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Pentecost 16A Sermon
Matthew 20: 1-16
6, 2020


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Matthew 20:1-16

‘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.’

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

I really don’t like this parable. I know that there are certain things that Jesus said and did that confuse all of us, but the parable of the workers in the vineyard is one which I think we can all agree just isn’t fair. That’s the problem, isn’t it? We all strive for fairness in life, and when things are not fair, we want to point it out and correct it. But Jesus is not only content to live in this reality, he lifts it up as an illustration of how God works. After all, he begins this story with, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like …” Many of us probably come away saying, “Well, if this is what the Kingdom of God is like then maybe it isn’t for me …”
This parable actually pairs up perfectly with the story of Jonah in our first lesson. Jonah knows the unfairness of God’s abounding mercy. He and his fellow Israelites hate the Ninevites, residents of the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. These Assyrians were noted for being nasty to anyone they conquered, and they conquered both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. They deported many of the Jews from their own lands to the lands of Assyria, located where Iraq is now. If you remember Jonah’s story before this morning’s reading, God has told him to go to Nineveh and proclaim that God is about to destroy them for their evil unless they repent. Jonah doesn’t want to deliver that message, not only because the Ninevites are his enemies, but because if they do repent then God will indeed show them mercy and spare them – Jonah knows God’s merciful nature! He went the opposite way of Nineveh and jumped on a ship that was setting sail to the west. After a massive storm rises, Jonah told the sailors on the ship the he was probably the cause of it all. They threw him overboard, and immediately the sea ceased its raging. God sent a large fish that swallowed up Jonah, took him back east and spit him out on the dry land where God told Jonah to get going to Nineveh. This time, Jonah follows the instructions, goes to Nineveh and casually proclaims that in 40 days God would destroy the city – and what do you know? The king proclaims a fast for repentance and men, women and animals are covered in sackcloth. And it works, God changes his mind about the calamity he was going to send, and the Ninevites are spared. And Jonah is mad and pouting, and he just wants to die! The humor almost makes us forget what we feel about Jesus’ parable…or does it?

Jonah was ticked off because it wasn’t fair that these people could do what they did for centuries, fast & dress in sackcloth for 40 days, and God forgives them and spares them. Why would God do that to these hated enemies? After we stop laughing at Jonah, we realize that he has a point; it isn’t fair, and you or I would probably flee the opposite way if we were asked by God to preach a call to repentance to those who we would love to see get what they deserve, and pout under a tree when they are saved!

There is a lot of unfairness in the world, and it seems to be exacerbated by the health crisis that is going on right now. I must admit, my spirits were lifted this past week when the Big Ten announced that there would be football games played this fall! I am a lifetime Buckeye fan, and I have missed all of the spectacle that surrounds the contests on the gridiron on these fall Saturdays. But I still have concerns about it. And I also know that not everyone even cares about this happening. My nephew works in the arts. He sings, dances, plays the bass and acts at the Shadowbox Theater in the Brewery District. He has many friends that work in the arts. Nobody seems to be speaking up for them to return to their stages, like folks spoke up for the football players: “Look how hard they have worked … many of them will go on to careers in the NFL … this isn’t fair to them!” The problem is, people who work in the arts often struggle to pay their bills in the first place, and when they are not allowed to ply their craft at all, the cost of rent, transportation, utilities, food, insurance, etc. don’t go away. When people in the arts see so many people standing up for 20 year-old college students to be able to play a game, you cannot blame them for crying foul! Unfair! It really stinks!

We often ridicule those who are on the “wrong side” of Jesus’ parables, but this time we cannot help but identify with them. If I worked twelve hours in a vineyard, bearing the worst heat of the day, I would want to get much more than someone who worked only one hour. And the fact that the landowner in Jesus’ story pays the last workers hired first, it means that he was looking to elicit a response from the long-time laborers. In a modern re-telling of this parable, Robert Capon likens it to folks who expect $120 for a day’s work who sees the one-hour laborers get $120 for an hour’s toil, and expecting to receive $1,440 for twelve hours! Imagine how crestfallen they are when they simply receive the $120 that the rest have gotten.

When confronted by those disgruntled workers, the landowner begins by calling them, “friend.” Now, this may seem like someone trying to kill them with kindness, but the particular word used here in Greek, hetaire, is only used two other places in the New Testament by Jesus – in the parable of the wedding banquet when the king confronts a guest who is not wearing a wedding coat (before he casts him out) and Judas, in the garden of Gethsemane when he approached Jesus to betray him with a kiss; Jesus says, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” This is sort of a sarcastic version of the word. It doesn’t so much mean he likes him. It means, “Hey PAL …. Look BUSTER… I am giving you what we agreed on and I am giving this person the same as I gave to you because I want to. I am allowed to do that you know!!” Then he uses an old Jewish saying that is translated in our Bibles, “Are you envious because I am generous?” It literally says, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” No, the generosity of the Kingdom of heaven is not fair, based on the standards of the world.

Think about the factors that define our culture – economy, law, politics, morality – these are the areas which define our standards and help to keep order and define wrong from right. According to all of these factors, both stories of Jonah and the Laborers in the Vineyard are unfair. They all would call for the elimination of the Assyrians and the pro-rated paying of the laborers according to the time spent in the vineyard. But according to the Kingdom of God, the Ninevites should be spared and the workers paid what they were paid. And when we think about it, we should be grateful for it. We spend so much time working on fairness in this life, imagine leaving all of that up to one who is abundantly generous in all transactions, even though no one deserves it. Imagine being a resident of Nineveh, living with the benefits of the conquests of your ancestors, and facing annihilation by Yahweh. This opportunity to turn your life around and live is a gift that will change your life and share the joy.

And if you were one of those people not hired until well into the afternoon, maybe because you are not the healthiest most sought after laborer but you still have to take care of your family for each day, wouldn’t the joy in your heart overwhelm you with gratitude? We have all been there – whether it be as beneficiaries of the conquests of our ancestors or receiving much more than we earned according to the economy of the world. If you have ever been overwhelmed by the sense of grace that YOU have been given more than you ever deserve, but you are offended when those who you judge as undeserving receive the same, then you – like me – don’t really like the parables of Jonah and of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

That is why our focus is to be on the extreme generosity of God in the midst of the sinfulness of the entire creation instead of receiving what we think we deserve. Instead of thinking of this parable in terms of the laborers, let’s refer to it as the Parable of the Generous Landowner. What if our attitude began with God and God’s creation and beauty, with the daily bread that we receive, the love that we share and the call to celebrate it when others, especially those who we aren’t close to or necessarily on the same side with? From God’s perspective, lovingkindness and mercy are more powerful forces than a desire to punish. That is true for each one of us, and that is true for those who you or I have looked at with hatred.

This pandemic has exacerbated a sense of unfairness for many people in the world. Those who are more susceptible to illness, poverty and injustice are suffering even more. In light of the Parable of the Generous Landowner, I think our prayer should be that all people be raised and encouraged by the love and tremendous mercy of God … even and especially those with whom we are in conflict. Amen.