This Sunday’s sermon is based on Matthew 20: 1-16. It is the (in)famous parable of the workers in the vineyard. The story line is simple: landowner goes out to the market and hires workers throughout the day. At the end of the day people line up, last to first. The landowner pays everyone the same amount, whether they worked 10 hours or 10 minutes. The same! The early workers cry “Foul!” and the landowner says, “Are you envious because I am gracious?” Then Jesus wraps it all up by saying, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
Let’s face it: Jesus does not tell parables to make us feel good. The Prodigal Son didn’t sound great to those of who us who “stayed home and did right by our duty” and this one isn’t even better. As one theologian writes, “the parable is constructed with everyday imagery and populated with recognizable characters. It lays out a common-sense progression of expectations and then brings a kingdom twist to its ending, leaving the listener with a sense of violated logic and disorientation.” I put it this way in a sermon- “to get at the reality that God’s grace is not tied to our own sense of fairness or even of justice, Jesus tells this parable. It pulls in his listeners so that he can push them off balance and force them to rely on the Spirit to set their feet aright, now on the solid footing of the grace of God, the only real ground on which we can ever stand firm.”
Two things stand out about this passage for me. First, the landowner is gracious. Given that he is a stand-in for God, we can assume he has not overestimated his first hires or underestimated the work. He keeps going out to get workers because he wants to bless them. Biblical scholar Pablo Jiminez speaks to this graciousness: My ethnicity heavily influences my interpretation of the parable. As a Latino, I have seen how day laborers stand in corners from the early hours of the morning, waiting for someone to hire them. I know that workers who are standing at the corner of the park, the market, or the hardware store in the early afternoon have probably been up since four or five in the morning. I also know that those who are not hired will probably have nothing to eat that night.”
The second thing for me is that even though this parable starts out about God’s grace, it addresses our sin. We hear this when the first workers say, “You made them (the last hires) equal to us.” Equal to us! To which the landowner asks, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” Ouch! Now that’s not fair. Jesus tells a story about a landowner and it becomes about us. He tells a parable about God’s grace and it becomes about our sin. The sin of those who think they know about worthiness and value, who is better than another. We are influenced in this thinking by money and zip code and religious faith and citizenship, certain that we know who is most worthy and deserving of more, certain that it is most always us, certain that we are harmed when others are blessed at what we see as our expense.
The truth is that the Bible, history and our country are replete with people who struggle to welcome newcomers to our shared enterprise, whether it be faith or society. People who see themselves deserving of more because of the length of their tenure and the depth of their roots seldom welcome newcomers fully into the flock. Know your place, take your more limited wages. Wait your turn. It wouldn’t be fair to make you equal to us.
This makes me think of a business owner who in 2015 decided to raise the minimum salary of all his workers to $70,000. No matter their position or length of time at the company. People got mad. People left. “I was here longer.” “My work is more important than hers.” The funny thing is that the only person who took a pay cut or lost anything was the owner: he took a 90% pay cut. But other people said, “That’s not fair,” essentially saying “You made them equal to us.” To which the CEO could have responded, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
It’s not fair. It’s grace. Thank God!