Francis Asbury United Methodist Church
Baton Rouge, LA
September 24, 2017
Reverend David Melville
MATTHEW 20: 1-16
Jesus speaking: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These man who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This lectionary reading is being read and preached all over the world today, and I don’t presume to have the only explanation. All I can do is try. With some of the parables of Jesus, preachers feel like Snoopy did after Charlie Brown read Ecclesiastes 9:4 … “A living dog is better than a dead lion.” Snoopy replied, “I don’t know what it means, but I agree with it.”
Perhaps the only explanation for this parable about wages in the vineyard, and other weird parables (weird to us) – and there are a lot of weird parables (to us) in the New Testament – is that it discusses desired behavior in God’s kingdom, which we too often limit to Heaven. But what if that which we recited earlier, and the choir just sang – the Lord’s Prayer – is correct in suggesting that we ought to pray for God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in Heaven? Then Snoopy and we have even more to digest and explain.
So often we say that one faith’s world cannot be placed on top of the secular world, particularly in a nation which shed blood for freedom from religion. We are not a theocracy like Iran. Praise God! But that does not mean we as individual Christians cannot apply the gospel to everyday living as we interact with others. And with our strength in numbers, we could be the tail that wags the dog, instead of the other way around. O.K., that’s my final reference to Snoopy this morning!
Take our parable for today, which begins with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like .…” If God through Jesus revealed to us what heaven is like, and then if, again through Jesus, God gave us the words of the Lord’s Prayer, which asks for God’s kingdom of heaven to reign down on earth, we are given permission … nay, we are admonished to live as generously and as graciously as our God in heaven. We are the landowner.
Today’s parable is not about labor relations in the marketplace; it is about generosity and graciousness. Today’s parable is not about laws and earnings; rather, it is about God and His kingdom of grace, inclusion and acceptance. It is about unconditional love. And after reading and studying the parable, and after reciting the Lord’s Prayer, our task is to ask ourselves how we can replicate God’s kingdom here on earth, because evidently God wants us to.
Grace is not about you, other workers, or about “The Man.” Grace has always been, and will always be about God. God can be gracious to whomever, whenever, and wherever God wants. And so can we. Amazing! Many a person – even Christians – go to their grave withholding grace that had been theirs to give. Don’t be a penny-pincher when it’s within your power to give grace; give a whole denarius.
If we fail to do that we may miss out on heaven, just as the elder brother missed out on a party after begrudging his father’s generosity to a wayward, prodigal son. If we begrudge our heavenly Father’s generosity to others, we may miss out on the generosity available to us.
Living heavenly is hard. It is sometimes too difficult even when we – let alone others — benefit from a little heaven on earth. Why? Because we realize that if we are treated graciously, if we are forgiven, and if we are loved, well, the next step is for us to be more gracious, forgiving and more loving toward others. Now God has gone to meddling. The challenge to give as well as to receive scares us. As the great southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, observed, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us, and the change is painful.”
Using just the facts from today’s parable, what must we do to bring the best of God on earth as it is in heaven?
First, do not fault the later workers for not being there sooner. It seems they had been looking for work all day, but were unable to find it. There are many, many people sincerely looking for work today who cannot find it.
Secondly, recognize our common needs. Perhaps the landowner recognized that all workers’ basic life needs are the same, regardless of what time they start to work. They need the same amount of food and the same sort of shelter; they have the same need to provide for their families. In paying the later workers the same amount – the rate for a day’s labor – the landowner in today’s scripture affirms the late workers’ needs. We see here God’s affirmation of the dignity and worth of all whom God loves and invites to be part of the kingdom. [Thanks to Chris Dorsey, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).] In God’s eyes we are all equal in dignity and worth. We are just not all treated equally here on earth. We are not treated on earth as we will be in heaven.
Third, do not resent others’ good fortune or success, particularly when others’ success does not take away from yours. We are quick to complain when others receive a second chance, receive a mulligan, or are given something they allegedly don’t deserve. But when grace’s shoe is on the other foot – ours — we wear it well. Don’t have a short memory of the times when you were allowed to jump from the back of the line to the front. And don’t forget who helped you.
The workers who worked hard all day received what they were promised and had agreed to. Now I guess if the landowner had increased the pool of workers but kept the wage pool the same, with each worker getting a smaller slice of the pie, then God would have some ‘splaining to do. But as so often in real life, those of us in the middle and upper classes receive our full share, regardless of what day laborers, hourly workers and minimum wage workers are paid … regardless of what the last hired are paid. Heavenly economics is like a mother’s love: total love demonstrated for one child does not deplete the amount of love available for the other children. Mothers just make more love! There is enough for everyone.
I remember my first “letter to the editor.” It was as a teenager, when at the East Gate movie theater in Shreveport there was a bright orange sign apologizing to the public for a ticket price increase, and blaming it entirely on a recently enacted increase in the minimum wage. How would you like a big sign on the front door of your workplace blaming product pricing on your wages? Not too much heavenly dignity there.
I hope most movie goers could calculate that increases in ticket prices at any given point in time are also influenced by increases in building rent, increases in what Hollywood charges for the film, increases in what the already-millionaire actors get paid, and even the increases in costs of Coca-Cola syrup, electricity, insurance and all costs of doing business. Owners and investors were getting increases all along the chain of prices and dividends, and the minimum wage workers were probably the last to receive their increase. Even then, minimum wage increases usually lag behind increases in the cost of living. Yet the minimum wage workers were the ones grumbled about … not Hollywood, not corporations, not regulations. Capitalism can be real complex, but it can also be real simple. It’s usually not fair or accurate to single out and blame one group … particularly when that group is the weakest link in the chain.
Yet another lesson to glean from today’s vineyard is to acknowledge that both heaven and good earthly economies are characterized by community. I don’t believe we will see the divisions in heaven that we see here on earth. God doesn’t divide us; we are quite competent at dividing ourselves. Conservatives and liberals alike say “Amen” to President John F. Kennedy’s quote, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” I think that’s what the landowner did with his “kingdom economics:” he lifted people up, without dragging others down. It may have been unfair in some workers’ eyes, but I believe the land owner’s generosity was approved by God.
As economic fortunes rise, we don’t want to risk all parties along the economic spectrum rising too. We feel threatened instead of invigorated. We still too often play a zero-sum game, fearing that an increase in one worker’s share will mean a reduction in my share. We’d rather stay safe in stagnation – but at least keeping what we have—rather than risk sharing the economic pie. Will more workers earning decent wages mean smaller slices for everyone, or could it mean that more pies are baked?
It appears that because of the landowner’s diligence and generosity his vineyard was very productive. He needed more workers, he needed them quickly, he recruited them, and he treated them well. It was a win-win-win, even for those who had worked longer and who felt they had been cheated. In order for our nation to thrive, and in order for the institutional church to thrive … expanding the beloved community … we need all the help on board we can get. For both the nation and the church, the more help we get, the more we should rejoice and celebrate the ways God is blessing those who join in our collective work. It’s a blessing for them; it’s a blessing for us.
Sadly, some Christians still want the church to be a small, exclusive club, and don’t want to believe that those with worse sins than themselves, or those just different than themselves, or those who come to Christ late in life, or literally at the end of life … some Christians aren’t rejoicing when the different and the latecomers surrender to Christ. In heaven, everyone will be welcomed, and everyone will be treated equally. And besides, it won’t be about us: heaven will be all about God. And if God answers us when we pray The Lord’s Prayer, it can be at least a little like that on earth. Why do we wait? Why wait for “as it is in heaven?” Let God’s kingdom come to us, as well as us going to the kingdom.
As I said, the landowner’s management of his vineyard was very productive. And that productivity spilled over on to neighboring land, as happens today in 2017: when one part or group in a community succeeds, there is a positive spillover effect. Most of us probably agree that there is a direct correlation between economic peace and well-being, and lower crime rates, quality schools, and neighborhood infrastructure. What was exciting in today’s parable is that the largest group of persons were given their daily bread, and the entire village was better because they did. We are better together!
Heaven is going to be pretty spacious, and the earth is pretty spacious. Nonetheless, in both kingdoms there is no room for resentment, self-righteousness and selfishness. Those attitudes crowd out the good real fast.
Our nation continues to be characterized by many individuals, many companies, and many areas of each state doing exceedingly well financially. The cream of the crop represents the potential of capitalism to produce such outcomes. But like a schizophrenic, there is another side of our nation and capitalism characterized by stagnation, poverty, crime and uneasiness. Sometimes a single arrest or the simplest of incidents spark a protest that propel pent-up frustrations and emotions. You know what I’m talking about. We’re seeing more violent and destructive protests now than we have since the ‘60’s.
George W. Bush said he was a “uniter, not a divider,” but after eight years as President, we were divided. Barack Obama said he wanted “not a blue America, or a red America, not a black America or a white America, but a United States of America.” Many thought and hoped that a black man had the best chance to bring us together. But after eight years in office, Obama left a divided nation. I’ll let you decide about the state of affairs in the early days of the Trump administration. Maybe history is telling us something. We need a little more heaven on earth, not politics. Heavenly economics is different than and superior to secular economics.
I close by singling out one key phrase in today’s parable that is said by the landowner to the second round of workers: “I will pay you whatever is right.” [verse 4]. That has to be one of the promises you’d most likely expect to come out of heaven. I believe that is another takeaway from this weird report (weird to us) of workers receiving equal pay for unequal work. On this particular day the landowner believed equal pay for unequal work was the right thing to do. In our lives usually the right thing to do will be to err on the side of excessive generosity, excessive hospitality, excessive forgiveness, excessive justice, mercy and compassion, and excessive love. Praise God that we don’t have to wait until we reach heaven to be treated so heavenly. To be treated right.
CLOSING HYMN: Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God, #405