On a Question of Merit
(a sermon from September of 2020)
September 24, 2023
And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Matthew 20: 1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When 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.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Today’s sermon is titled On the Question of Merit.
As I think back about my time as a schoolteacher, I have a growing perception that I may have actually learned more than I taught. I began in middle school, moved to high school and then returned to middle school before I settled in the final years with first and second graders. For those young children, one thing that thrilled them the most was being asked to go on an errand for me. I might have a legitimate need, such as delivering a message, fetching more staples from the office, or a book from another classroom and my ingrained tendency was to first consider whom in the class had been working quietly and productively. It did not take me long to realize that, under those criteria, I would always be asking the same three students to run the errand. That would not do. So I began to sometimes make up errands to lift the spirits of a child who skinned their knee on the playground or one who was struggling to navigate through the shifting alliances of friendships. I could affect a drastic change in their day by entrusting them to carry a request to the office for more paper clips, even though I may return them again at the end of the day.
Teachers wield great power. They have the power to edify and the power to diminish. I don’t doubt that we have all been affected in our school years. We may not remember most members of our childhood classrooms, but we remember the bullies and we remember the teacher’s pets. We grow up in a world where our merit is questioned at every turn and we mature into adults with a worldview that includes strong opinions about who deserves what.
We make these determinations continuously; it is unavoidable. We use the question of merit to determine how we spend our money, how we donate, how we form relationships and even with how we share information. We use our life experiences to form opinions and beliefs that are then shaped further by what we read and what we hear and we use all of that information to further determine “who”, in our opinion, deserves “what.” It can become a god-like power, especially for those in positions of influence in the church, in schools, in business, and in government. It can be dangerous, as we well know.
There is an alternative paradigm that is not based on merit. [This alternative paradigm can also be dangerous if misinterpreted and misused for control over others instead of for their liberation. Christianity has a long history as proof to that point.] This alternative paradigm is found in the teachings of Jesus, teaching that, if allowed, break in to our lives to deconstruct our carefully constructed systems on every level. How does Jesus do it?…with a story. Jesus is offering us a description of the indescribable, the kingdom of heaven.
In a sermon from a few weeks ago, I passed along what I had recently learned about what the scriptures refer to, over and over again, as the “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God.” The following is the passage from that previous sermon:
“…the word kingdom is used over 150 times in the New Testament and it turns out that I was mistaken about what it meant. When I hear the word ‘kingdom’ I think of a territory ruled by a monarch but ‘kingdom’ is just the closest word we have in English. The book of Matthew was not written in English; it was written in Greek, and Jesus spoke Aramaic. Rev. David Brisbin offers the following explanation: “The Greek word behind the English word ‘kingdom’ is basileia, and the Aramaic word behind that is malkutha. Both baseleia and malkutha have as their primary meaning, not the territory of the king, but the dominion, sway, or the principles by which the king rules. We could translate it to mean, without a stretch, the will of the king. So to be “in the kingdom” is to literally be in the will of the King–the will of God. The Kingdom is not a place. The kingdom of heaven, or as it appears elsewhere as the ‘kingdom of God,’ is not a physical place at all; it is a way of being.” It is a way of being that is beyond us. It is the way of God’s being.
In the parable we are offered today, Jesus is describing God’s way of being. What I see in this parable is a generosity of spirit so radical it is difficult to comprehend. It is impossible for me to imagine that I could be deserving. I live in a meritocracy, constantly evaluating and constantly being evaluated based on what is earned, what is deserved, and what is justified. Living in this system we have created is exhausting because it is so seldom that one can take stock of one’s life and say, “I have all I need, my conscience is clear, I have asked for forgiveness, I have been forgiven, I have forgiven those who have offended me and I am at peace. Therefore, I am not threatened by the success of others, I do not covet what others have, I can honestly rejoice in another’s good fortune and celebrate another’s accomplishments without feeling diminished myself. I can look outward into my world and see that we are all connected in some way, large or small. My concern grows beyond my former bounds. Marks of merit lose their importance. I discover that I am wounded when others are treated unfairly; I am pained by another’s pain. I turn my attention to the choices I make and aim to make better decisions that consider the health of the planet and the health of our society.”
Friends, this way of living I describe is the path to the kingdom of heaven. It is a treacherous path in that there are many places where we can be waylaid by our relentless comparison to others. This is what happened to the workers in the parable, right? They could not find the satisfaction in their own earned wages because others had received the same for less effort and they became angry and irate. The landowner asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
We had another similar question from the book of Jonah this morning. God asks Jonah, “Is it right that you should be angry?” The question comes at the end of Jonah’s story when Jonah is absolutely exasperated. He has been fighting with God. [I have to say here that I love these first testament stories of God, so present and so engaging.] God told Jonah to go to warn the Assyrian citizens of Nineveh that if they did not change their ways, their city would be destroyed. Jonah wants Nineveh to be destroyed; he regards the Assyrians as his enemies. Jonah suspects that God would spare them, so instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah jumps aboard a ship sailing in the opposite direction. He probably bragged about running away from God because when a massive storm threatened to sink the ship, his shipmates figured God was angry so they threw him overboard and along came that whale…you know the story. Anyway, Jonah comes to his senses, warns Nineveh, the Assyrians repent thoroughly, the city is saved and Jonah is sulky because he, too, is living in a system of meritocracy and those Ninevites did not deserve to be spared. God asks Jonah the poignant question, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah thought he knew what his enemies deserved. It is easy to think we know who deserves what, how much and when. I admit, there is some satisfaction when the criminal is caught, when the crooked corporate executive is exposed, and when the corrupt politician faces charges. But the satisfaction is short-lived. Jesus is reminding us today that there is so much more available to us in a relationship with the supreme source of goodness we call God. It is an entirely different paradigm altogether, one that is not based on what we deserve, but based instead on a radically abundant spirit of generosity.
In closing, I would like to re-read the description of how a life lived in the kingdom of heaven might evolve. I’d like to think this is where we are headed even though it may be generations ahead in the future. The realization of this vision pivots on one principle. It is the same principle from the parable: When we put ourselves in the place of deciding who is worthy to receive we consign ourselves to living with a spirit of poverty; God invites us to cease comparing ourselves with others and cultivate a spirit of generosity. Here is what that may sound like:
I have all I need, my conscience is clear, I have asked for forgiveness, I have been forgiven, I have forgiven those who have offended me, and I am at peace. Therefore, I am not threatened by the success of others, I do not covet what others have, I can honestly rejoice in another’s good fortune and celebrate another’s accomplishments without feeling diminished myself. I can look outward into my world and see that we are all connected in some way, large or small. My concern grows beyond my former bounds. Marks of merit lose their importance. I discover that I am wounded when others are treated unfairly; I am pained by another’s pain. I turn my attention to the choices I make and aim to make better decisions that consider the health of the planet and the health of our society.
So be it. Amen.
God who is both Father and Mother, I pray your blessings of peace upon us all this morning. This worldly life is fraught with hardship and disappointment and it can eclipse the light of Your presence among us. Help us, Lord, to attune our awareness of the divine that is intermingled with the ordinary, the blessings that come along with the tragedies, the beams of holy light that shine into the heart of darkness. For the parts of us that are fearful, grant us assurance; for the parts of us that feel unworthy, flood them with forgiveness. Strengthen us, we pray, when faced with difficulties within ourselves and within our culture, strengthen us with a love so tender that we become boundless and effectual, on every level of our beings. For the healing that is happening, we thank you; for the awareness that is deepening, we thank you; and for the guidance that is only a prayer away, we thank you. This we pray, in Christ’s name. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the prophet Isaiah, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; the mountains and hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”