Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 20:1-16:
That’s not fair! That’s probably a phrase you’ve heard before, especially if you have kids. Although I’m sure we all said it as kids as well. But that complaint usually led to the very familiar response “who ever said life was fair?” To tell you how unfair life is, the first time I was preaching on this passage I was leading a class on the parables and intentionally set the class up so that we would discuss this the week before I was to preach on it. It was my expectation that we would have quite a bit of conversation and discussion about how unfair this parable was, that those who came first were cheated and that those who were hired last should not have received what they did. In fact I was counting on lots of conversation in order to help me write that sermon. Instead, what I got were 9 people who all thought that while this story may seem unfair on its surface, it is really fair and also reassuring. Leaving me to actually have to work with this passage myself and come up with my own ideas, talk about being unfair!
Today is the seventh part of our 8-part series on the challenges of being a disciple. In the past weeks we have covered the challenge of answering Christ’s call, forgiveness, servant leadership, dealing with money and possessions, loving our neighbor as ourself and inviting others to know Christ. This week’s sermon is a little different than what we have already encountered because in the past the issues that we have talked about as being challenges have really had to do with how we respond to God and what we are called to do as disciples. But this week we will look at the nature of God and how this can pose problems for us as disciples. Next week we will conclude by looking at the issue of joy, which in many ways builds off of what we will cover today.
The owner of a vineyard goes out and meets some workers first thing in the morning. He tells them that he has work for them to do and in return for their day’s labor he will pay them one what is fair for one days labor. These are not skilled workers. In a modern context, these would be the people standing outside Home Depot early in the morning hoping to find someone who needs some work done, and will basically take on anything offered. They are day-laborers who are dependent upon finding work every day in order to barely maintain a subsistence existence, and because of that they would have a sense of joy and elation of having a job for the day. This was a big deal. Maybe they sent someone home to tell their family, or maybe their family would wait for them and when they didn’t show up later in the morning, they would know that work had been found, and there was joy and relief. If you’ve ever been out of work or looking for a new job, you can probably place yourself in their position and feel the elation in having found a job, about not having to worry about how you were going to put food on your families table for at least one more day.
This set up would have been familiar to Jesus’ original listeners as the vast majority of them were probably involved in agricultural pursuits in some way, and the vast majority were also the day laborers and not the landowner. So they would have understood the owner going out to look for help, although it’s possible that this might have been the first thing to mark this story as unusual as it’s more likely that the owner’s manager would have been the one to seek help. The original hearers of this parable would have also known understood what it meant to agree upon the normal day’s wage in return for their labor. But that is where the usual ends.
Normally all the labor that was needed would be hired at the beginning of the day, so for the owner to keep going back to the market would have been strange. And there is no indication that the owner needs more workers. Instead he seems to send them off to the vineyard simply because they are there. One of the interpretations that people will often come up with in trying to show what they think is the unfairness of this parable is to say that the people who get hired late were not there first thing in the morning, because these were the lazy ones who wanted work but didn’t want to work a full day, or who were too busy sleeping to have made it down in time to be hired. But there is no basis for this interpretation, in fact, the workers who are hired at five say that the reason they are being “idle,” which is the owner’s word applied to them, is because no one has hired them. In other words, it appears they have been there all day long looking for work, but as of yet had not received it.
The longer the day goes on the more joyful each group of workers must be to have attained at least some work. Most probably assumed they would never get any work, but yet here is the offer and they go willingly and joyfully. But, they have no idea what they will be paid. The only group who agrees to a wage is those who are hired first, who agree to the standard wage. The next three groups only agree to take on the work for fair payment, and the group hired at five doesn’t agree to any payment they simply go as ordered.
At the end of the day, there are people who have worked 12 hours, 9 hours, 6, 3 and finally 1 hour, and then the owner has them all line up to receive their payment and starts with those who started at the last, and yet they all receive the same amount of pay. The joy of those who have been hired late in the day is only increased when they realize that not only did the find employment, but they have even received a full-days pay. How could they not be excited, but I think we can also sympathize with those who have been working all day.
Here they are having toiled in the fields for 12 hours, and as they see those who have only been there for a short period of time receive a full-days pay, they have to think that they will be receiving more than those who came later, after all they worked more. But then they end up receiving the same amount as those who worked for only one hour. I’m sure we were have all been in a situation where we feel that our compensation has not been equal to the amount of work we have put in, especially in comparison to what others have received. And we are indignant that we have not been properly appreciated and maybe even feel that we have been cheated out of what we consider rightfully ours.
Now one member of this congregation, who shall remain anonymous to protect both the innocent and the guilty, said that one year when one of her children was 5 or 6 she was asked by that child how her Christmas shopping was going. She said it was going fine, to which the child responded, “That’s good because I feel like I was cheated last year”, and they wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. Clearly there were expectations that were not being met, and the child wanted to make sure that they were treated with more respect in regards to the amount of gifts they received. And so it is with those who worked the entire day. They feel they have been slighted, their work and dedication have not been appreciated, and they feel they are owed more than what they receive. But, as the owner reminds them, he is paying them what they had agreed to. He is not cheating them out of anything. They agreed to take the job for a day’s pay, and at the time were glad to take it and glad to have it.
Now the final line of today’s passage, which says “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” would seem to make this the emphasis of this story, but most scholars agree, as do I, that this line is probably not original to the story because this story has little to do with the first being last and the last being first. In fact, all receive exactly the same payment. The people who were there all day are not punished for being there all day, there is in fact no judgment being made about any of them. Instead all made equal in the eyes of the owner. It appears this line was added because the story immediately preceding today’s passage is Matthew’s version of the rich young ruler, which we covered last week in Mark’s gospel, ends with this quote, and then this passage is followed by Jesus telling the disciples that they must be servants. So that line makes sense within the context of what Matthew has going on, but does not make sense with the story. This is a story about “grace and justice” not about rank or sequence.
Johnny Lee Clary is the former imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which was one of the largest Klan groups in the country. He was raised in a household in which racism was deep and prevalent, and he continued to spread that hate throughout his adult life, rising through the ranks of the KKK. In 1990, having some doubts about what he was saying, he began returning to church and found that he could not reconcile his beliefs with those of the scripture and so began separating himself from his former organization. In 2009 he was ordained as a minister by the Church of God in Christ. Rev. Johnny Lee Clarry, former imperial wizard of the KKK, is now an ordained minister in the largest African-American denomination in the United States.
But, if you were to do an internet search on Johnny Lee Clarry you will find people on both sides of the debate who don’t like him. You will find white supremacist groups who view him as a traitor to his race who is not to be trusted, and you will also find anti-racism groups and church groups who don’t feel that he can be trusted, that he could never have made the change that he did, that he is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. Others would give the sort of answer that those who had been there the whole day, “how dare he receive the same thing we get with everything he’s done? Here he has been making a mess for people for all these years, and now he expects to receive the same thing we get? Who does he think he is?” His recantation is too little too late. He is the man who has wasted the entire day doing other things only to come at the last hour. But God’s response is, “he is my child.”
God never stops seeking out anyone who is willing to answer his call and go to the vineyard. He goes out of his way to keep going, seeking and inviting everyone he can. Now we as the workers expect things to be based on our sense of justice, which views justice as the woman, blindfolded holding the scales which weigh things out, that is our perfect view of justice but that is not God’s view. That is not God’s justice. God’s sense of justice is not blind or dispassionate. God wants to have as many people receiving payment at the end of the day as possible, even those who have come at the last hour. Because for God, justice is always and constantly tempered by grace and justice. Coming to terms with this is one of the challenges of being a disciple of Christ.
The owner is giving the workers exactly what he agreed to pay them, and beyond that they have no right to complain. It is in looking at the others and trying to compare themselves to others that they trouble begins. They forgot the original deal, which the owner upheld. But they want to complain about the owner’s generosity, which they have no grounds to complain about. Clearly the owner is concerned with getting as many people into his vineyard as he possibly can. He doesn’t stop with the first he hires, or even the second group, but instead he keeps making trips into the town up until just an hour before quitting time to hire as many people as he possibly can. That is truly where the owner’s generosity lies, not with the amount of pay he gives to each person.
The problem for the workers who have worked all day is how they respond to those who receive the same amount as they do. That appears to be the unfairness that they see, but in fact they don’t object to the fact that they make the same amount, but instead what they object to is the fact that by receiving the same amount of pay, that they are made “equal.” And that is where the problem is. The owner says that they have no reason to object, that they were paid exactly what they had promised. They had been treated according to what they had agreed to, and the owner could treat the others however he chooses. But it is in looking and comparing themselves to others that they began to feel that they were treated unfairly.
Had they not known what the others were paid they would never had worried about it; had they been paid first and gone on their way before those who came late were paid, then they would have been filled with joy that they had work and had been paid. But it was when they began focusing on others rather than themselves that they run into trouble. In taking the blinders off of their own eyes, in trying to compare themselves to others, they begin complaining about something which they have no right to complain about. As soon as we begin looking around at others and trying to compare ourselves to them, we will inevitably begin to see people either as superior of inferior, and rarely as equals. That is the complaint after all, that the owner had made them equal.
In a passage in Luke, Jesus tells of a Pharisee and a tax collector who go to the Temple to pray. The tax collector cannot even raise his eyes to God in prayer, but instead looks down, which is where we get the idea to bow our heads in prayer, and asks for God’s forgiveness for what he has done. But the Pharisee begins looking around at those who are also there praying, and begins focusing on them and says as his prayer, “Thank you Lord for not making me like the tax collector”, and of course we are told by Jesus that it is in fact the tax collector whose prayer is listened to because he is praying correctly. Why? Because the tax collector focuses on himself and his relationship with God, and the Pharisee begins looking around and comparing himself to others and thinks himself better and more righteous, and as a result, he is therefore not. This is the challenge of being a disciple.
William Sloan Coffin, best known as the chaplain of Yale University and then pastor at Riverside Church in New York, said, “Of God's love we can say two things: it is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the loneliest wino on the planet; and secondly, God's love doesn't seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value. Our value is a gift, not an achievement.
The laborers who came last were just as valued as those who started first. The owner wants to bring as many people into the vineyard as possible and to reward them with grace, and we can’t have more or less grace, grace is given freely and abundantly by God. It is an amazing Grace. It cannot be earned by us, instead it is freely given and we are saved by faith alone. It is not the work that the laborers do in the vineyards which gives them their grace but instead it is in answering the call to go to the vineyard in the first place. Once they have accepted the call, the grace is given to them in equal measure.
Our sense of fairness is also only violated because we are looking around and comparing ourselves to others. If we don’t pay attention to the others coming into the vineyard later and worrying about their reward then we will also not be led to believe that we have created the work and therefore deserve the pay. We are invited to the vineyard the same as everyone else, and it is a gift to us the same as it is to everyone else. It is only by focusing our attention on others, by judging them and claiming that they are unworthy, that they are not our equal, that we have any way to claim unfairness. It is also in losing our focus that leads us to lose the sense of joy that we had when we were first invited, which is what we will focus on next week.
When we compare ourselves to others then envy and jealousy become our operating motives rather than joy and from there we begin to feel a sense of entitlement which we do not have to claim that God is unfair. The nature of God is to invite everyone, and we should be joyful for that because we too have been invited and will be rewarded whether we have answered the call early or late, it matters not. All we need to do is to keep our focus on our invitation from God and let God worry about the rest, for God is gracious, good and all loving, and all are invited to the vineyard. I would like to close with this video, called God and Dog which was written and composed by Wend Francisco and I think it speaks for itself.