Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 for Pentecost +15 A, Sept. 21, 2014
[And Jesus said:] “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When 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.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 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.”
If this parable story were a true story, and if the story continued, it would go like this: “That was day one. On day two, no one showed up for work until 5:00 in the afternoon.” This kind of arrangement of paying everyone exactly the same wages no matter how long they work could only happen once. After day one, the workers would wise up. Who wants to work all day if you can get paid the same for an hour?
So, obviously this parable is not about economics, let alone economic justice, right? Something much deeper is going on.
There is a lot of realism here. In Jesus’ day, in Palestine, there were large estates, we might even call them plantations. And there were many landless peasants who hired themselves out as day laborers. At harvest time, in good years, there was plenty of work for everyone. At other times of the year, and in lean years, you would be lucky to make enough to buy a daily bread for the family supper.
This is a parable that is probably set during harvest time in the vineyard when the pressure is on to bring in the grapes. We could even imagine that bad weather was coming, so the urgency was great.
But if we are meant to look below the surface, what are we supposed to see? The most obvious place to start is the vineyard. A vineyard is a famous biblical symbol for the nation of Israel. Israel is God’s vineyard. The bible says God brought out a vine from Egypt, and transplanted the vine in a good and fertile land. He cultivated it, and cared for it, and expected good fruit. We all know that story: he ended up with wild grapes and finally, the whole thing was overrun and ruined.
So a story about a vineyard, its hired hands, and how they are paid by the owner, must be about the people of Israel and how God treats them. How would a story about that go? A fitting story could be told about an vineyard-owner giving fair wages and treating everyone with dignity and respect. Presumably it would be a nice place to work, good relationships all around.
But this is not what we get. Instead, we get a story in which God treats people in ways that get them upset. There is jealousy in the end (people literally give each other “the evil eye” – which, I’m told, is still a big deal in the middle East).
Fairness seems to be the issue – but in a complicated way. The owner of the vineyard agreed to pay a fair wage to the workers he hired early in the morning, and they agreed. Fair is fair; they received what they had agreed to work for.
But don’t we all kind-of sympathize with the early bird workers at the end of the day, when the slouches who only put in an hour, after the hottest part of the day was over, got paid the same? Is that really fair? As I said, even though they had agreed on the wages as fair, nobody would show up early the next day – neither you nor I. The economics do not make any sense.
A Different Measure of Value
And that is the key to this parable. It is indeed about how God, the owner treats the people who work in his vineyard. He does not treat them by the measure of fairness that they treat each other with. He does not treat them on the basis of their productivity. They are neither paid by the piece nor the hour; God uses a completely different measure of value.
So what, then, is the measure God uses to value people? The complete lack of detail here leaves us with only one option: that they are people. Period. Every person is provided for.
This is why this story is such a source of hope and joy for us all. God loves us simply as we are. God values us because we are human beings whom God has made. The most basic fact we can announce is “for God so loved the world.” There are no exceptions.
We can and we should take this very personally. God’s love for us is unconditional and inexhaustible. We are not on a performance basis with God. God does not love us because we are particularly good. God does not love us because we worship and pray, or even because we give of ourselves in service.
Jesus Demonstrates God
This is what Jesus demonstrated by his lifestyle too. He welcomed everyone. He hung out with disreputable people; even got a bad reputation for it. He didn’t even withhold his care and compassion from non-Israelites. There were no untouchables to him. There were no distinctions that kept his love in check. In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to extend God’s love across conventional boundaries like gender and purity.
Guilt and shame are often topics that religion brings up. But Jesus never shamed anyone and never made people feel guilty. Just the opposite. With the possible exception, that is, of the man in the story we call “the rich young ruler,” who heard Jesus’ mandate to help the poor and decided against it – that one may have left feeling baldly – though not because Jesus wanted that outcome for him.
This story of the owner who paid his workers the same wage is a cause for celebration. God is good. Good to all of us, and to everyone. As Jesus told us, God sends rain on both “the righteous and the unrighteous.”
I do not know what is going on in your head when you think of God. Ultimately, there are mysteries that our finite minds do not comprehend. But our Christian theology makes one thing clear: God has to be as good as Jesus. So any picture of God as a mean, vengeful, hostile person must have gone wrong. This is a great cause of peace and joy for us. God is for us, not against us. And he is not waiting for us to earn or deserve favor. This is cause for celebration.
Imitation follows Celebration
Celebration is quickly followed by imitation. When we we comprehend that we are loved by God, just for being humans, then we understand what we are to do in this world: imitate God.
And this is one reason I am so thankful for this congregation. We have, for all of the years of our existence, been active in sharing God’s love to this community, and even beyond. We have fed hungry people, we have built homes, we have comforted the grieving, and we have provided places for recovery for many.
We have been in mission to the children at the Presbyterian Children’s Home, and we have year after year, responded to special needs by supporting Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Self Development of People, and a host of other programs. We have known God’s extravagant generosity towards us, and it motivates us to imitate God in generosity to others.
This is what the people of God do: we imitate God who loves people, just because they are people. We love and respond without asking any questions: “how many hours did you work in the vineyard today?” “What religion are you?” “What is your political affiliation?” We simply imitate God’s unconditional love.
Love is Practical
Love cannot be simply a psychological feeling. That would not help anyone. It must be practical. The workers in the parable did not receive a hug and a thank you, they got paid real wages. The one question we do ask is the one that must have been in the mind of the owner of the vineyard: how much is needed by each one today?
How much do these day-workers need to take home today in order to put supper on the table and adequately care for their families? Apparently a person needed, as it says literally, a denarius, the usual daily wage.
A denarius was not the bare minimum for survival. Scholars estimate that the price of a loaf of bread in Jesus’ day was about one twelfth of a denarius (source: Jeremias, Jaochim, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1969, cited by Josh Brown.)
So, a fair day’s wage of one denarius was adequate compensation, not starvation-wages. And everyone needed that amount. Everyone got that amount.
When human beings are the subject, then the question of “how much is adequate?” must be asked. The concerns of the market, the invisible hand, as Adam Smith called free market forces that respond coldly to supply and demand without consideration of the human question is simply not enough. The question is, what is adequate to ensure a decent life? The answer has to include food, housing, medical care, and eduction; basic human needs.
The people who are able to celebrate God’s extravagant generosity become people who imitate God by asking the “people question,” and keep asking it. In fact, it is our faith that gives us reasons to think beyond where the secular mind thinks, simply about market economics. We do not look at people as commodities and we do not ever agree to be labeled as consumers.
So we value people who are too old to work, or too sick or injured to be productive. We value people who have mental disabilities, believing that they are as worthy of an adequate life, as the guys who were smart enough to invent mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps that turned out to be so helpful to us all, right? We value the people checking us out at Walmart as much as the ones who own the company. We believe that all of them deserve a living wage and a decent life.
So, a story about an absurd economy that would collapse after two days, ends up being a story about God and people. And it ends up with implications that touch all the areas of life that concern people, including compassionate care and economic justice.
These are values issues that come directly from faith commitments. This may not be how the secular world looks at things, but as the first line of the parable says, this is what the kingdom is like. This is the vision we live into; people celebrating the goodness and extravagant generosity of God, by living lives of imitation of his practical love for all people.