The Uncomfortable Kingdom

 

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Exodus 16:2-15
Matthew 20:1-16

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

20:1” For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 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.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 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? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of miracles and of mercy, from your providing hand even the dissatisfied and grumbling receive what they need for their lives. Teach us your ways and lead us to practice your generosity, so that we may live a life worthy of the gospel make known through your Son Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

 

I considered entitling this sermon, “It’s five o’clock somewhere…” but you might have gotten the wrong idea.  I didn’t want to be accused of false advertising. So, I chose a different title for this uncomfortable parable.  In my ministry over the years, I have heard more than one person say, “I can’t stand this parable (story from the Gospel of Matthew, The parable of the Vineyard workers)! It’s just not fair.”

 

Fairness, it is subjective, isn’t it?

 

This is a disturbing story – there is no way around how disturbing it is.  A landowner hires some workers to work in his vineyards.  He starts early in the morning.  Periodically he returns throughout the day to hire more workers until it’s just one hour before quitting time when he hires the last group.

 

When it is quitting time, he pays everyone.

 

would have been so simple to pay the workers in the order the order that they were hired.  No one would have noticed how much anyone got paid.

 

Instead, the landowner paid the workers in reverse order beginning with the last ones he hired.   And, of course, as those workers were overjoyed with how much they were paid.  The other workers saw this and heard all the rejoicing and …

Well, the truth is, it tested their hearts.

 

The workers who were hired early in the morning must have thought that they were going to make a killing until they realized that they were paid the same as those who worked fewer hours.

 

Have you noticed that most of us are content with our situation in life until we start comparing ourselves to others?  Have you noticed how when we compare ourselves to others that fairness becomes an issue? The late Episcopal priest John Claypool called this human trait “the sidelong glance of envy.”[1]

 

Have you noticed what happens when we compare ourselves to others? That sidelong glance of envy shows up and somehow it has the insidious power to change our contentment and the green eyes of jealousy take over.

 

As long as we can focus on our own good fortune, and as long as we can keep our attention on the marvelous gifts that we have been given, we are happy and life is good.  It is only when we see the world with the sidelong glance of envy that our joy and contentment is spoiled.

 

The people in Jesus’ parable, who went to work early in the morning, were happy with their wages until they discovered that the other workers who were hired later in the day and who did far less work and got paid the same amount of money.  The all-day workers would have been just fine if they had never known what anybody else got paid.  The deep irony of this parable is that the all-day workers turn against the overly generous vineyard owner and accused him of being unfair.  Which makes me wonder about our discomfort with this parable.  Are we disturbed by this parable because we put ourselves into the story as the workers who have been in the vineyard all day long thinking that we deserve more than others and when we see what others are being paid the sidelong glance of envy takes over and we become resentful and angry at the unfairness?

 

If we can step back and give the parable time to settle into our minds and do its work on our hearts what becomes the biggest challenge to us isn’t the lack of fairness in the landowner’s generosity but it is that this is a vision of the Kingdom of God.  A vision that shows us that all are equal in God’s Kingdom.   So, let’s hear this parable again with new eyes, a landowner keeps coming back to the town square to hire more workers.  We are not told why he continues to hire more workers, we are not told that his harvest is great and he’s overwhelmed and needs more help.  Instead, it appears that he keeps coming back because there are people who need a job and they are willing to work, and he has the resources to pay them.  It doesn’t matter to him how long they work. It’s not their ability, their production or their length of service that is the determining factor.  In a classic twist, it turns out that the parable is about the landowner’s generosity to them.  It’s not what they can do for him, but what the landowner can do for them.  The landowner apparently wants them all working in his vineyard, and he will not rest until this is accomplished.[2]

 

I have a hunch that one of the reasons we don’t like this parable is that we suspect this is God’s view of equality, fairness, and justice.   And our sidelong glance of envy takes over and we are upset.   If this is how Jesus wants his followers to live in relationship with others, do we really want to be part of that, after all, we have been working for a long time and we deserve more than everyone else!

 

There is an old parable that the rabbis tell about a farmer who raises two sons. He teaches them everything he knows about farming. When he dies, instead of dividing their inheritance, they continue to work in partnership.  Each contributes his best, and they divide the harvest right down the middle.  One brother marries and has eight children.  The other brother remains a bachelor.

 

One night, following a particularly bountiful harvest, the bachelor brother thinks to himself, “My brother has ten mouths to feed, and I have only one.  He really needs more of this harvest than I do.  But I know him well.  He is much too fair to renegotiate our agreement.  So, here’s what I will do. I’ll take some of my share of the harvest and slip it over into his barn.”

 

At the same time, the married brother is thinking, “God has blessed me with this fine family.  My children will take care of us when I am old.  My brother is not so fortunate.  He needs more of this harvest to provide for his old age.  But he is too fair to renegotiate our agreement.  So, I’ll take some of my harvests and slip it into his barn.”  As you have already guessed, one night when the moon is full, the brothers come face-to-face, each on a mission of generosity. And it is said that although there was not a cloud in the sky that night, a gentle rain began to fall.  It was God weeping for joy because two of God’s children got it.[3]

 

So, you see it is five o’clock somewhere and the generous landowner wants to pay up.

 

Let us pray:

[1] The Reverend Dr. K.C. Ptomey, Jr., A Homily on Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-14 preached at The Westminster Presbyterian Church 3900 West End Avenue Nashville, Tennessee 37205-1899 on Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time September 22, 2002. (He quoted Reverend John Claypool Stories Jesus Still Tells, (Cambridge/Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993. 2 000). p. 31.)

 

[2] The Reverend Dr. K.C. Ptomey, Jr., A Homily on Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-14 preached at The Westminster Presbyterian Church 3900 West End Avenue Nashville, Tennessee 37205-1899 on Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time September 22, 2002. (He quoted William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech, (Grand Rapids: William 8. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 29.)

[3] The Reverend Dr. K.C. Ptomey, Jr., A Homily on Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-14 preached at The Westminster Presbyterian Church 3900 West End Avenue Nashville, Tennessee 37205-1899 on Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time September 22, 2002. (He quoted Claypool, pp. 34·35.)