How We Respond to our Place in the Line of God’s Mercy

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

16th  Sunday after Pentecost Sermon – 9:00am Chapel of St. John the Divine

Proper 20 RCL Year A 9/24/2017


Scripture Text:

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Psalm 145:1-8

Philippians 1:21-30

Matthew 20:1-16

Sermon Text:

How do we respond to this gospel parable?

Do we react with those who worked all day

And say “It’s not fair?”

Or do we react with those who came in the last hour and say, “Wow, this boss is generous?”


Not long ago, I was in the grocery store

Late in the evening.

Apparently 9pm is the hopping time at that store,

I was kind of surprised when I went in and it was mobbed.


I wanted to get home after a long day,

I picked up the milk, juice, fruit and cereal

So I’d have something for breakfast,

and made my way to the front.

The express lane was packed,

in fact every line was packed.

I chose what I thought was the shortest line.

A few minutes later I heard over the PA system,

“all available hands to the front of the store!”

Apparently this busyness was an anomaly.

A lane two lines down was opened.

I was in the middle of my line.


The people behind me went to that lane.

So now I was at the back of my line.

I wouldn’t have been next in my line,

if 4 people in front of me went to the new line.

Was I happy for those people who suddenly

got to check out while I had to wait?

No, of course not!

I was angry, but I tried to keep my cool,

it is after all, just the grocery store line.


I heard another preacher who talked

about this gospel passage,

say that how you feel about it

depends on where you feel you are in the line.


What God is telling us here,

is that our place in the line doesn’t matter,

And comparing our rewards to others

is harmful to our spiritual and emotional well-being.

But we all seem inclined to compare.


I heard a story on the news,

about a study from Princeton

that deals with a sociological phenomenon

called “Last Place Aversion.”1

I love it when modern science lends a scientific fact

to biblical truth.

This study showed that people

near the bottom of the economic ladder

will even oppose economic policies that will help themselves,

for fear that it might help those below them too,

maybe even more than they would benefit,

and then they might have have slightly less

than those who previously were below them.

The researcher said,

“It’s the basic human need to avoid feeling

like we ourselves are in last place,” she says.

“Or maybe, put a bit more negatively,

it’s our need to feel like there’s at least one person

we can feel superior to or look down on.”2


Fairness is also a basic human need,

which I believe is apparent by the prevalence

and complexity with which children understand it.

It’s based on our need for Justice,

And the basic need we have for justice is something theologians use to show

the evidence of a just God.

Unjust situations cause us concern, and should do so.

The need for justice is part of how we were created to feel,

But justice can be perverted,

and so can our sense of it.


The question of God’s mercy,

And how people might react to God’s mercy

With their own sense of fairness,

Is shown so clearly in the end

Of the story of Jonah we read this morning.

It probably would be overdoing it,

if our readers did this,

but if I were reading,

I would put Jonah’s words in this whiney sort of voice.

“That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning;

for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

and later, when God asks “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah says, “Yes, angry enough to die!”


Jonah was a prophet,

a righteous man in many ways,

a man who had special communion with the Lord,

a man whose life God had saved.

But he couldn’t deal with the fact that these evil people

in Ninevah, would be forgiven all their unrighteousness,

just because they repented.

Even though his message was what caused them to repent.

He was hoping they wouldn’t repent,

so they would get what was coming to them,

even though his life was saved when he repented

and returned to the Lord.

How quickly does our gratitude to God,

turn to resentment, when we see others getting

more than we think they deserve!

This is what is at the heart of the Gospel today.


What we’re dealing with in the Gospel

is the Kingdom of Heaven.

We’re not talking about a day of work,

but everlasting blessedness,

eternal life.

What Paul tells us,

is we’re to work out our own salvation,

with fear and trembling,

not worry about whether others

deserve to be saved or not.


I know I’ve mentioned recently,

This sort of popular theology,

many young people believe

That sociologists like Kenda Dean

call “moralistic therapeautic deism.”

One of the basic tenents

Is that “good people go to heaven when they die.”3

That’s a nice thought, but it’s not Christian.


Here’s the problem with that thought,

“who determines what is good?”

When we are the arbiters of goodness,

many of us would probably say we’re good,

or the people we love are good,

whether or not they do bad things,

or think bad things,

or have any belief in God.

But those people we don’t like,

or who we think are pulling everyone down,

or who we think are unfairly getting ahead of us,

they are not good.


The Christian standard is not goodness

as determined by us.

The Bible tells us, “all have sinned,

and fall short of the glory of God.”

The standard is the glory of God.

We were created in the image of God,

so whenever we fall short of that image,

we are disqualified from eternity in his presence.


But God doesn’t leave us there.

He loves us so much, that he sent Jesus

to bring us into God’s presence,

to redeem us, from all of our shortcomings.

We’re all getting way more than we deserve,

for our labors

and our failures to work here on earth.

And we’re all about the same distance away from it,

when the scale is as great as that comparing us to God.


But it is God’s generosity,

his grace, and mercy,

which accomplishes that welcome

into the joyous divine presence,

that payment if you will, of eternity.


Fairness and justice are based on an objective goodness,

and in the eternal scheme of things

they totally rest on God’s decision.

When we pervert eternal fairness,

or any fairness for that matter,

it is no longer based on an objective standard,

But it becomes all about me.

Fairness often becomes all about what I want,

and what I think is fair.

I’ve certainly seen my kids struggling to learn that lesson about fairness.

When kids want something,

it’s unfair when others have it and they don’t.

We are called to a more mature understanding

Of fairness than that.


Today God is challenging us to adjust our attitudes,

but not because our attitudes will keep us

any closer or further from heaven than our works will.

We need to adjust our attitudes

for our own benefit,

to more fully enjoy the

blessings we have been given,

that is, to experience the Kingdom of Heaven now.


For in the end, the degree to which we accept

the judgment of God,

and his mercy towards those

we may or may not feel deserve it,

is the degree to which

we worship Him who blesses us all.

In eternal matters our place in the line doesn’t matter,

And comparing our rewards to others

is harmful to our spiritual and emotional well-being.


I’ve heard it said that it will be a great scandal to many,

When we get to heaven

and see the kind of people who are there.

The question today’s scripture asks us

is will we be pleased for them,

And worship the Lord for his great mercy,

Or will we be angry and resentful

like Jonah was at the redemption of Ninevah?
Where do we think we are in the line

in relation to others today, and does it really matter?

How will the knowledge of God’s mercy

affect the way you respond to others in this life,

When they get something good

they may not have earned?

Will you rejoice when they rejoice?

God’s mercy is a given,

how you respond is up to you.

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

Father Rob goes by Father so that he remembers his duty to the people of God whom he serves. He’s been ordained since 2006, serving in Florida and Tennessee and before that served as a youth minister in Long Island, NY. More details