Sunday, March 01, 2015

Whatever Is Right--a sermon on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard

Rev. Teri Peterson
Whatever is Right
Matthew 20.1-16
1 March 2015, Lent 2, NL1-26

‘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.’

Several years ago, I was at a church picnic when I heard an announcement that there’d be a game of kickball starting soon. I swear my stomach physically flipped over and my heart fell out of my body, as I was instantly plunged back to elementary school. Two popular kids were always team captains, and the entire class would line up and wait to be chosen by one of the captains. It was a predictable routine—first the kid who played on a soccer team, then the one who always won the playground races, then the one whose tetherball wins suggested some level of coordination, then the kid whose mom was the teacher down the hall, and so on until the last few of us were practically fought over to not be on anyone’s team.

I was pretty sure this was going to play out in adult fashion at the church picnic too—there’d be the guy who used to organize the church softball team, then the marathon runner, and so on until there were a few people left that no one wanted and someone finally took pity on us and said “the rest of you just choose which team you want, and let’s go!”

Thankfully that’s not how it ended up happening—we played under 18s v. over 18s instead, so no awkward choosing of any kind. But I was reminded of those experiences when I was reading today’s parable. It almost feels like it could read, “and Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like a team captain who chose his first players, and then in the middle of the game he went back to the group on the sidelines and picked a few more, and then a few more, until finally in the 9th inning he said ‘all right, the rest of you come along on my team too.’ And at the end of the game, the captain lined up the team according to when they’d joined, and gave everyone a high five and a snack. The people who played the longest and scored the most points were upset that even the terrible playing last picks, who didn’t even get an at-bat, still got the same thing they did. The team captain said: ‘they’re just as much members on my team as you are—remember, it’s my team and I make the calls.’”

Of course it’s not quite the same, but you get the idea. We howl at the unfairness of it all. The people who work only a few hours should of course only get paid a fraction of the amount paid to those who work the whole day. If they worked only 10% of the day, they should get paid only 10% of the daily wage. And the kickball players who just stood in the outfield for one inning, without even stepping up to the plate once clearly don’t need a snack, and giving them a high five is just another way of saying everyone gets a prize even when they didn’t do anything, which devalues our obviously exceptional first-chosen kids. When the owner or captain says he will do what is right, we expect him to do what we think is fair.

Jesus’ story ends with “or are you resentful because I am generous?” And the answer to this is, I suspect, a resounding yes. Of course we are. Because we nearly always see ourselves as the workers who spent 12 hours in the vineyard, and those people are getting what we deserve, and they haven’t even earned it.

The landowner sees something different, though. He sees people who are so desperate for even a fraction of the daily wage that they will wait, through the heat of the day, in hope that they might get even one hour’s work. He sees people with families to feed, and with so few resources they don’t even have a garden or animals they could be tending on the days when they don’t get hired. He sees people who have the same needs as the people he hired at the beginning of the day.

In short, he sees people.

Often we see the work first. Our identities are wrapped up in the jobs we hold and the ways we earn money. Our status is determined by our place in the office hierarchy. We see work as the thing that gives us purpose and meaning, that gives us value. We are tied to fairness, which comes from a mindset of winning and losing, while God is tied to generosity, which comes from a mindset of plenty and of grace.

The landowner is not looking at the value of the work, he is looking at the value of the worker as a human being. And in the eyes of God, there is no difference between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, 6am hire and 5pm hire. No matter how much work we do, we can never earn more grace. It is always a gift given by the most generous of landowners, and he can do what he wants with what is his. The psalmist reminds us that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it—the world and those who live in it. The landowner says to everyone hired after the first round: “I will pay you what is right” and then he does just that, according to his own value system. The fact that the early morning workers disagree with his assessment of what is right doesn’t seem to make much difference to this lord who sees people, not just product. When we think we can dictate what God can do with the creation God made, or with the love that is God’s very essence, we are on shaky ground. With this story, Jesus makes clear what God’s priorities are—the last shall be first—and that will often make us stomp our feet and insist it isn’t fair. Like the first workers, we say “you have made them equal to us!”

We may not say it out loud because it’s not PC, but it’s there. In our speech patterns, in our politics, in our movies and music and tv shows, in our workplaces, and our church expectations. It’s not fair, God—they should be grateful and then they should do what we have done in order to get what we have. But you have made them equal to us, who have given years of our lives to these programs, this company, this country, this town, this church.

To which God replies: yes, I have. Long before you came on the scene, I made all of you equal, in my image. I knit you together even as I was calling the whole creation good, and I poured my grace out on the whole earth and all those who live in it. I didn’t make a them and an us, I made people. No matter what you think of each other, know this: I do what I choose with what is mine, and I choose to love all of you, I choose to gift grace to all of you, I choose to remind you that my grace is sufficient no matter what you think you deserve, I choose to do what is right. Whether you see yourself as the first worker or the last, whether you have single-handedly kept the church open for years or whether you walked in today for the first time, the truth is the same: I have chosen you. Respond to that reality rather than the one you think is so unfair.

I often try to see Jesus’ parables from different perspectives in the story. I get the sense that we usually read ourselves as the first workers in this story. What is different if we see ourselves as the workers hired for only the last hour, yet given the same dignity and grace as the others? Rather than a posture of defensiveness, I find myself in awe that anyone could be so generous. It feels different—not just intellectually, but in my body, I can feel that rush, that slightly breathless excitement and unstoppable grin that comes with the realization that I’ve been given a gift—not just the gift of being treated equally, not just the gift of one more day of daily bread, but the gift of being seen as a person who matters for more than just the things I can do. Rather than having to earn my humanity, reading the story this way feels like someone sees me for me. We don’t feel that very often in our world these days—to be loved and valued for who we are rather than what we do is rare. It is a gift—it is grace, and it is amazing.

So then I wonder—what if we read the story as if we are the landowner? What would it be like for us to continue to go out and bring people in, and to treat everyone equally generously…to see people for who they are—beloved children of God—rather than for what they can do for us? If we have received such grace, we can also offer it to others. And Jesus said: the kingdom of heaven is like this.

May it be so. Amen. 

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