Sunday, September 24, 2017
16th Sunday after Pentecost
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” – Matthew 20:1-16
As I read this parable this week, the image that came to mind is that now famously classic episode of the Oprah show from 2004, when she surprised everyone in the audience a new car. She hyped the whole thing up saying that one of the boxes under their seats contained the key to a single new car being given away, but soon the audience begins to erupt in screams, each person at first thinking he or she is the one. But they quickly realize that they have been caught up in an even more generous act of everyone in the audience getting a new car. Oprah begins pointing throughout the audience shouting “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car!”
Don’t get too excited. You are not all getting cars today. The Eucharist yes, cars no.
But we probably tend to imagine the end of the long workday in this parable as a quiet event with a reserved manager doling out daily wages and some bickering to follow. But this is really an act of absurd and exciting generosity. The landowner has been going out all day long, again and again, gathering more and more people in. Group after group are rescued from their waiting, their worry about whether they will earn any money to feed themselves and their families that evening. This is a generous act of grace already. But the landowner has more in mind for the workers – all the workers. It’s like he’s been planning it all along and just can’t stand the excitement at the end of the day until he bursts out: “You get a full day’s wage! You get a full day’s wage! You get a full day’s wage!”
Now this is clearly good news for those who came later in the day. They’ve had a rough day of waiting, but their actual work time wasn’t the same as those who were picked up first. They aren’t expecting the full amount, and truth be told they may very well be the ones who don’t get a full day’s work very often. They were the scrawny ones, the ones with bum legs and broken hands, they were the ones who didn’t have a place to shower the night before so they didn’t look or smell too fresh, they were the ones with a reputation of being lazy whether it was true or not, they were the ones who didn’t speak the local language. This landowner’s generous grace practically knocks them over. They and their families might get a hot meal tonight. They might be able to pay for their essential medical prescriptions this week. They might be able to find shelter tonight. The generosity of the landowner strikes them first and most obviously. They are made to feel special, chosen even.
But this is clearly irksome to the people who started hard manual labor at the crack of dawn. These are perhaps the hardest working, the people who regularly get decent work and if not riches at least enough to live on. And they’re mad. If you think the landowner was loud in his generous excitement, wait til you hear this crowd get angry. You see, if one someone or a small group of someones gets a free gift, or a special invitation, or whatever it is, then they get to feel special. Problem with that is that everyone else doesn’t get to feel as special. And you know, we like to feel special, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We like to know we’ve made it in, that we’ve made a name for ourselves, that we mean something to someone. And for better or worse we can and often do create that sense of being set apart by giving something generous.
And when we aren’t the recipient, we can get jealous. I’d like to think we could always rejoice in another’s good fortune, but the reality is that we don’t all the time. Deep down we have that fear that if someone else is marked with good fortune that’s a little less out there for us. Something that makes us a little less, well, special.
But just like last week’s parable in which the landowner was giving away trillions of dollars at the drop of a hat, we just have trouble imagining that the landowner lives in an entirely different kind of way, where there simply is enough for everyone. In this case it’s not even riches, but enough to live on. Enough to get through until tomorrow when both the workers and the landowner will be back at it again. And I imagine the workers – every last one of them, is worried about what will happen tomorrow. Will they be picked first? Will there be enough left to pay workers tomorrow? Will I still have a place?
And the landowner’s answer is emphatically, “Yes!” Yes to you, yes to you, yes to you and you and you. And like bread falling from heaven, it may not be the thing you think you want, or the thing that makes you feel more special than someone else, but yes to daily bread, to a place at the table, to enough for everyone. We model that at this table, where everyone gets a share and there is always some left over. Where again the next week that meal is offered, life extended, and grace doled out to all. No less special, no less generous because it was given out so freely the last time.
And so we like to make this parable about work – how much we did and how much someone else did. And maybe we account for that with generous spirits and maybe we are more inclined to judge those we deem to be latecomers to the labor, but ultimately this story is about a landowner who just can’t help herself from inviting everyone she can think of into the vineyard and making sure they all go home fed and nourished. There are a lot of reasons this parable doesn’t work as an economic model when strictly followed, though it might invite us to consider from a faith perspective what fair and equitable treatment of workers means and what our responsibility is to ensure that. But it is what Jesus points to as the way the kingdom of heaven operates. Once again an image of God throwing caution to the wind and distributing generously to all. And you can walk away in awe of the grace poured out for you or you can walk away grumbling about how hard you worked and what you think you deserved instead. But the landowner will be back tomorrow, calling you and you and you and you (and me, too) until everyone is scooped up into the fold and there really is enough life for everyone everywhere every day.
-Pastor Steven Wilco