Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost

Jonah 3:10–4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

You know in this day and age, when we are more connected with each other’s lives more than ever through social media and such, when we get instant updates on what is going on in the lives of others, when everywhere we turn we seem to be hearing about or seeing something about someone else, it is hard not to compare ourselves with other people. Maybe it is just within our circle of friends, or among our colleagues at work, or maybe with our siblings or cousins depending on our family makeup. Whatever the case, it is difficult for us not to just peek over at someone else’s life and see how it measures up to ours… or how ours measures up to theirs.

I noticed that I did this a lot more as I grew up. When I was a kid, there wasn’t much for us to compare, really. It was just who was born earlier in that year, because being older made you cooler (it’s true, take it from a guy who has a birthday in February), or who had the bigger collection of a particular toy line, be it Transformers, or GI Joe, or He-Man, or whatever. But that was much more innocent and simple, as those things were completely out of our control anyway. How many toys we had as kids depended pretty much on how many toys our parents agreed to buy us, and when in the year we were born… well, depended on when our parents agreed on doing something else.

But as I grew older, I found there were more ways for me to compare myself with others. Things like my grades or how I would wear my clothes or what kind of music I would listen to. I grew older still and then it was what kind of car I drove or what my significant other was like or how much my job pays me. And I kept growing older as nature would have it, then it was how big my house was or how many vacations I took in a year or how well behaved or smart my kids are. There is no shortage of comparisons, especially among those that are the same age as you. And I admit that I am still taken aback by famous people who are either my age or younger. Of course we know that I’m older than stars like Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and Zac Efron. But I was somewhat surprised to learn that I’m older than Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Like I look at these really successful artists who seemingly accomplished more than I did in their shorter lifetimes and I admit that my mind wanders a little over to the envious side. Yeah, I get that to be a famous singer or actor you would need an ounce of talent, which is something I probably would have had to have worked on. But still when I see some of my classmates from high school, it is hard not to do some mental math to see how old they were when they got married and/or had kids or figure out how much they get paid or even what part of the city they live in. I gauge how much influence they have in their places of work and what their family life is like. I measure up their happiness and compare it to my own.

I know what you’re thinking, why you shallow piece of… get a life, man, stop comparing yourself to others and you’ll be a whole lot happier.

And that is some good advice. Advice that isn’t new to me as I’ve both received and given those same exact words numerous times in the past. Advice, as many of us probably could attest to, that is easier said than done.

Today’s text sounds like it is giving us that advice too, doesn’t it? This parable that Jesus gives might be a familiar one, how a landowner goes out to get labourers to work in his field at different times of the day, meaning the workers work for varying lengths of time. And when it comes time to pay them, they all get the same wage, equivalent to a full day’s work.

That isn’t fair! The workers who were there the whole day protest. Why should those who worked any less than us get the same amount as us? That is basically saying that they are worth more and we are worth less. If they get paid a full day’s wage for working just an hour, then we should get at least 10 times that, plus 45 minutes paid break and maybe some benefits like dental.

Then the landowner is like “guys, I gave you what we agreed on, don’t compare yourself with the others, you got enough for what you need.” Which makes sense, but it still bugs us because it is unfair. It is hard not to feel for the day-long workers because it’s like we can totally relate. But the thing is with these bible stories is that we often miss the little nuances that make the story what it is. Like why did certain workers get chosen over others? What happens to those workers that don’t get chosen at all? Why is there even such thing as a day labourer?

I would imagine that the youngest and strongest were the ones that were chosen first. That makes sense seeing as how this was probably manual labour. These are the ones that never have a problem finding a job. The ones chosen second, well they might not be as young or as strong, but they can still get the job done. Then it goes down the list until those hired last. These were probably the weakest, maybe elderly, maybe even disabled in some way, the type that you might not think could last working a full day in the hot sun. But they have no other way to earn enough for food so they are desperate. They are the unwanted, those who perhaps have hit rock bottom as they go day in and day out and no one selects them or even trusts them to be able work. Because who knows? Maybe they weren’t even able to work more than that one hour that they did.

And so the landowner says don’t compare yourselves with them, because you don’t know what they’re going through. Compared to them, you’re lucky. You have health and strength and youth on your side, you will get work tomorrow just as you did today. Those others? Well maybe not so much. This might be the first time they’ve worked all week.

And there is the advice. Don’t compare yourselves to others. Don’t worry about how much better your peers are doing than you. Don’t bank your happiness and self-worth on what place you come in on your mental ranking of people. Happiness doesn’t come in how you compare, but from within, how are regard yourself, and how comfortable you can be with your own self. Good advice, indeed.

However, if you remember from a few sermons back I mentioned that the bible isn’t just about giving good advice. While it has things that could seem like advice, that isn’t the point. Rather, the bible is more about promise. It is about revealing God in our lives, and how God assures us that life is actually better than we might think it is. So what is the promise for today? What could be the good news for us who might feel ripped off when we see slackers get the same amount of reward as us? How could our fair comparison with others teach us how life is better than it seems?

The thing is, when it comes to parables like these for whatever strange reason off the bat we think we’re the main subject of the story. In this case, we read the parable and we think we’re the ones that were selected first, we’re the ones who are strong and healthy and wanted. We’re the ones who can do the work and get paid for it. When in fact, the story is telling us that we’re actually the weak ones, the ones who were selected last, the ones whose bodies only allow them to work for short periods of time. That is the promise of this parable, in that we, the weak, are the ones receive the most grace, in that while our own disabilities and shortcomings only allow us to do a portion of what is required of us, we still get the full benefit of those who are younger and stronger and more capable. The promise is that we will be given more than enough grace to cover anything that could be holding us back from living as God’s children. The promise is that God is a generous God, blessing us out of God’s abundance, making sure that we have all that we need.

While the advice to not compare ourselves to others is good, the promise that God will be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love is even better. Because when we know and believe and trust that that God’s promise of abundantly blessing us is true, it would help us to stop those comparisons and see all people as God does, worthy of love, deserving of forgiveness, and cherished beyond all measure. To God, we are all God’s children, beloved and invited and welcomed and brought into the kingdom and community of God.

So we can remember the next time we are down and out, the next time we are at the ends of our ropes, the next time we feel unwanted or useless or incapable of doing anything that we might want to do, that God will give us more than enough to get through it and show us just how blessed we are, even when we feel like we don’t deserve it. God will give it to us anyway for God makes the last to be like the first, as there is no distinction in God’s vast and abundant love.

As we begin the fall season with the changing colours on the trees and the cooler temperatures and the wetter ground, may we be open to receive the love and forgiveness of God, knowing that it is given to us out of God’s abundant grace and mercy and showing us that we are full of value and worth. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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