Complaint without Restraint: A Sermon for Septuagesima on St. Matthew 20:1-6

Parable_of_the_Workers_in_the_Vineyard_002

Complaining is something we do all too naturally. Consider the children of Israel. When they were in slavery, the Egyptians were ruthless toward them and made their lives bitter with hard service (Exod 1:14). In their misery, they cried out for help. God heard their complaint and had mercy on them, raising up Moses to deliver the people from Pharaoh.

But did this stop their complaining? Not by a long shot! If anything, it got worse! First they were hungry. Then they were thirsty. And it was hot, and there was a lot of walking. 40 minutes of “are we there yet” is enough to drive anyone crazy, and God had to put up with it for 40 years!

After all God had done for them, the people actually had the nerve to complain to Moses about leaving Egypt! They started to reminisce about the “good old days”, when they “sat by meat pots and ate bread to the full” (Exod 16:3)! How quickly the people forgot just how miserable life was back then.

This is one of the dangers of making comparisons. When you compare life now to the past or in anticipation of the future, or compare what you have (or don’t have) to others, it can very easily breed dissatisfaction. Isn’t it funny how you can be totally content with something until you find out that someone else has something better?

When I cut my pizzas, I have to be super careful to make the slices are exactly the same size, because the first thing my kids look at is who got the biggest piece. And if there’s even a miniscule difference, they’ll notice! What they would have eaten happily all of the sudden becomes inedible when they realize little sister got a bigger piece! Comparisons are dangerous. When the Israelites began to idealize the past, they became very dissatisfied with their current situation and started complaining.

It’s funny how the grass always seems greener on the other side. When I was a child, all I wanted to do was to help with the dishes and the vacuuming. Of course back then, for all of my eagerness, I couldn’t really do the job right. When my mom let me help with those things, it would always end up creating more work for her and she’d just have to do the whole thing over anyway. Now that I can do those things, they’re about the last things I want to do.

We see the same thing with children: they are so eager to do the things that most adults probably consider boring and mundane. Those who can’t do them want to. The young tend to want more responsibility than they can handle, and those who have responsibility often wish they could give it away! The grass is always greener, it seems. Just ask the Israelites.

And then there’s the parable of the workers in the vineyard. When payday came, those who put in a full day’s work began to complain. They were upset because the master decided to pay those who had only worked one hour as much as them, even though they bore the burden of the day and the scorching heat. They couldn’t stand the injustice of something as blatantly unfair as this, and so they complained.

But those who were hired last had plenty of reason to complain, too. After all, who wants to stand around idle all day? Standing around all day waiting for work that doesn’t seem to be coming isn’t the most exciting way to spend a day. When you’ve got nothing to do, the day seems to drag on and on. And worse, it’s stressful. The longer the day went, the less likely they were to get hired, and even if they did, they certainly couldn’t expect a full day’s pay. And how, then, would they pay the bills?

Though work can be a burden, it’s is even worse to have nothing to do at all. These workers stood around all day in the marketplace, probably worried sick that they wouldn’t get a job. All they wanted was work. Those who worked were jealous of those who weren’t working. It seems we can’t win. We want what we don’t have and don’t want what we do have.

Comparisons are dangerous. Had those who worked all day not been concerned with their co-workers’ salary (which was really none of their business anyway), they would have gone away satisfied, having put in a full day’s work and leaving with a fair wage—one they had agreed upon ahead of time. They got what they had wanted, just like the Israelites when they were delivered from Egypt, but when they had it, it suddenly wasn’t enough. They wanted more. They looked around at what they didn’t have, or they remembered some of the things they used to have, and it bred all sorts of discontentment.

During college, I used to work at Christ Hospital in outpatient registration. Occasionally someone would come in who had pre-registered ahead of time over the phone. They would only have to check in quickly and sign a form or two at our desk. It certainly made life easier for us who worked there, and when things got busy, it kept things moving.

But now consider what this would have looked like from the point of view from someone who had been sitting in a mobbed room waiting to register for over an hour. You see this person walk in, get pushed to the front of the line and immediately sent on their way, and you become furious. More than once I can remember people getting up out of their chairs and yelling in a crowded room, “Hey, that’s not fair! I’ve been waiting for an hour, and that person just got here!”

Comparisons can be dangerous. We did this, of course, because not everyone had the same needs. Some had already registered and just needed to check in, and some people had more urgent needs than others. But that never occurred to them at the time. All they saw was injustice, and they couldn’t help but cry out: “It’s not fair!”

But the truth is, you have no reason to complain. If you’re going to compare yourself to anyone, compare yourself to Jesus, to what He had, and what He gave up for you.

Never once did He complain about entering into the mess we had made.

Never once did He grumble that it wasn’t fair that He was suffering for your sins.

He could have compared His status as Son of God to yours as grumbling sinner and decided He’d be better off without you. But there was no amount of injustice that He wasn’t willing to suffer to keep you in His love.

Contentment comes from knowing Christ, the One who literally had it all.

But He gave it all up for youeven His lifethat He might gain you back as His own.

You are His baptized child. 
Still He absolves you. 
Still He feeds you in body and soul. 
You belong to Him now and for all eternity.

No amount of grumbling can change that.

The only thing that’s truly unfair is that God shows any generosity to you at all. There’s no reason to complain. Like those hired at the 11th hour, you’ve been given so much more than you deserve. 

Instead of present and eternal punishment, Christ gives you the joy of knowing Him now and for all eternity, not to mention the many temporal blessings He so richly and daily provides.   

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Matthew 20:1—6
Septuagesima, 2014: “Complaint without Restraint”
Zion on the web: http://zionlutheransummit.org/
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