How To Tell A Mountain From A Molehill, Week 1 — The “An Unfair Shake” Sermon Rewind

Yesterday’s message …

  • Launched the How To Tell A Mountain From A Molehill series;
  • Featured a purple ball test involving David Morgan;
  • Drew some inspiration from George Thompson’s book God’s Not Fair Thank God.
  • Reminded people that we don’t sing Amazing Karma;
  • Landed at this bottom line:  God doesn’t give what you say is fair.  He gives what he says is right.


Few things are more important to us than fair play, getting a fair shake, receiving our fair share.  It starts awfully young, doesn’t it?  Those of you who are moms and dads, when you first begin to discipline your children, what is the likely retort?  It’s not fair!  And then, in a family with multiple kids, how does it go?  The slightest possibility that there may be any kind of preferential treatment at all, any advantage to one over the other and what do we hear loudly and clearly?  “That’s not fair!” 

            And it’s not like we really grow out of it, either.  We want a level playing field in school, equal pay for equal work AT WORK, we want whatever trophies or awards or raises or promotions to be based on merit or performance of measurable because any other standard would be, well, UNFAIR.  In a capitalist nation with a competitive ethic, fairness is pretty fundamental to trust, to rights, to life.  You could say that in terms of our mountain and molehill thinking, we make a justifiable mountain out of our commitment to fair play.

            And then, Jesus.  Oh, Jesus.  In this series of short stories he tells, stories designed at least in part to help us set some priorities in a way that advances our connection to God, in a way that makes mountains stay mountains and molehills stay molehills, Jesus tells one of the unfairest stories of them all in Matthew 20.

            Because Jesus starts his story this way in 20:1a: 

“For the kingdom of heaven is like

Do you know what that means?  It means, here is my autobiography.  Here is what it is like to be me. Because there is no Kingdom without a King, and I am that King.  With that understanding, it seems mostly likely that Jesus parallels himself in some way to the guy at the center of the story, the one who opens the action up in 20:1b-2:

a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.


So he’s a landowner, a vineyard keeper, a guy in NorCal wine country … whatever.  But he gets his day laborers and do you see “denarius” there? That means a typical day’s wage for a worker to feed a family.  It’s standard rate. And because of its ability to feed worker and family, it is eminently fair.  These are the early risers, the 6 am-ers in the story.

            And then – because the harvest is good?  Because he is a poor planner? – we’re not sure why, but he has to go back in 20:3-4:

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’

Now: “in the marketplace” is where day laborers gathered, hoping to get noticed and hired.  Really, it was the ancient version of LinkedIn – where ppl go to leave resumes, link to articles that make it seem like you are a thought leader, try to connect with lost loves from years gone by … that kind of thing.  Also: note what the landowner says:  I will pay you whatever is right.  Tuck that away because it might just mean everything in a few minutes.  Now look at 20:5:

So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing.


This same guy – again, bad planning? Incredible harvest?  — does the same thing at both 12 noon and 3 pm.  More workers, more promises to pay what’s right. 

            Then, in the pivotal scene, look at 20:6-7:

About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

So he goes back on LinkedIn, finds the 5 pm-ers, and hires them.  They work one hour and that one hour comes in the cool of the day.  Now: before then had they been standing around lazily all day?  Gambling? Drinking 40s?  It doesn’t say.  Most likely, they just were waiting, caught on the short end of the employment stick.  Some of you know the frustration of waiting, waiting, waiting to get that job offer or for the house to sell and just then you think all hope is lost, it finds you.

            So these folks have caught quite a break.  The horn blows, the shift is over, the workday ends as they always have and always will.  Look at 20:8:

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

So the landowner has a foreman – ahem, foreperson – who distributes the day’s pay.  And at 20:9 the first unexpected thing happens:

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.

Woah!  One hour and instead of the, say $10 they would expect, they get 12 hours’ worth, or $120.  Unexpected, unearned, undeserved.  They must have been like, “Whoa!!  Our lucky day!” And remember: this is the amount it took to feed a family. So in addition to “our lucky day” it’s also “and no one goes hungry tonight.”  They don’t have to choose between medicine and food or between oldest and youngest.  Finally, enough for all. 

            For some reason in this particular payout, the workers can see what the others get paid.  Managers:  this is a bad idea!  (If you have an employee who comes to you complaining that they’re getting paid less than colleague, that means they’ve been discussing salary and thus today is their last day on the job.  Just sayin.’)  But anyway (and you’re welcome for that mgmnt training) before we look at v. 10, it’s interesting to note that Jesus doesn’t tell us what happened with the 3 pm-ers, the noon-ers, or the 9 am-ers.  They’re not important to the story.  Just the last ones, the 5 pm-ers, and the first ones, the 6 am-ers.  So now look at 20:10-12:

10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

Uh oh!  Mutiny!  National Labor Relations Board Report. Union bosses! Whatever, whomever, however.  These folks have a point. What the landowner (Jesus!) does is not right or just or … wait for it … FAIR.  Should paid the first ones less or the last ones WAY MORE but not the same.  This is equal reward for unequal work.  Violates almost everything we hold dear.  We’re on their side … as would the first people to whom Jesus told the story.  At this stage, you KNOW every one of them was grumblin’

            The owner answers in 20:13-15:

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Gulp.  Stop whining.  Aren’t you getting paid EXACTLY what we agreed on?  Don’t I have the right (20:3-4, what is right, has right).  And then the stinging line at the end of it all:  you’re envious because I’m generous?  You’re WHINING because these folks can now feed their family!  You’d feel better if they went hungry?  You’re bitter because tonight there’s going to be a little child with a full stomach?  What’s the matter with you?  (AV Clip – Cher, Moonstruck slap).  See, what is at the heart of the story very likely has little to do with your management model or payroll system or even your compensation committee.  The heart of the story is that early workers make a mountain out of their effort – the burden of work in the heat of the day – and a molehill out of the owner’s grace.

            And is that not what so many of us do in the game of life and even with the things of God.  The mountain is our effort, our accomplishments, our goodness, our performance, our intentions.  All our protestations of “I’ve changed!” – FYI, guys, don’t make the claim to your super-annoyed and much-embittered wives with your mouth. Demonstrate it with your actions.  They’ve been through enough broken promises.  The more you insist on your goodness, the less I believe it.  That’s the mountain. And, understanding that the landowner in the story is most likely the king in his kingdom!, we minimize his grace, his goodness, his RIGHT to do what he wishes.  That’s what we turn into the molehill.

            But you noticed “right” there, didn’t you?  20:4: I pay what’s right.  20:15  I have the right.  In God’s case, having the right gives him the right!  Everything hinges on that, everything clarifying about our mountains and molehill revolves around it.  Here it is, all you who want what is fair, to get what you earned, who mountainize your own efforts compared to those of other ppl:  God doesn’t give you what you say is fair.  He gives what he says is right.  This is true of the kind of favor we get in the here and now and it is more abundantly true of how we enter into his gates in the there and then.

            It’s like what happened that time a few years ago when Julie and were out to dinner. And as happens a lot, we saw some GS people when we walked in.  Anyway, as dinner was wrapping up we asked for the bill.  The server says, “Nope. Those ppl who were sitting there took care of it.  It’s been paid.”  Had we done anything to earn it?  Hardly!  I mean, we barely even spoke to them!  But they did it because they thought it was right.  And we did not argue. And when God allows you into heaven NOT BECAUSE OF YOUR GOODNESS BUT IN SPITE OF YOUR WICKEDNESS you don’t need to argue either.  Just be glad for how he works.  God doesn’t give you what you say is fair.  He gives what he says is right.

            Or it’s like this word you may have heard: karma.  It comes from Hinduism and it is the belief that in the universe there is this ironclad, can’t get around it rule that the energy you put out is precisely what comes back.  You reap what you sow, no exceptions.  You always get exactly what’s coming to you.  Guess what?  There’s a reason we don’t sing Amazing Karma!  We gots grace and grace, as they say, travels outside of karma!  God doesn’t give you what you say is fair.  He gives what he says is right.

            Or maybe it’s like this experiment:  THREE PEOPLE ATTEMPT TO THROW A BEACH BALL INTO AN EMPTY TENNIS BALL CAN. Impossible!  We all miss the mark! Can’t be done.  I must give you what you can’t accomplish. And it is the same with God and with eternity.  The most accurate shooter or the hardest worker from 6 am on can’t earn the kingdom.  It has to be given as a gift, full of surprise. Not because it’s fair. Because he’s good.  God doesn’t give you what you say is fair.  He gives what he says is right.

            Because here’s what I know.  An obsession with fairness always leads to bitterness.  These workers in the story are bitter that the Johnny Come Latelys now have enough to feed their families.  They protest not THEIR LACK of wages but the EXCESS given to others.  If you’re wrapped up in a merit mentality, in everyone gets what’s their’s, bitterness is the result.  How wrapped up are you in fairness, in reward mentality, in everyone getting what they deserve?  If you are, let me let you know: you don’t want to get what is coming to you.  Because if we all got what’s coming, if we all get what we deserve, if karma was real, hell would be full and heaven empty. That’s where our achievement gets us.  Because how many got the beach ball into the tiny can?  God doesn’t give you what you say is fair.  He gives what he says is right.

            The Unfairness of God is your only hope.  That, and realizing that he does a lot better job of being God than you do. It’s his right, after all. 

            Years and years ago, WC Fields (AV) silent film star and well known cad, was nearing the end of his days.  And one day his friend came over and was surprised to see WCF in bed, reading his bible.  Because WCF weren’t the bible reading type!  “What are you looking for in there?” the friend asked.  WCF thought for a minute and answered, “Loopholes my friend.  Loopholes.”

            He’d a found it in Matthew 20, in the mountain of God’s grace and the stunning weight of God’s right to be God.  God doesn’t give you what you say is fair.  He gives what he says is right.    Who’d like to be made right by God who has the right today?