leave resentment behind and begin genuinely to feel joy in the goodness, beauty and truth of the other, and especially in his or her blessed success. If you deny that you have ever felt this way I think you need to think again with a bit more honesty. There is nothing to fear, because our parable repeats what the whole N T says repeatedly, that God is love and that love casts out fear.
I called this sermon “Outrageous Grace.” Amazing Grace is a well-known term for God’s way with us, and it is accurate as far as it goes, but it does not go all the way. Grace all the way is outrageous grace. Grace all the way affronts our sense of justice and undercuts our human structure of morality. And for good reason. Think of the historical instances when human justice was taken with radical seriousness. Egalitarian movements like Communism made the natural indignation about injustice the central, guiding principle of human society, and look what it has wrought: the cruelest, most murderous, least gentle societies in all of human history.
In conclusion let us look again at the parable. An employer violates the natural order of justice by paying an equal wage for unequal work. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like that. When God acts He does not act according to the deepest instinct of human justice, the quid pro quo of fairness. God is unfair. That is the glorious truth of God that Jesus brings. God is unfair.
And thank God that God is unfair because if God dealt with us fairly, according to our own principle of exchange, no one of us would survive. The 12-hour workers who demand their just deserts know nothing. They do not know that their just deserts are divine anger and retribution, that their wages are in any case a gift and not a well-earned reward, that true humanity rejoices not in receiving what it deserves but in knowing and experiencing the outrageous generosity of a divine lover who pours on all our ugly self-serving the one thing we do not and cannot deserve, the joyous gift of his divine love. Our joy is to receive what we do not deserve. Indeed, the whole calculus of deserving, the structure of exchange is out of place here. God loves us, our divine lover loves us, and in that is all the fullness of satisfaction we can contain. After all, even we, incarcerated in this fallen and depraved world, even we know that love cannot be deserved, it’s just not like that. Love does not live in the world of quid pro quo, love is not a contract; it is rather a wonder and a miracle. Even the prisoners in the penitentiary of this world can know that if they pay attention.
How much more we Christians to whom Jesus reveals the nature of the kingship of God! Remember this parable is not an example of how to conduct business in this world. It is rather a revelation of how God our Father does business in the eternal realm where we enter or refuse the kingdom of God. Imagine going to hell insisting like the 12-hour workers that the divine grace be just and fair.
In my last sermon I wondered aloud why church people are so often so mean, so exclusionary, so cruel. I did not give any answers to my question, and I still cannot give any; however, church people are usually very proper and just, fair-minded and orderly, so God help the wretch who finds outrageous grace. Perhaps that is the direction in which to search for answers. The very moral rectitude of such people makes them cruel. Secondly, there might be understanding to be found in the fact, patent on every page of the gospels, that Jesus was an outrageous character who took church people (he called them Pharisees) seriously only as examples of who God was not, how not to act, and of those who would not enter God’s kingdom. Clearly for Jesus God deals with us outrageously. That I think is why Jesus says that crooks and whores go into the kingdom before church people (Matthew 21:31). We are church people so let us be doubly careful to include a little outrageousness in our lives.