A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”
Today’s Gospel lesson is another parable from Jesus. As I said last week, parables are not allegories, which is to say, the characters and events are not symbolic stand-ins for things and people that we know about. Basically, they are just stories to illustrate something. So when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” He’s not saying that the kingdom of heaven is like this landowner, he’s certainly not saying that the landowner is God. The kingdom of heaven is like this story.
This story is a bit unusual—it catches our attention. Not the first part where he finds day laborers throughout the day. At grape harvest, time is of the essence, as many hands as possible are important to get the ripe grapes in before they start to dry out or fall off the vine. But then comes time for pay. That’s when it gets interesting—people who had only worked a single hour received as much as those who had worked for twelve. The people who worked all day were upset—and probably most of us would be too. How unfair! We worked more, we deserve more! Or at least those others deserve less.
In looking out for ourselves, we sometimes over-estimate our own work and other virtues and the difficulties we face at the same time as we underestimate others abilities and their difficulties. That’s kind of the way that people work. It’s more important to be aware of that tendency than to condemn ourselves or others when we figure it out.
So all the people who had been working all day were angry. If we take a peek at this morning’s lesson from Exodus, we see that it takes less than a chapter after being saved from slaughter by the Egyptians for the Israelites following Moses to get angry. Angry has become a pretty popular thing to be.
All those folks were quick to conclude that the landowner was being unfair—or that Moses or even God is unfair in not giving us what we think should be our fair portion. The landowner was unimpressed. At the beginning of the day, the workers were satisfied to work for a denarius—a silver coin a bit smaller than a quarter that was typically what a day laborer was paid for a day’s work. Why did he pay the others that came later the same amount? We don’t know—the people who were angry certainly thought it was unfair and unequal—but one could speculate why a landowner would do this. Maybe he just didn’t want to get into complex accounting—a day’s wage was a single coin, why start subdividing and messing with small change? Perhaps—and this wouldn’t make the people who had worked all day happy, but as a long-time boss, I have seen this—perhaps the latecomers were better workers and he wanted to make sure that they would want to work for him the next day. Maybe the landowner realized that a denarius really only covered the basic needs of his workers and he wanted all the workers to be able to be healthy and fed for the next day of work.
When the landowner asked the last ones he hired why they weren’t working, they told him, “Because no one has hired us.” I can remember times looking for work when I didn’t have a job, perhaps some others have experienced this, being ready to work, looking, willing to take anything and no opportunities appeared. That is likely the experience of those hired at the eleventh hour—desperation, discouragement, having a hard time holding on to hope. So this man hired them and they took the job at the end of the day, to work for whatever bit they might get. There was nothing requiring the landowner to pay them a day’s pay, no expectation of it at all. The landlord would not explain or justify himself to the gripers,
Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 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.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” When I read this story, that is the key—the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s overwhelming generosity, God’s compassion for those who are beyond hope, discouraged, last in line, or at the bottom of all the advantages and opportunities. “The last will be first” in God’s Kingdom. It’s a kingdom of grace, not of self-pity, selfishness, or envy. Fair is not what we desire for ourselves, but how abundant life and healing is given to all God’s children.
Living in Christ means looking beyond our self-interest, and enduring the challenges that comprise the real world we live in. It is praising God for God’s generosity, not so much his generosity to us, but God’s generosity in giving life and well-being to those who may not expect it, those that are last in the eyes of the worldly around us. We praise God for bringing us together with all humanity and glorify God for giving life and hope when it seems near to running out.
Let’s conclude with words from today’s psalm:
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name,
Make known his deeds among the peoples.
Remember the marvels he has done,
His wonders and the judgments of his mouth.
He led out his people with silver and gold;
In all their tribes there was not one that stumbled.
Egypt was glad of their going,
Because they were afraid of them.
He spread out a cloud for a covering
And a fire to give light in the night season.
They asked, and quails appeared,
And he satisfied them with bread from heaven.
He opened the rock, and water flowed,
So the river ran in the dry places.
For God remembered his holy word
And Abraham his servant.