Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Matthew 20:1-16
“Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:10-16)
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Do congregations still produce “pictorial church directories”? You know what I mean, right? They used to be really popular. They were kind of combination telephone directories and yearbooks for a given community of faith, with everybody’s photograph and contact information printed in glossy magazine format, for all the world to see. The publishing company would make its money by having congregants sit for portraits and then trying to sell them a photo package.
Personally, I always thought it was sort of a sketchy enterprise, with the local church acting as a shill. But in the end, everybody who wanted one (or in some cases, only those who sat for portraits) got a copy of the finished product. It actually was a very useful tool if you were new to the congregation and wanted help connecting faces with names. There were usually also photographs commemorating events in the life of the community: special services, church-choir-through-the-years pictures, a “rogues’ gallery” of former ministers … that sort of thing.
I remember how, once upon a time, the congregation I was pastoring undertook a directory project in preparation for the 60th anniversary of its founding. In honour of this landmark occasion, we asked people to send us photographs taken around the church over the past six decades. And boy, did we get them! Several pages of the directory were devoted to these historical snapshots—and it was quite the trip down memory lane.
Those who’d been around the place for a long time greatly appreciated these commemorative pages. On them were many faces that told precious stories: faces of friends long gone, faces of children now grown to adulthood, faces that had changed considerably over the years. And some who had arrived on the scene more recently (like me) looked at those snapshots, and recognized a face, and declared: “Wow! I can’t believe so-and-so has been here that long!”
It was kinda cool, actually. Because we did still have a few charter members in our midst, as well as numerous others—whether “official” members or not—who’d been part of our church family for three or four or five decades.
If we gave out long-service awards, there would’ve been dozens of people walking around with stickpins or badges or … I dunno … maybe gold watches! (Actually, we never had the budget for that.)
Yeah … there really aren’t many “perks” that come with long-term church membership, are there? I wonder if there should be. What do you think?
Should those who have been members longer have more benefits? More access to pastoral care? More influence with the church council, or the pastor? The right to censor the Sunday sermon so nobody gets offended? Exclusive access to the kitchen refrigerator? Should they get complimentary tickets to the turkey supper? Maybe there could be a head table …
Of course these are ridiculous ideas.
Or are they?
Consider the story Jesus told in today’s gospel reading. Can’t we understand the discontent of the longer-serving labourers? They saw their treatment as unfair—and they felt justifiably outraged. At least, they thought they were justified.
Don’t you feel a bit of sympathy for those who worked the longest? These hired hands laboured harder and longer … yet were paid the same amount as those who showed up at the end of the day!
We know something about this, don’t we? Most of us can identify with the disgruntled workers in Jesus’ parable.
Those of you who’ve been parents may recall devoting countless hours of time and energy to coaching youth sports leagues or leading scout troops, or helping with choir fundraisers … all to support the children of other able parents … parents who did not volunteer to do their fair share.
Or maybe you know what it feels like to be one of a handful—just a small handful—of conscientious folks who always pitch in to help with community activities … like coffee time, or Sunday School, or groundskeeping, or facility maintenance … or church suppers …
Or perhaps you’re the oldest child in your family, and you grew up feeling resentful because more was expected of you than of your sisters or brothers. How many first-borns, I wonder, complain that their parents let younger siblings have more liberty—more freedom, more privileges—than they had at the same age?
It seems to me that one of the first things we learn in life is to distinguish between what seems fair and what seems painfully unfair. And yet—as we hear this parable about the vineyard workers—it appears that our Lord did not regard fairness or unfairness in the way we tend to think about those things. Indeed, Jesus of Nazareth did not seem overly concerned about labour/management relations … or about who got to what place first.
In the story we hear him tell today, Jesus does what he does best: he turns our ideas of correctness upside-down. He challenges our religious assumptions, offering instead a radical understanding of God, and of our relationship with God.
Jesus wants us to see beyond viewing events as being simply unfair or fair. He wants us to glimpse the utter limitless generosity of our heavenly Employer. He wants us to understand that—in the eyes of God—our worth is not measured by how much money we earn or how productive we are.
Jesus wants us to know that each one of us is a person of infinite worth—not because of anything we have done or can do—but because of God’s boundless love for us. Some people call that “grace.”
Jesus tells us that—in the face of our limited, worldly perspectives about what is fair and what is unfair—God works with a different reality, in a different direction, and by very different standards.
Someone has observed that the parables of Jesus are like vivid dreams—they are so vivid that they actually wake us up. And then …
Then we find ourselves face-to-face with the Kingdom of God. Then we are presented with a new understanding of ourselves. We are sifted, and sorted, and rearranged by the story we’ve heard. Instead of seeking an explanation for the parable, we suddenly understand that the parable explains us!
The discontented labourers of Matthew 20 are, after all, not that different from us. Like us, they expect equal pay for equal work. However—as the landowner points out—the contracted amounts were honoured. No injustice was done.
The only real charge that could be made against him is that he was generous to those who laboured little. He was generous enough to pay everyone—everyone who worked at all—a full day’s wage.
Now, maybe you think he was a terrible businessman; but—through his generosity—every person who came to work got enough money to pay for a meal or two. After that workday was finished, none of the labourers went hungry. So the issue here is not the wage—and not the contract—but rather, the employer’s generosity.
Historically, this parable has been interpreted around the themes of human jealousy, God’s generosity, and the danger of taking for granted God’s grace and salvation.
Let’s explore those themes, briefly.
Most often, I think, our jealousy of one another is based either in fear of unfair treatment, or in our own insecurity—our fear that we may not quite measure up. Jealousy causes us to see others as objects rather than as persons—as rivals, instead of neighbours. It makes a distinction between “them” and “us.”
Jealous fears drive wedges between friends. Jealousy can destroy even the deepest bonds of affection. Certainly, it made the offended workers oblivious to the landowner’s generosity. Envy is based on the notion of scarcity—of limited resources—and it easily blinds us to the real needs of others. Yet nothing could be further away from God’s grace and love. God’s grace is boundless, and his love is unlimited.
How can we begrudge God’s generosity? This parable shames our jealousy—our grudging of others’ gifts and good fortune. In God’s household, all the family members are unique. All the children are special. And all are gathered into one company!
When we attempt to cast someone out of our circle, we are claiming a superior position to which we are not entitled. As an anonymous poem puts it:
Has God deserted Heaven, and left it up to you
to judge if this or that is right, and what each one should do?
I think God’s still in business, and knows when to wield the rod,
so when you’re judging others, remember … you’re not God!”
Before the Almighty, we all stand in our neediness. We have each been wounded by life, and it is the generosity of God’s grace which provides for us. As someone has said: “God pays his servants neither by time nor by piecework, but by grace.”
Just like the fieldworkers in Jesus’ parable, we are challenged to come and labour on … even when the pay-off seems unequal, even when the “greater portion”—the bigger and better reward, which we think we deserve—does not come to us.
To be sure, there are times when it looks like some are being rewarded lavishly—even when their sacrifices and losses seem tiny compared to ours. At such times, we need to remember the contract; do our work with diligence; and give thanks to God.
Our work is a reminder of God’s graciousness and generosity in calling us into his Kingdom. Thank God for providing the opportunity for us to be in the vineyard at all. And thank God for the work we have been given to do—even if we are labouring in the heat of the day.