Sermon: Tensions in the Wilderness

Matthew 20:1-16

This morning we come upon another of the Parables of Jesus; this one is called the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard and comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew that we just heard. Like all the parables of Jesus, this is an analogy and not about any real events or even real people.  Jesus used parables to tell a story in a way that those listening would understand. Jesus often used imagery from their day to day life that maybe we don’t understand because, well, we are not first-century people. So, we must drill down deeper than what is on the surface of this passage to understand the meaning.

This story is linked to that of the Prodigal Son; you know the story. Two brothers are working with their dad. One brother asks for his inheritance; his father gives it to him, he goes off and squanders it, ends up eating and sleeping with the pigs, comes home much to the father’s delight and the consternation of the other brother. The other brother tells his father that he should not welcome his brother because he threw it all away. The father tells him that he is happy that his son has returned and is also delighted that he has had him.  The story of the Prodigal Son is about redemption and the love of God, which we may not see on the surface.

In today’s story, we have a group of laborers grumbling about how others are treated and how unjust it is for the landowner to pay others the same wages for less work. After all, these workers have been out in the field all day in the hot sun doing jobs that the “regular” people would not want to do, and along comes these “Johnny Come Lately” folks at the last minute, and they get paid the same wages for less work. Some of you may be able to put yourself into the story on both sides, or rather on all three sides, the landowner, the early laborers, and those who come later.

In my first church, there was a gentleman that was notoriously late for church. When I say notoriously, it would sometimes be 20 minutes into the service before he arrived.

Don’t get me wrong, I was happy he made it at all, but I used to speak with him about his tardiness and how he would not dream of doing that in his job.  One day he came to me with his bible in his hand, and he opened it to this story. “See,” he said, “it does not matter what time I come; I will get the same blessing as those you came on time.” He did have a point, of course, and that sort of is the story’s point.

What we learn from the story is that the landowner begins by giving everyone a job. Each person in the story is unemployed, and along comes the landowner and gives them all work and a promised wage at the end of the day. They all begin in the same situation, unemployed, but quickly forget about their situation as others arrive. They shift their energy away from being happy that they have found work and a wage for the day towards complaining about the situation’s inequity. Envy becomes more important then what they received. “Are you envious of my generosity?” The landowner asks those he gave work too.

A few months ago, we discussed race and race relations here in the United States. I mentioned that I come from a relatively privileged position and that I defined privilege, not as someone how had been given anything but that I had never been denied anything based on my gender, race, or sexual orientation. Friday night, we lost a giant in the fight for equality. Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg, from her earliest days, fought for equality in the law and made it possible for many of the things we take for granted today.

Do we find ourselves envious of what others have? Am I envious of other’s good fortune? Envy can cause us to diminish our gifts and talents and secretly rob others of theirs. God is the giver of every good gift, whether it is ours or someone else’s. Giving equal rights to all does not diminish any of your rights. Granting equal rights to women, black people, gay people, etc. does not change any of your rights one bit. But the denial of those rights, in a way, diminishes all those rights granted to all.

This story is essentially about the generosity of God. It is not about equity or the proper distribution of wages to workers but a gracious and undeserved gift. It is not about an economic exchange but about bestowing grace and mercy to all, no matter what time they have put in or how deserving or undeserving we might think they are. God’s generosity often violates our sense of right and wrong and our sense of how we think things should be.

Jesus leaves us with one question this morning, can we learn to see through God’s eyes? Our ideas of what is right and wrong, what is just and unjust, and not necessarily God’s ideas. We are reminded in this story that the tables are often turned. When we look for equity, we are surprised to find generosity.

We are invited to look to see where we find ourselves in this story. We are reminded that God is a lousy bookkeeper and invites us to transform our pride, envy, and hardness into joy by admiring and celebrating God’s abundant generosity. We are called to take a closer look at ourselves, and we are invited to turn away from holding grudges because things may not have gone our way. We are asked to let go of stuff that keeps us from being filled with joy and grateful people.

There is some wisdom in the saying, “get over it.” We are called to work through things, and then let them go. If we hold on to stuff, we continue to hurt ourselves and others. God forgives us and loves us, and so we must forgive and love ourselves and others. And remember this, gratefulness is at the very heart of our Christian faith.


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