ENTITLEMENT VERSUS GRACE
Matthew 20: 1-6
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
September 21, 2014
The month of September marks the anniversaries of two separate deaths that took place within days of each other. The first is the tragic death of Princess Diana at the age of thirty-six; the other is the death by heart attack of Mother Theresa, who died just one day before Diana’s state funeral. I mention these two anniversaries partly because they represent such contrasts.
While much of the world was riveted to their TV’s for Diana’s funeral, Mother Theresa’s funeral was a quiet affair in the Catholic tradition, where prayers for God’s mercy were said, and there was nothing in the funeral that recognized any special claim she might have had for divine favor. The liturgy itself reminded the participants that everyone alike is in need of God’s grace.
I think of these two funerals when I consider the contrast between entitlement and grace. Princess Diana was born into an aristocratic English family in 1961, and received the title Lady Diana Spencer when her father inherited the title Earl Spencer in 1975, when Diana was only 14 years old. A global audience of 750 million people watched her wedding that took place at St. Paul’s Cathedral in July, 1981. Once married to Prince Charles, she received more titles: Princess of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall, Duchess of Rothesay, Countess of Chester, and Baroness of Renfrew. It’s a good thing she didn’t have to put all of that on a business card!
Mother Theresa, by contrast, was born of Albanian parents in 1910. Her given name was Agnes. Her father was a construction worker who died when she was 10 years old. She was raised by her devout mother, who instilled in her daughter a deep compassion for the poor. “My child, never eat a single mouthful unless you are sharing it with others,” her mother once told her. Her mother would invite the poor into their home to eat. Agnes once asked her mother, “Who are all these people?” And her mother responded, “Some of them are our relations, but all of them are our people.” Mother Theresa never grew to be more than five feet tall, and she had no titles.
Mother Theresa would have loved this story Jesus told about the workers in the vineyard. Reading between the lines, I suspect the writer of the gospel of Matthew slipped this story in because the church he was leading was composed of two types of people. First, there were the entitled: those who had a strong Jewish background and had become Christians in the synagogue after hearing the story of Jesus. They had been blessed with all the gifts of the Jewish faith. They knew the stories of the Hebrew scriptures. The men had been circumcised, and both women and men had benefited from the idea that they were part of God’s chosen people. They felt privileged; they felt entitled; they were like royalty in the church!
And then there were those who would have identified more with Mother Theresa. They were people who had grown up out of the orbit of the Jewish faith. They did not know the stories of the Hebrew scriptures. They had never been through the rituals of circumcision or experienced a bar or bat mitzvah. They had no conception of being God’s special people.
We can hardly imagine how those two groups melded into one! That is to say, how do we create a church out of Princess Diana aristocrats and Mother Theresa destitute and outcasts? It is in that context that I think this parable was used. The late-comers to the congregation, the Gentiles, were fully members of the church and deserved the same recognition as the Jewish members of the church.
Those who had been working from the very beginning to establish the church in a hostile environment; those who gave generously all those years to keep the church afloat; those who sacrificed their time and efforts, taught the scriptures, led the worship, served on committees, visited the sick, supported the poor, washed the dishes, cleaned the floors, served communion, took out the garbage, passed the plates, paid the bills, sang in the choir, filled out the annual report forms, served coffee after the service, and locked the doors when everyone had left…these people thought they deserved more than those upstart Gentiles who just came into the church!
That, I think, is the way this story was used in the early church. And, I suppose, it has its relevance for today, but instead of wringing this text tighter to get a few more drops of meaning out of it, I propose that we step back and look at this story alongside the old familiar story of Jonah.
There really is a parallel! The story of Jonah is a kind of parable that speaks about entitlement and grace. Jonah thought he was special! After all, he was called to be a prophet! He was educated, ordained, credentialed, certified, and validated by his denomination. He had a sheaf of letters of reference, a 4.0 GPA, and he came from a long line of famous preachers. Jonah was happy to receive grace from God. In fact, he expected nothing less from God! He thought he was entitled. In fact, Jonah had decided that he would be the ideal pastor of that fine, well-to-do, high-salaried church in Tarshish! But God apparently had other plans for Jonah. God called Jonah to a church in the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhood of the city of Nineveh, a city renowned for its crime and corruption.
That call of God was a stinging blow to someone like Jonah, who thought he was entitled. So instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah decided he would just take a trip to Tarshish and show up at that well-to-do church. That is when Jonah found himself in big trouble. On the ship sailing to Tarshish, a storm blew up, and the ship was in danger of sinking. So here we find the famous account of Jonah being swallowed up by a great sea monster…(incidentally, the word “whale” is not found in the story of Jonah! It is clearly a parable, never meant to be literal.) Haven’t you ever felt like Jonah? Haven’t you ever felt swallowed up by developments beyond your control?
But as I was saying, when Jonah found himself sinking and sliding down the gullet of a great sea monster, he started yelling: I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.,…The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head…yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord…! I bet he did!
Truth is, Jonah didn’t deserve such deliverance. He had been a jerk, and he proceeded to continue being a jerk. He went to the city of Nineveh and announced with glee its impending destruction. Then he waited outside the city limits to watch the show. But the destruction of Nineveh did not take place because the city repented, from the king down to the poorest citizen, they all repented. And they received divine mercy. There is nothing that can make some religious people madder than the mercy of God! God seems to like people that some religious folk can’t seem to stand!
So we have before us two stories that end in the same way. Jonah is peeved over God’s mercy toward the people of Nineveh, and the full-time workers are peeved over the equal treatment of the part-time workers. And the truth is that we are secretly sympathetic with their anger. Both stories assault our sense of fairness! We may never understand God’s logic, but we can understand some things.
Like this: whether you enter the life of faith sooner or later, whether you serve God from the first flush of youth into the strength of your midday and finally when the shadows of life are lengthening; or, if you enter the life of faith as your day is dying in the west, you are equally precious to God.
And to carry this one step further, there are those who are full of years, when their work is done and they have finished their course. They are surrounded by children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, honored for the heritage they leave. But then there are those young people who are taken from us long before their journey is ended, long before they have achieved their potential, long before we are ready even to consider the possibility of their death. And from this parable we get the assurance that both are equally welcomed by the divine. We learn something about the welcome of God.
But there is more: we learn something about the compassion of God. There is a tenderness to these stories. I don’t know a better word to use: tenderness. Jonah, the jerk, was like Fred Phelps and the members of Westboro Baptist Church, loving the idea of the wrath of God. But God turned out to have compassion on Nineveh just the way God had compassion for Jonah in his plight. But this was an affront to Jonah’s sense of entitlement! How could God have compassion on the people of Nineveh—they didn’t deserve it the way he did!
And in the parable of Jesus, the owner of the vineyard keeps coming back to the town square to find more workers because he can’t stand to see people out of work. There is a compassion here for those out of work. We may not have an easy answer to the complex issue of joblessness, but we can advocate for those out of work. We can vote for humane policies that show compassion and not condemnation for those out of work.
And there is one more thing: these stories picture an extraordinarily generous God. It is pure grace that saved Jonah, and it is pure grace that pays the workers a full day’s wage. Nothing but grace! The bottom line is that the life God gives us is not just payment for good work, but a gift we do not even deserve…nothing but grace!
In every other vineyard in this world, what really counts are political connections and status and degrees and titles and seniority. We strive to be President, Chairperson, Dean, doctor, tenured professor, the Reverend Doctor, whatever! But all of those titles are irrelevant in this life of faith.
When you enter the world of faith in Christ, you enter a community of brothers and sisters, founded to help heal the wounds of the world. Let none of us begrudge the width of God’s embrace. We cannot earn the favor of God. As the old gospel song says, “The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell.” There is no pecking order, no ranking according to our church attendance, no social or economic status, no title or birthright to give any one of us special privilege. The call of Christ is to all who labor and are heavy-laden.
And to all who received him, to them he gave the power to become children of God.