Sunday, March 17, 2019

Over and over again—a sermon on the parable of the generous vineyard owner

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Over and Over Again
Matthew 20.1-16 (NIV)
17 March 2019, Lent 2, NL1-28

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
‘About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the market-place doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.
‘He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”
‘“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.
‘He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”
‘When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”
‘The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”
‘But he answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’


A few weeks ago, the Clydeview Chaplaincy Team ran one of our workshops for P7 students on the theme of Equality, which is one of the core values of Clydeview. We invited the pupils to think about the differences between equality, equity, and justice, and encouraged them to strive for more than simple equality, using this example of three people trying to see over a fence. One of them is tall enough to see over, but the other two are not. Equality is when each of them is given the same thing: resulting in one person towering over the fence, one just seeing, and one still unable to see. Equity is when each person is given the support they need to participate—so the tall person doesn’t need the help, but the shorter person needs two crates to be able to see over. And justice is when the barrier to participation is removed—the fence is taken down, or a different type is built so all can see while the game inside is still safely contained.

During this workshop, we tell the students this story of Jesus: a householder had a vineyard, and he needed workers. He hired some early in the morning, for the usual daily wage and the usual daily schedule. Then throughout the day he went back out into the marketplace and hired more workers every few hours, promising to pay them “whatever is right.” And at the end of the day, he paid all of them, whether they worked for one hour or twelve hours, the same amount.

The usual reaction is “that’s not fair!” And that’s true, at least on the surface. The story isn’t fair.

But then we talk about some realities.

A denarius, which was the usual wage for a full day’s work in an unskilled job like that of a day labourer, would keep a family for between 3 and 6 days, depending on the size of the family and what other resources they had. Many people at the time also grew some of their own food in small plots in front of their houses, and they may have kept an animal that would provide them something to eat or make clothes with or to trade with neighbours. 

The workers who were standing in the marketplace were there because they didn’t have other work, and they needed to feed and clothe and house themselves and their families. And while they stood there all day, hoping to get hired, they were therefore not able to spend time on tending their garden or making housewares or other things that might provide for them. They needed work, and they needed it badly enough to wait in hope for even a partial day’s wage.

At the end of the day, those who worked for one hour must have been overjoyed at their good fortune. I can just see them celebrating that they would be going home with enough to put food on the table and new sandals on their children’s feet or new thatch on their roof, when just two hours before they had been despairing and wondering what to tell their spouse or child who looked to them for support.

But those who worked the full day, and then were paid exactly the amount they agreed to 12 hours before...they were not celebrating with their neighbours’ good fortune. They were not happy that the other people would also have enough to see them through another week. Instead, they grumbled against the vineyard owner and said “you have made them equal to us.”

You have made them equal to us. 

This is the moment when we ask the P7 students whether those who were hired first and those who were hired last had different expenses. Was food cheaper for those who only got a job for a few hours? Of course not. Indeed, the fact that they waited all day may even suggest they had fewer resources to draw on, since they didn’t go home and tend a vegetable plot or animals or a business.

And then we ask: what makes them unequal enough that the complaint would be “you have made them equal to us”? 

While we might go through a bunch of mental gymnastics about what people deserve or don’t deserve, and our world has plenty of people who believe some classes or races or religions are superior to others, ultimately, the answer is: they were already equal. There is no “us” and “them” hierarchy, only people, human beings, made in the image of God. 

The vineyard owner promised to pay each set of workers “whatever is right,” and that is what he has done: he has paid them all according to their value as people, rather than according to the value of their labour. He makes sure that everyone has what they need, so that they can all thrive as a community. He says to the complainers: I want to be generous to these last workers. I want everyone to have enough. I want to give them the same as I agreed to give you.

Remember that at the beginning of the parable, Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is like a landowner...” It is the desire of God’s kingdom that all should have what they need to live and to thrive. Perhaps that is the true meaning of abundant life—not that we individually experience abundance, but rather that the whole community experiences enough. Not just equality, not even just equity, but justice. 

I think this is one of Jesus’ hardest teachings for us in the Western world. It is so counter to the way our economic and social systems work. And we are prone to retreating into our us-and-them categories, insisting that they are not equal to us. But Jesus never said it would be easy. He offered us a narrow way that leads to life...and that way involves things that made people want to kill him, because they were radical and countercultural. When we are tuned in to his truth it will change the way we live in the world and go about our business, and that will change the world, until it starts to look more like the kingdom of God.

Normally I would end the sermon here with some sort of nice wrap-up line that I hope you’ll remember. But as I was thinking about this story this week, I had a realisation. I often try to read parables from different perspectives in the story, looking for different angles that might shed new light on familiar words. And I suddenly realised that I had never read this story as if Jesus was suggesting that we—the people called together as the Body of Christ, the Church where God’s kingdom is hopefully growing even now—might take the role of the landowner earlier in the story. I mean, I’ve obviously already suggested, though not said outright, that we ought to be finding ways to ensure everyone around us has enough to live with dignity, and using the resources at our disposal to do so—I think that is a large part of what it means to tune in to God’s economy of grace. But there is also another aspect I hadn’t really considered before:

Before we ever get to the part where he pays people justly, the landowner goes out of his vineyard and into the marketplace, where the people were...not once, not twice, but five times throughout the day. 

The story never says that he looked around the fields and decided there weren’t enough workers. It just says he went out to the marketplace and saw people needing work, and invited them into the vineyard.

Over and over, out he goes, and every time he brings someone else in along with him.

So I wonder...what if that is also what Jesus calls us to do? In addition to creating a system that is just and offers everyone abundant life, is he also calling us to go out of our comfort zones and into the places where people are, and invite them into the kingdom with us? Over and over again. No matter how many times we’ve been out before. No matter whether we think we need more people or not. No matter who they are or what they’ve been doing this whole time. Not so that they can do work for us—it’s unlikely he needed labourers at the 11th hour, after all. And not so that we can turn them into something they aren’t. Not so we can take advantage of them. But because it is a joy to be in community together, to work side by side for the kingdom of God. Because we want to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, to pray together and support each other. Because we want to share the good news we have here, we want companions on the journey of life, and we want to find ways to make our whole community, our whole nation, our whole world, a better place, where all have enough, where justice reigns, where people are valued for who they are not just what they can do. 

What would it be like, if we went out and invited people in, over and over again?

I think it would be like the kingdom of God.

May it be so. Amen.