September 24, 2017
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Donna G. Joy
Jesus’ favourite thing to talk about is the Kingdom of God. Over and over again, we are told that he travelled through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He said that he was sent for this specific purpose: To usher in the Kingdom of God by teaching and proclaiming it everywhere he went. You might say that Jesus was all about the Kingdom of God.
But, the big question is: What does this Kingdom of God actually look like? What is God’s place in this Kingdom, and how do we find our place and purpose within it?And, consistent with Jesus’ focus on the Kingdom of God, this morning’s Gospel reading offers a parable where he is suggesting that the Kingdom of God is a place where the gift of God’s radical and somewhat surprising Grace is found. Grace, simply put, describes the mercy of God made visible in countless ways to – seemingly – undeserving people.
Jesus said, "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers 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 marketplace; 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 labourers 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." Matthew 20:1-16
At first glance, this parable conveys a message that is both surprising, and confusing. It tells the story of a land owner who goes out to hire labourers to work in his vineyard. It seems clear that it is harvest time, and it must be a particularly abundant harvest because he has to collect and hire a number of extra helpers so that the work may get done. The owner of the vineyard would go – early in the morning – to the marketplace where these labourers are gathered and he would select the workers he needs. After establishing an agreement regarding their daily wage, they would be sent off to work. So far so good… So far, the story makes good, reasonable sense.
But as the story unfolds we discover that the harvest is so abundant the land owner has to keep returning to the marketplace to hire more, and more, and more, and more workers. Clearly, this is an extremely fruitful harvest, and in the end, he hires five different sets of workers throughout the day. The first group of workers begin working at 6:00 a.m. They are still working at 9:00 a.m. Still working at noon, and at 3:00 in the afternoon. Still working beyond sunset. But despite all those hours of work, the sheer magnitude of the harvest requires the addition of more workers.
So, a second group of workers is chosen; this time at 9:00 a.m. And this group continues to work throughout the rest of the day, and beyond sunset. But this number of labourers still wasn’t enough to cover the volume of this plentiful harvest, so even more are chosen to work, and this group begins to work at noon, and also continues to work throughout the rest of the afternoon and beyond sunset. As the afternoon unfolds, the land owner realizes that the volume of work requires even more workers again, so a fourth group is chosen and begins work at 3:00. And they continue to work through the latter part of the afternoon, and beyond sunset.
Finally, at about 5:00 in the late afternoon, the land owner decides that one more group of workers is required, and he finds a group of people still standing around at the marketplace. He asks why they have been standing there idle all day, to which they respond: “Because no one has hired us yet.” So, he hires them to work through until the work day is complete.
Sometime after sunset, the land owner asks his manager to call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first. And this is where the parable begins to take a surprising, and at first glance, confusing twist, because the last ones hired at 5:00 receive the full daily wage, as did those hired at 3:00, noon, and those hired at 9:00 as well! So, of course those who began work at 6:00 in the morning assume that their daily wage would be greater than those who worked less hours. But no. They receive exactly the same wage as the others.
Of course, as we might expect, they are quite outraged, but the land owner responds to their complains as he says, “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.”
It could be said that this is clearly an amicable relationship between this group of workers and the land owner, since he calls them ‘friends.’ However, a number of commentators suggest that this is NOT, in fact, a term of endearment. It is, instead, something like: “This, my friends, is the way this system works.”
So, the point that this parable is making is that the Kingdom of God is like a vineyard where all the workers are seen and treated as equals by the land owner; where no one’s contributions are more highly valued that another’s. The vineyard is the Kingdom of God that Jesus is ushering in; that Jesus is harvesting.
God goes out to search for workers every single day; and those workers are each of you, and me, and all who are searching for ways to work for God; ways to serve God. It is important to recognize that in this section in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is specifically addressing his disciples. This is a message that must be made clear to all who are willing to say yes to God’s invitation to follow Jesus into the vineyard. It seems clear that this is a message Jesus needs to convey to his disciples, because they seem to think that the Kingdom of God that Jesus is ushering in functions on the merit system. They battle among themselves as to who is to be the most important; who is to receive the greatest rewards.
If we see the vineyard as Israel, then clearly they see themselves as more important because Jesus has chosen them to work directly with him. Clearly their rewards will be greater; or so they think. But, again, Jesus says no; that’s not how it works; the whole rest of this chapter in Matthew’s gospel is a warning to the disciples about the danger they are in, supposing that, because Jesus is bringing in the Kingdom of God, they are going to become rich and famous. But that’s not the sort of thing, Jesus warns them, that God’s kingdom is about. They may have set out with Jesus from the very beginning; but others may well come in much later and end up getting paid just the same.
God’s grace is not the sort of thing – not the sort of gift – you can bargain with or try to store up.
It isn’t the sort of gift that one person can have a lot of, and someone else only a little.
The point of the story is that what people get from having served God and his kingdom is not, actually a “wage” at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. He makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When he keeps his promises, he is not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally to his abundantly generous nature.
It is important to clarify what Jesus likely has in mind when he refers to the end of the day, because it is at the end of the day when the workers get paid. Interestingly, if you ask this question of a Level 3 Atrium participant, he or she will likely suggest that this is referring to the Parousia; and believe me, they will use that word. The Parousia: that time when Jesus will return, and God will be all in all. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again: that is, the Parousia.
For the past 2,000 years, God has been going out every day, and calling workers to partner with Jesus in building the Kingdom of God: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love our neighbour as ourselves. This is not easy work. It requires deep and abiding love; it requires forgiveness, generosity, sacrifice… It is not easy work, but it is the work that God calls us to do – the most important work that God will ever call us to do for the building of the Kingdom of God.
And, for the past 2,000 years people have been answering God’s call to work in the Vineyard known as the Kingdom of God, and when the Parousia comes, we will be rewarded – NOT with a fair reimbursement according to a calculated account of our contributions. No. The reward is according to God’s equal love for us all.
C.S. Lewis says that no one can ever know the state of another person’s soul. Maybe, says Lewis, there is a moment of grace when someone is dying… someone who has done terrible things throughout his/her life, and has a fleeting chance to make it right with God… Maybe, then, when the Parousia comes, we shall find Mother Teresa and the inmates to which Norman referred last Sunday sitting at the table together. Just this past week I heard someone referring to a person who is a saintly sort of a person as someone who is actively earning their rewards in heaven. This parable shatters that understanding; indeed, divine grace does not rest on the merit system. Good deeds are not about earning rewards; good deeds are all about responding fully to God’s fulsome love.
This parable also tells us that God calls those who the whole rest of the world may be overlooking. God calls those who others may have rejected. When the landowner went out searching for workers that final time at 5:00, and asks them why they have been standing idle all day, the say: “Because no one has hired us.” This was the common location where all land owners would be going to find workers, and at no point during the day has anyone deemed these folks worthy to work in the vineyard, but this land owner sees them, recognizes them, and calls them to work. The work of building up the Kingdom of God recognizes everyone’s gifts; everyone’s worth as a child/servant of God, called to work.
So, keeping track of hours spent in building the Kingdom of God is not going to work. We are, instead, called to answer God’s call and use our God-given gifts accordingly. Certainly, here at St. Peter’s, the harvest is rich, and each of us is called to respond to God’s call to get to work.
Ministries abound in worship, hospitality, mission, and outreach. Together, let us respond to this call, and get to work, remembering, of course, that the Kingdom of God is like a vineyard where all the workers are seen and treated as equals… where the last will be first, and the first will be last.