Matthew T. Phillips

“Though Justice Be Thy Plea” (Matthew 20:1-16)

Reading for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (A)
Introduction to Christian Preaching
Duke University Divinity School
Durham, North Carolina

1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And
when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Matthew 20:1-16 NRSV

Boarding the Plane

My fiancée and I flew to Michigan this past weekend to spend time with her family. We found a good fare on Southwest Airlines. Instead of the traditional seat-assignment procedures, Southwest has an open seating policy. An hour before the flight, they begin checking people in at the gate. The first person gets a card with the number “1” on it, the second person gets a “2,” and so on up to the poor guy who had a late connection and gets stuck with “90.” When boarding time arrives, passengers board in groups: 1-30, 31-60, 61-90. This might sound a little confusing already, so you can imagine that more experienced passengers work up some pretty sophisticated strategies. People begin lining up as much as two hours before the flight so that they will be first to check in. As soon as they get their boarding card, some people will go sit in the boarding line because “29” is in the same group as “1,” and thus may board first.

A Southwest gate would be a wonderful study for a psychology student, or, as I’ll argue, a theologian. Amazingly, the vast majority of people act with a common sense of fairness: lines are orderly, people are relatively considerate of others, and almost no one tries to buck the system.

But sometimes it happens. As we were boarding the plane to depart from Raleigh, a party that was split between our boarding group and the next one tried to all sneak in with our group. Heather and I were too tired to care, but the people in front of us were very concerned about this development, and almost cheered when the gate attendant thwarted this conspiracy to board the plane. Something went off inside my head, but I had to start moving, and walking onto an airplane takes my entire brain, so the alarm went away.

As is the habit of providential things that you don’t catch the first time around, it happened again. We had been standing in line for about 30 minutes to check in for the second leg of our flight. There were around 35 people behind us in line, and the gate counter was just opening. As the agent began checking people in, a man got out of his chair and moved to stand next to me, trying to ease his way into the line. I began to consider that he was skipping not only me, but the 37 people behind me. Realizing that justice depended on my very action, I said, “excuse me, sir, but there are a lot of people here who have been in line for a long time.”

“I have been waiting too,” he replied, not showing any hint of yielding, speaking with the deliberate sounds of someone for whom English was not a native tongue.

So I raised my voice just a little bit. “Yes, but you’ve been waiting in that comfortable chair and not in this line, which ends way back there,” and I pointed out the spot for him, now 40 people behind me.

The look on his face was clearly the product of a deceitful attempt to look confused, now that he had been caught. I began to wonder momentarily if he really was confused, but as sympathy was starting to rise in me, the gate agent picked up on what was happening and said that she was going to recognize the line, and he needed to move to the rear of it. I got my boarding card (number 3) and moved to take a seat. When we started rolling, I pulled out my notes for this sermon, and they might as well have had Nathan’s message to David printed all over them: “you are the man” (2 Samuel 12:7 NRSV).

The condemning text

Our text—the one that condemned me as I sat on the second row of the airplane while a man who tried to skip me moved to find a place in the back of the plane—is one of those texts that catches me off guard every time I read it. I am the older, responsible brother, so I hate the parable of the prodigal son. I worked for a bank for a while, so I hate the parable of the dishonest steward. I get to work first thing in the morning and work pretty hard, so I’m not a big fan of this parable either.

The owner of a field goes out in the morning and gets people to work for him. He promises to pay them fairly, and they go to work. It’s harvest time, and so when he realizes he doesn’t have enough help a few hours later, he goes out again and hires more workers. He does this a third and fourth time and then again very near the end of the day. This time he asks the people still standing around why they aren’t working. “No one wanted us” the men said quietly to the owner. He told them to come, and they worked the final hour of the day. The owner told the manager to pay the men, starting with the last to come. Each man, regardless of arrival, received a fair day’s wages. The early men had expected more when they saw the latecomers getting a normal wage, but when they received the same amount, they complained. The owner, however, pointed out that they had received what had been promised to them. In God’s eyes, the last and the first shall be equal.

We crave fairness

The workers in the field about whom we read would have joined the five separate people who issued me thanks and congratulations for putting that line-cutting man in his place. “We’ve been here all day,” we all reasoned. “Why should this guy get the same benefits we do? We followed all the rules, stood in this god-forsaken line, and avoided all of the tempting foods and concession stands we walked by in the airport terminal to get here early and stand in line. And now this guy, who sat there all comfy, eating his cheeseburger, wants to stand up and get in front of us?”

Can you hear what would happen if we tweaked the language just a little bit? “We’ve been following you for centuries. We followed all the rules, walked through the desert, sure except for the manna that you had forsaken us, didn’t eat bloody meat, got ourselves circumcised, and now this guy, who cursed your name, didn’t even think about the laws, and still has all the body he was born with wants to stand in front of us and get into the kingdom. Are you kidding?”

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis uses that common sense of fairness that I felt—the apparently universal understanding of right and wrong—to prove the existence of God. And yet when we read Matthew, it sure doesn’t look like God feels any need to be fair.

Fairness isn’t good enough

Thank God for that. That’s a suggestion, not an expletive. Thank God that God feels no need to be fair. Our Lord taught this parable, and Matthew recounts it, specifically for the law abiding citizens of Judea. The ones who took the Levitical code seriously and sought to obtain salvation through obedience to the law.

Do you think anyone ever actually did it? I suppose it’s possible. You could list out all the laws of the ancient codes, reconcile the contradictory ones, weed out the redundant ones, and come up with a list, ordering your life such that you followed every one. It would be tough—I’ve probably broken a few since I stood up here.

Let’s give the people hearing this parable the benefit of the doubt. Let’s pretend that the disciples, along with the on-looking Pharisees, had actually managed to follow every law to the letter. Along comes this paradoxical teacher from Nazareth who takes a difficult thing and removes the remaining shreds of possibility from it:

27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Matthew 5:27-28 NRSV

And then later,

8b“It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:8b-9 NRSV

Jesus doesn’t undo the law; he one-ups it. Not only actions, but thoughts and emotions count. If you try to make the law your way to salvation, you’re a goner for sure.

The paradoxical side of this teacher, though, is that he opens the front door at the same time he closes the old back one. The law doesn’t need to save you any more, he says, which is good because you couldn’t follow it anyway. I’ll save you.

This parable is very much about perspective. At first reading, we see ourselves as the jilted workers. After all, we’ve been doing this church thing for a while now, and we’re good, upstanding people besides. We would’ve worked a whole day! And from that perspective, the gospel remains hidden.

We are the latecomers

But contrary to popular belief, the world didn’t start when the Mayflower landed, or with the Industrial Revolution, and certainly not with the invention of the Internet. It goes back even further than the fall or the rise of the Roman Empire; earlier than the Exodus too. We are the latecomers. Especially gentile Christians like me. We grafted ourselves onto a tradition that has been trying to understand God for many thousands of years, and yet we get lulled into thinking we have paid our dues.

As late as we are in the game, there will still be more. And the gift of our awareness of what Christ has done for us is that we can be welcoming of those who are still to come. As infinite mercy has been extended to us, surely, with God’s grace, we can extend some welcoming mercy to people that we think don’t have it together quite as well as we do. After all, we’re probably wrong in that proud observation.

“Render the deeds of mercy”

In an ninth grade art class, I jokingly asked my teacher to be merciful when she graded my assignment. “You need Portia to argue for you,” she said. I must have looked even more bewildered than I had when I’d received the art assignment. “You want mercy instead of justice—Portia makes your case. Learn the speech and I might be more merciful.”

“That helped a lot,” I’m thinking. But since there was an element of challenge to her offer, and I’ve never been one to back down from one of those, I went to the library the next morning, figured out that Portia was a character in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and finally found the speech, which I recited a week later in art class for an audience of one.

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown. His sceptre shows the force of temporal power—the attribute to awe and majesty—wherein doth lie the dread and fear of kings. But mercy is above this sceptred sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kings; it is an attribute of God himself. And earthly power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea, consider this: that in the course of justice, we do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, IV.i.189-207

She was impressed, but said that she wasn’t God, so she was still grading my assignment by the same standards she used for everybody else.

If only we knew not to seek justice for ourselves in the first place, because in the case of salvation, the demands of justice are more than we can bear. Even us latecomers get paid at the end of the day, though, and we get to do a little work so we feel like we’ve earned it. We can’t ever forget our place in the story, though—we’re right at the end—lest we begin to think that we should get more than anyone else who has accepted the grace of our Lord.