God’s Generosity in a World of Meritocracy

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage:   Matthew 20:1-16    Date:  September 24, 2023

Most things in the world operate as a meritocracy, where rewards are based on work or achievements.  Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard shows us that the values of God’s Kingdom are based not on merit, but on grace and generosity.  Our task is to receive what God offers us as a gift with gratitude, and then freely and joyfully share it with the world around us.

There’s been a lot in the news the past couple of years about the college admissions process, specifically whether it should be completely merit-based, using the criteria of grades and test scores,

or if it’s important to also admit a certain percentage of students who have been underrepresented, through programs like affirmative action.

Just recently, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of strictly merit-based criteria, and rejected affirmative action and other race-conscious admissions, which had been in place for decades.

Most things in our world operate according to meritocracy; they are based on merit and earning your reward.  In the working work, the more you work, the more pay you deserve to get; the harder you work out, the better in shape your body should get,

The more money you make, and the farther up you go in a business or corporation, the higher you deserve to be on the ladder of social status.

Merit is the main way that we determine what is fair and just in the world.  It’s kind of like what we talked about a few weeks ago in the sermon on Karma– the more we put in, the more we get out; we reap what we sow, we get what we deserve in life.

And when our merit system doesn’t work as expected, we get upset.  We say, “It’s not fair!” Especially when we compare ourselves to other people.

I was talking to someone when I was in California last weekend who’s been on Weight Watchers for the past while.  She has faithfully stuck to the point system she made which would help her reach her desired goal.

But after 6 weeks, she’s only lost a few pounds.  And as she sees others in the program who are doing the same regimen as she is or maybe even less, and losing more weight than her, she’s envious and resentful, for good reason.

Our parable today about the workers in the vineyard has the same kind of dynamic going on.  People who have worked all day in a field end up getting paid the same amount as people who were hired later on and did a lot less work.

Everyone gets one denarion, which is the standard pay for a day’s work in Jesus’ time.

The people who worked longer cry “foul!”  They feel like they deserve more pay than those who worked less time.  I mean that’s what’s fair and just in a merit-based world, right?  To add insult to injury, the landowner even pays the people who started last first, while the others look on in disgust.

As Jesus says both at the beginning and at the end of this story, the last will be first and the first will be last.

Author and pastor Brian Zahnd calls this story “Jesus’ most scandalous parable”, at least for Americans formed in the cowboy myth of rugged individualism.  If this story came from anyone else than Jesus, Zahnd says, most American Christians would dismiss it as Marxist propaganda.

Actually, based on what we’ve seen recently in how some Christians have responded to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, they wouldn’t care that it came from Jesus and would still call it Marxist propaganda and reject Jesus along with the parable.

I remember a time when I went to church with someone in my extended family who’s a devout churchgoer, and this story of the workers in the field was the scripture that day.  After the service, we were talking about it, and he said, “This is ridiculous!  I don’t know what Jesus was thinking here!”

But what Jesus is talking about here is the kingdom of God, not the kingdoms of this world.  And the point of this parable is that the kingdom of God is not a meritocracy where you have to earn the favor of the king to earn his favor or get what you deserve.

No, the economy of the kingdom of God is based on grace, where God is more interested in giving people not what they think they deserve, but what they need.

And we all are in need of God’s grace in our lives.  Have you ever said or thought, “But for the grace of God go I”.

And our God is a generous God whose love for us and whose grace toward us is deeper and wider than we can ever imagine.  We don’t deserve it, but God freely gives it to us, in abundance.

This parable is aimed at the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, who tended to have a  merit-based mentality in order to get on God’s good side.

They believed that the more they obeyed the Jewish laws and followed its rules, the more deserving they would be of God’s blessings, and the higher status they would earn with God.

And with this mindset, they would see people who didn’t obey their laws and rules as underserving of God’s favor and love.  These infidels would be way down at the bottom of the totem pole, far away from God.

Looking down on other people and being judgmental and feeling like you’re better than them is a problem with a merit-based approach to faith.

As we see in the parable, this can lead us to getting angry and resentful of people who get the same treatment as us, but who we feel are less deserving.

I see this in attitudes toward heaven and hell.  There are some Christians who believe that God’s grace and forgiveness are so great that there will be no hell, that all people will be reconciled with God in the end and spend eternity in heaven.  It’s known as universalism.

Whether you believe universalism is true or not, the point I want to make here is the attitude that some other Christians have about it.

They resent thinking that people who have lived lives that have been dishonorable to God would end up with the same reward as they get.  “It’s not fair! They don’t deserve it!”, they would shout in protest.

I see a similar attitude, when people feel that there’s no place in the church for those in the LGBTQ community.

So often it seems like Christians can be like the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, who gets angry that his father welcomes home with open arms his wayward brother, while he has obeyed his father his whole life.

When you’re stuck in a merit-based approach to faith, this attitude is the natural result.

And there’s another problem with it as well.   The more you think you earn things by your own merit, and the more you feel entitled to the rewards that come with it,

the less you remember who is the source of blessings, and goodness, and grace, and the less you remember that it is only by God’s grace that you live and move and have your being.

Friends, we are so entrenched in a world of meritocracy that we can’t help but see our relationship with God in the same way, just like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day did.

In order to counteract this, I think it’s important to have models and examples of people who remind us of God’s economy of grace, that God’s love is not something that we can earn by our accomplishments or good works, but can only be received as a gift from an incredibly generous God.

One person who’s been a good model to me is the late Brennan Manning.  Manning is best known as the author of the book The Ragamuffin Gospel, which came out about 20 years ago, about 10 years before he died.

We are all ragamuffins, broken and bedraggled, Manning says.  But God is not a small-minded bookkeeper, tallying our failures and successes on a score sheet; no, God offers us His grace and unconditional love, no matter what we’ve done.

What makes Manning’s words so powerful is his personal testimony.  He was a Catholic priest, who also struggled with alcoholism his entire adult life.

Manning left the priesthood, he got married, but then later went through a painful divorce. He battled self-doubt and self-loathing for years.

With all of Manning’s demons and addictions, what sustained him was a renewed experience with God’s grace in his life.  He clung to the truth that God loved him just as he was, not as he thought he should be.

His story and vulnerability touched the lives of many people get in touch with the generosity of God’s grace and his unconditional love for us.  During challenging times in my life, I remember Brennan Manning’s story and it gives me hope.

Friends, we need to continue to resist the temptation to believe we have to earn God’s love and grace,

both in those times when we feel unworthy and undeserving of it, and also in those times when we feel like we’re so “holier than thou” that we look down on other people and want to disqualify them from receiving God’s grace and love.

Back to the article on meritocracy in college admissions.  The article points out that people who strongly believe that merit is the most important criteria and that they have made it on their own are more likely to forget that they probably had a whole lot of help from other people in getting into the colleges of their choice.

The reality is that for most of these applicants, parents, and teachers and coaches, and Sunday School teachers, and other people who taught and mentored them usually played a big role in helping them get to this point in their lives.  They didn’t get where they were on their own.

And the article says that a meri-based mentality also diminishes a person’s sense of civic responsibility.  It says “the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility.

And without gratitude and humility, it’s hard to care for the common good, in other words, you’re focused mainly on your own agenda, your own needs and wants, and not about other people’s.

And that seemed to be the problem with workers in the vineyard.  They only thought about themselves and what they deserved, and didn’t take into consideration what the other laborers needed.

Maybe those chosen last were less able-bodied or had less experience.  But they still needed to put food on the table and maintain their sense of dignity and worth.

I want to close with a story I saw in the recent issue of Anabaptist World that’s a great example of caring for others and sharing freely with them the love and grace that we have received through God in Christ.

You know, there are a lot of good stories in this magazine, both of what people and churches are doing here in the US, and also in the global church around the world.

The story I want to share is about a Mennonite church in Indonesia, a majority Muslim country where our friends Grace and Hugo serve in the slums of Jakarta.

After heavy rainfall last December, the congregation in the village of Tanjung Karang gladly opened its doors to become a shelter for anyone in the community who had to evacuate their homes due to flooding.

Some 130 people took refuge in the church, and different groups came together to provide halal meals, health care, and trauma-healing activities for the people who had been displaced.

The church also allowed those who were Muslim to hold activities including daily prayers or salat, in the church building.

Pastor Hendrajaya of the church said, “We don’t differentiate who we help.  We welcome everyone.”  Hey, that’s part of our motto here at Daniels Run Peace Church, right?  Welcoming everyone.

Apparently the church’s acts of hospitality went viral on social media, and the governor of Central Java visited the church to see it firsthand.  He said, “In every flooded area that I visited, there is no tribe, no race, no religion.  It is a cornucopia of people helping each other.”

As a result, the Mennonite church in Tanjung Karang was named a “village of religious tolerance” by the Indonesian government.

Friends, this is what happens when we see God’s grace and love not as something they have to earn to deserve, but rather receive it gratefully as a gift from a good and generous God, and then freely and generously share it with those around us with gratitude and joy.

May each one of us, and may our congregation here at Daniels Run Peace Church, live with this kind of gratitude, grace, and generosity as a response to our good and generous God.  AMEN.