Sermon: No Playing Favorites


The question we are left with today is: Are you envious because I am generous?

And if we are honest with ourselves, the answer has to be: Yes. Yes I am.

Come on, you can’t say you’ve never been envious of another person; their success, their accomplishments, their talents, their good fortune. Have you ever seen some of those people who win the lottery? You can’t tell me they deserve the reward of a hundred million dollars; just for walking down to the local Stop & Shop for a lottery ticket. Meanwhile, look how hard the rest of us are working here!

I know that at some point in your life you’ve been green with envy.

My sister, Cathy, is a year and a half older than me, so she was always two grades ahead of me going through school. Now Cathy always got straight A’s, was always – what you might call – the teacher’s pet. And so from elementary school through high school, every time I’d get one of the teachers she’d had, that teacher would say to me, “Oh, so, you’re Cathy Oak’s little brother. Well then, we’ll expect great things from you.”

And I’d always think to myself, “Please don’t.”

My sister made it all a little better though, when she came home one day from high school and declared, “If one more person comes up and asks me, `Are you Tom Oak’s sister?’ . . . I’m going to scream.”

And so the last will be first and the first will be last.

Dubious news, perhaps, for those who are first; but it sure gives hope to those who are last.

Matthew was writing his gospel for that early Christian church, which was a blend of Old School Jews who believed in living by the law (Jesus said, `I have come to fulfill the law, not to abolish it’), and the New Upstart Gentiles who were boasting about the power of good works (`For you shall do even greater things than these,’ Jesus told them). And Matthew was trying to help those two groups reconcile their theological and cultural differences and learn to get along.

Over the years I’ve discovered that most church conflicts had at the root of the problem one group trying to assert its own sense of entitlement and authority, power and preference over and against another group.

The first-comers will say, “We’ve been here working hard in this field for decades – generations even – and now these young-upstart-would-be-Christians want to come in and change everything to be the way they want it. What makes them think they have the right? It’s not fair. This is our church!”

And the latest arrivals will counter, “We’re the future of the church. Either they make these changes or we’ll go somewhere else and/or start our own church!”

It’s essentially a contentious dispute over who is really entitled to run the church.

But the thing is – as this little parable reminds us – ultimately it is not our church. It’s not your church. It’s not my church. It’s God’s church. Which brings us back to the original question: Are we going to be envious (jealous, covetous, desirous, begrudging, resentful) because of God’s generosity? Or, as the original Greek language puts it, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

We get envious when we perceive that someone else is getting what should rightfully be ours. What’s dangerous about that scenario is just how much we think should be ours. While we are justifying what we think we deserve, at the same time we are calculating how undeserving others are.[i]

There’s an old saying that, “Assumptions are planned resentments.” Whenever we assume entitlement, we set ourselves up for possible disappointment and even worse, we set up the other person, place or thing as the object of our disappointment, anger, or resentment.[ii]

That has broad implications for our relationships in life – in our marriage, at our place of work, in the church, and in politics. Our political parties, our sports teams, our business models, even our ecclesiastical structures are all based upon hierarchies and competition, partiality and preferential treatment, largely based on talent and/or tenure.

Nathan Bedford Forrest described the key to warfare as “getting there the firstest with the mostest, even if he chooses the wrong ground on which to make his stand.[iii]

To announce that we’re going to “Make America Great Again” (republicans) suggests, perhaps, that America hasn’t been quite so great in the recent past, presumably because it’s been led by lesser people. The slogan “A Better Deal” (democrats) implies that up to now we’ve been getting a raw deal by those deemed less trustworthy. Political rivalry is based on winners and losers; those who come in first and those who come in last. Which political party wins the day depends on who gets there “firstest with the mostest” during the campaign battle season.

These are all cultural reflections of the same assumption that some (groups, individuals, communities, ideologies) are better than [the] other(s), and thus more entitled (to win, to rule, to be given preference). The roots of these assumptions run deep into the history of our country.

In the 19th century, Manifest Destiny declared that European settlers were `destined’ to expand across America. Around that same time Social-Darwinism developed tying Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the hierarchy of human society. The Doctrine of Discovery was propagated by European monarchies to legitimize the colonization of lands outside of Europe (including most notably America) – an assumption that was later ratified by the United States Supreme Court (in 1823) and adopted by the Christian movement (including Presbyterians) to coercively proselytize indigenous peoples. These are all ideologies based upon those same assumptions which place one peoples over and against others.

Ideologies which still plague our culture today.

White Nationalists, essentially, make the argument – based on the erroneous assumptions of the above ideologies – that they are more deserving of this country because they’ve been here longer than others and/or because God favors them more than others.

In her reflections on this passage in The Presbyterian Outlook, Jill Duffield paraphrases something she heard a renowned Civil War expert say recently – something, Jill suggests, that those of us who imagine ourselves to be harder working or more deserving or somehow better than – need to be reminded of.

The Civil War expert said, “Imagine stripping away everything your family had acquired for 250 years. Property, education, social capital, financial inheritances. And then try to make a life out of nothing. That’s the reality of slavery in this country.”

Jill Duffield concludes by asking, “Who deserves to get paid which wage when we consider that truth? How do we talk about fairness or equality or equity or generosity when we recognize such realities? Where we find ourselves in line isn’t as simple as we’d like to make it out to be, is it?”[iv]

Her comments made me think of Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last year, when she said, “That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

And who has a right to be influential in – or even to be in – this country is, perhaps, brought into the light of a new question by today’s odd little parable told by Jesus: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

And, relative to that, perhaps, a second question: “What, and who, makes this nation great in the first place? Or in the final analysis?”

The problem the early-risers had with the late-comers was not so much the amount of money they received in wages. Their complaint to the landowner was literally, “…you have made them equal to us!”

Nonetheless, at the end of the day the Landowner plays no favorites; he gives equal reward to all his laborers. His generosity is based neither on who got there first nor who (presumably) did the most work. In Jesus Christ, God has created an alternative social order, a truly egalitarian culture in which all are given equal status based, not on any worldly principles of merit, but solely upon God’s immanent grace. And, in that culture, God is the ultimately authority.

By the time I went back to college, I was determined to no longer live in my sisters academic shadow. I worked my tail off to `make the grade’. And it paid off, too. I got straight A’s; made the Dean’s Honor Roll every semester. And it felt good. No . . . it felt great!

Then I got to seminary and, upon welcoming us, they told us that everyone could expect to get B’s in their coursework. You would have to be truly exceptional to warrant an A. And you’d have to really screw up to get a C.

And this group of incoming overachievers looked around at each other and grumbled, “What’s fair about that?”

However, after that first year of 18 hours of coursework, accompanied by about a thousand pages of reading each week, along with 25 to 30 hours of weekly field education, added to which was a host of extracurricular activities and expectations for attendance – by the second year of seminary, making a B was looking pretty good.

By the third year of seminary, most of us had figured out that it wasn’t about the grades at all; it wasn’t about being better than – or lesser than – our classmates, our colleagues. It was about realizing the blessing of having good work to do as laborers in God’s vineyard, and understanding the truth that it would only be by God’s grace that we would accomplish it.

And I believe that that, in a nutshell, is what this passage is all about.

Maybe the only assumptions we should make in life are:

  • God loves me and all of creation deeply and profoundly.
  • I and all others are made in the image of God.
  • God’s generosity is beyond our wildest imagination.
  • There is nothing I can do to earn or deserve God’s generosity.[v]

 

How different our lives would be if we lived from those assumptions!

We’ve been given this great opportunity to labor together in God’s vineyard, and that blessing is truly its own reward. So we can work joyfully – welcoming all who would join us whether they do so early or late – knowing that, at the end of the day, God will reward all, not according to how deserving we may or may not think ourselves to be, but according to God’s justice and God’s grace. Thanks be to God! In Jesus Christ.

(*Expanded version)

[i] Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 4.

[ii] Jill Duffield, “Are you envious because I am generous?, The Presbyterian Outlook, September 24, 2017.

[iii] Idioms by The Free Dictionary

[iv] (ibid. Cleghorn)

[v] (ibid. Cleghorn)

 

 

Tweets

 

Church conflicts are most often contentious disputes over who is entitled to run the church.

 

Jesus’ odd little parable reminds us that, ultimately, the vineyard belongs to the Landowner.

 

The landowner tells his laborers, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with what is mine? Is your eye evil because I am good?” (nkjv)