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Pentecost 16A Sermon
Matthew 20: 1-16
September 24, 2017

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

This week I heard someone say that when we give a title to one of Jesus’ parables, we have already interpreted it. The parable in Matthew 20:1-16 has usually been given the title, “The Laborers in the Vineyard” … or more recently, “The Workers in the Vineyard.” When we call the parable by this name we have already decided that the most important part of the story is the behavior of the workers. We tend to look at those who worked the whole day and listen to their complaints after they receive their pay. We either say, “Wow – they agreed to work for that amount, why are they complaining?” Or we say, “Wow - I would totally be right next to them complaining!” Some have even said that it is for these very reasons that people, over the years, have organized into unions, demanding conditions and pay that is safe and fair!
If we focus on the laborers in the vineyard, we have already decided that we buy into the economy of scarcity … which is the economy that most of our world works out of. The vineyard owner MUST pro-rate the amount of pay to the amount of hours worked because he only has so much money in his accounts with which to pay them. The fact of the matter is we cannot liken the Kingdom of God to a business because they both work out of much different economies. The owner of the vineyard – who we associate with God – is working out of an economy of abundance and of grace. He keeps going back to the marketplace over and over again during the day to find more people to come to work in his vineyard. You get the feeling that he probably could have gotten by with the ones he hired between the beginning of the day and mid-day … but he doesn’t like to see people standing around idly. It was not his intent to get as much profit out of his crops as he could. We are used to owners of companies downsizing nowadays – getting rid of employees and positions, replacing them with machines and contractors so that they can reduce their overhead. But the owner of the vineyard in this story does not see the people in the marketplace as potential overhead. He sees them as people who need to be part of something that gives them value and worth.

So if the titles we give to parables tell how we interpret it, what are better titles for this parable? Well, I might suggest a few that lend a little humor or reality to the parable and how it speaks to us with God’s wide mercy. First of all, we could call it, “Wally Gets Paid.” What does that mean? Well, Wally is a character in the newspaper cartoon, “Dilbert” about workers in an office. Wally is the character that never seems to do anything – he just walks around the office with a coffee cup in his hand making comments about everyone and everything. Scott Adams, the creator and writer of Dilbert, says that Wally was based on a co-worker he had at Pacific Bell. This person had made a bad judgment call in his work, so Pac Bell froze him in his salary and position rather than fire him. Shortly thereafter, Pac Bell decided to offer a severance package to their bottom ten percent performing employees to try to get them out; so this guy, the basis for Wally, decided he needed to do whatever he could to fall to the bottom 10% of the employees so he could leave the company with a pocket full of money. Wally gets paid!

When we think of someone who doesn’t come out to the marketplace until well into the mid-afternoon to get a job, we probably think of someone who is not that motivated to do a lot of work. Much like Wally! So, rather than feel disdain toward those who we might perceive as playing the system and being lazy, we see that they actually are treated as equals like the laborers who bear the burden of the day. This vineyard owner is like this – and it troubles us, because we see him being taken advantage of. But I get the sense that he just doesn’t care. He is not interested in creating equity for workers … he is interested in gathering as many people into the vineyard as possible … even if they are not the quality of people that we admire.

Another title for the parable might be, “I Demand Justice!” You’ve heard people say this, I am sure. You may have even said it … or something like it. Something like, “It’s not fair!” When people call for justice it is not God’s justice … it is that person’s justice! They want to be treated well, they want to be treated as they judge themselves deserving to be treated. But that often leaves others living in injustice, because we always judge ourselves more leniently and generously than we judge others!”

Part of the problem with this saying is that our earthly systems are based upon retributive justice and God’s systems are based upon restorative justice. Retributive justice is making people pay for something they did or did not do. Restorative justice is when people are given back their original identity as children of God. I Demand Justice” is not a call for restorative justice – it is another way to say, “These last have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Justice, which should be outward-looking, almost always turns itself inward to fighting for our own individual rights and privileges … and only looks outward when wanting others to be punished for not living good and upright lives.
I do have one final title for the parable that adds some humor and also interprets the parable with a profound truth for us today. That title is, “It’s 5:00 Somewhere!” Many know that phrase as a title of a song that justifies someone drinking alcohol earlier in the day than they probably should. “It’s only 1:00 – you’re having a beer already? Yes … well … it’s 5:00 somewhere!!” There’s even a song with that title by Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet.

But in relation to this parable, we see that 5:00 is the final time when the vineyard owner goes out into the marketplace to find people to hire, knowing that they will only be able to work an hour or so. These are the ones who would usually be excluded, left out of everything or at least hired for a while and given a few pennies. When we entitle this parable, “It’s 5:00 Somewhere,” we are proclaiming that somewhere in the world the Kingdom of Heaven is being made known – that someone who does not deserve the generous grace and mercy of God is receiving love of Jesus Christ in a way that baffles the logic of the world.

Our response to the news of this parable then is joy. Not jealousy or resentment toward the generosity of God. But for those of us who have been Christians most of our lives, whenever we see someone who, later in their years has a life-changing encounter with God and commits themselves to be fellow workers with us in the vineyard, we are to rejoice. And for those who have more recently come to faith, you joy should be multiplied knowing that you are fully members of God’s people.

The economy of God’s grace is not limited like the economy of businesses. There is plenty to go around. Confident, then, of our own place in God’s vineyard, we welcome and celebrate as 9:00, 12:00, 3:00 and 5:00 people, knowing that it is only because of the love of Jesus that all of us are made part of God’s people. May it be so, in the name of Christ; Amen.