“A Larger Justice” Cunningham

Rev. Laura Cunningham

Pastor, Western Presbyterian Church

July 3, 2016


Matthew 20:1-16

20“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.”

“It’s not fair! I set the table last time! You haven’t asked her to set the table in three nights!”

“Mom! He left for school without picking up his clothes, and you didn’t say anything to him! I’m always the one to clean up!”

Not that siblings at our house say this, but I have heard on good authority that brothers and sisters often speak this way about each other to their parents. I may have once commented to my own mother that it wasn’t fair that my sister got her ears pierced at ten, when I had to wait until I was twelve…

Who am I kidding? It starts early: we believe we should get what is fair, and others should, too, especially when those others receive some reward or special privilege, and we don’t.



It’s the side of our humanity that needs everything to be fair that Jesus calls up in this parable: the good old Protestant work ethic, that you get what you work for, the side of us that believes that some karma corresponds to our actions to produce good or bad results, and that what goes around comes around. If you plant corn, you get corn; you reap what you sew. If you work eight hours, you should get paid for eight hour; work two? Get paid for two.

This isn’t what this parable celebrates, though. Jesus doesn’t preach karma.

And for many people this is not justice, even on a weekend when we celebrate our nation that regularly proclaims “justice for all,” even though we know that “all” includes those we don’t think deserve it. That sibling voice creeps back, when we see that those who worked an hour get paid the same as those who worked all day: “God, it’s not fair!”

How you feel about this parable can depend on where you stand in our nation, though, and how you understand the circumstances of those in the parable. I’ve been watching the men who are construction workers at Ginny’s school. There are differences from working in a vineyard, but similarities, too. The mostly Spanish-speaking workers arrive at 7 am on the dot. As I walk up the hill from my morning jog, they are heading down, wearing their hard hats, Day Glo shirts, and steel-toed boots. Two of them sometimes park across the street in the middle of the night and sleep in their car, all so they can mount a four story concrete structure, in the middle of summer heat, to pour concrete, drag cables, hammer beams…

A few hours later I take Ginny to camp, and we take the short cut through the Seven Corners Home Depot parking lot, where the unpicked day laborers gather. The look in their eyes lets you know they know no one’s coming for them. For them, a mid-morning hire – not to mention a mid-day hire? Un milagro; a miracle.

Some in Jesus’s original audience would have heard the miracle in this story, too. Jesus would have been speaking to a community that included many workers, in a society with high unemployment and an oversupply of labor, mostly due to peasants being forced off their land. They would have known the feeling of longing to be asked back to sharecrop, or even being picked mid-day. To hear the good news in this story, you would have had to know how to identify with those who had been forced off their land, who lived on the edge of survival, not because of anything they had done, but because of an unjust system. Even if you yourself were not in their situation, you would have had to acknowledge the larger justice at work.



Now, I recognize many in our church are trained in the law and could make a case for aligning fairness and justice, so I want to tell you, from the perspective of theology and faith, how I use them. “Fairness,” for today’s sermon, refers to a subjective experience of right and wrong, based on what I perceive. When I wait in line for movie tickets and someone steps in front of me, I get frustrated because it’s not fair. May not even be my own experience: I see one child getting a popsicle while another doesn’t, and that’s not fair either. “Justice”, on the other hand, includes something larger than our own personal experience, larger even than our laws, an understanding of what is right and what is wrong based on how things got to be the way they were, on a vision of the world the way God intended. When thinking about children getting popsicles, justice takes into account the homes the children came from, what their parents can afford, asks what about the children who never get popsicles? A child not getting a popsicle when another does? That’s unfair. Communities of children who know about popsicles but never get them? That is unjust.

In this parable, what is just, what is allowed, is paying the last workers first. If I am first on the job, is that fair? No, but this story is not about what is fair. It’s about the larger justice, the last finally becoming first and the first last.

If I find myself among the first in this world – first in class, first in line, first in my field, I am not happy with this story. But if I find myself among the last, this is great news! A miracle, even!

What is it then, to be about justice for all? What does it mean to follow a God whose justice is not blind, but has a specific perspective, with an ethic that focuses on those the rest of the world has forgotten, for whom the opportunity to work would be a miracle?

It’s complicated, especially when we live in a world that still seems so focused on the American dream – or at least its caricature. Where we can convince ourselves that we really can be impartial, where we assume that’s a value. But God’s justice shows partiality – it’s just to the ones – the groups – who never get the popsicles.

We have been blessed in these United States with people who come to our nation, who help us see the larger picture, two of whom we lost in the last two days.

One, who grew up Jewish, who survived the Holocaust and went on to remind all of us that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference, that “there are times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” When Elie Wiesel lost his life savings to Bernie Madoff – not a good thing, not a fair thing, not a just thing – he was able to turn to his wife and say we’ve been through worse.



Another, who by her name was most likely Jainist, was a child of privilege who was a student at Berkeley, whose father traveled from India to Bangladesh for the textile industry. Tarishi Jain was killed in the ISIS attack in the Bangladesh restaurant. She had been all over the world – Dhaka, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Singapore – but was working to start a clothing company with Berkeley students in which all of the profits went to microfinance loans for those in developing countries.

They remind us that you don’t have to be Christian to be able to see a larger justice, but they also call us to consider how we, as followers of Jesus, the One who told this story, consider “justice for all.”

If we go back far enough, all of us have surely experienced unfairness. As an oldest child, Jesus would surely have known the feeling of “it’s not fair,” as one who struggled and saw his neighbors struggle, as one who saw both the privileged and the poor, Jesus knew personally that life wasn’t fair. Something in him, this larger divine vision of the world according to the kingdom of heaven, kept him from getting stuck there, moved him to seek the larger justice at work.

Friends, we have the same chance, the opportunity to catch that same vision, of a world for us and for all. May it be so.