“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 marketplace; 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.”
My sermon from the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 24, 2023) on Matthew 20:1-16.
A couple weeks ago, a trend on TikTok had people asking their husbands and boyfriends how often they think about the Roman Empire. On one level, it’s sort of a weird question since the Roman Empire, especially the part centered on the city of Rome itself, collapsed over 1500 years ago. Yet what was striking was how often, without hesitation, people admitted they thought about the Roman Empire every day. That doesn’t, necessarily, mean they’re obsessed with it since most of us probably think about the things we’re interested in quite often. But it does mean that among the people around you, at least one would love it if you asked them what SPQR actually means. This fascination with the Roman Empire tends to skew male since so much of the Roman story was shaped by a male lens. This allows, in the words of Mike Duncan, a man who turned his thinking about Rome into a successful podcast – men to do a lot of historical fantasizing since “we can see men who were poor, men who were middle-aged, men who were smart, men who were dumb, men who were emperors. Every available option is” open to them. The Roman story, though, is much bigger since it shaped our culture and our practice as the church in very tangible ways. Taking the time to ponder, wonder, and sit with something we find really interesting is a very human thing to do. And today’s parable from the gospel according to Matthew is Jesus’ way, I think, of inviting us to purposefully spend a bit of every day thinking about a specific characteristic of our God.
This parable, in some ways, is a continuation of what we heard last week. Jesus told a story about the kingdom of God being like a generous king who showcased what forgiveness is supposed to do. Today’s story, which Jesus shared immediately after, described the kingdom of God as if it included a generous employer whose hiring practices were a bit bizarre. The employer arrived at the local market at the break of day, looking for day laborers. He found some who, after agreeing to the typical daily wage, were then sent into the vineyard. A few hours later, he came back and, for some reason, hired a few more. It’s possible these new folks had been initially passed over because they were too small or too ill to properly tend to the vineyard. But it’s also possible they arrived late after dropping their kids off at the ancient Israeli equivalent of daycare. Either way, they were chosen while others were left to wait in the marketplace. Many, though, didn’t have to wait very long because at 12 noon, 3 pm, and 5 pm, he came back to hire even more. We find ourselves in a strange situation where people who did very little were promised to receive the same as everyone else. Now the employer could have hidden what he was doing, by paying those who started the day first and sending them out before he paid everyone else. But instead, he called everyone together and paid those who started late, first. Those who worked all day, when they saw what the others were paid, assumed they would receive more. Yet when they looked at the coins placed in their hands, they saw the equal wage they were paid. This was, without a doubt, completely unfair which is why they, rightfully, complained. It felt as if they were being pushed aside and undervalued. As they simmered in anger, frustration, and a bit of confusion, I get a sense that a rage against those who they imagined had done less began to grow. In protest, those who had worked since dawn, pointed to all the things they had done. They mentioned their hard work, the length of their service, and all their personal qualities related to their time in the vineyard. They identified what they, and we, believe they deserved. And, in response, their employer looked at them and said “tough.” He doesn’t invalidate their feelings nor does he say that their complaints aren’t true. Rather, he invites them to think about things differently by noticing one of his inherent qualities. He was free to reward others as he saw fit. And so what they received was not based on their hard work, their abilities, or even in their sense of fairness or equality. What mattered most was that the employer had a holy generosity that shaped everything that the employer chose to do.
Generosity is easy to talk about but difficult to put into practice because it has to be willing to risk, and trust that there is always enough. We know, from our own lives, how hard that can be since an illness, an injury, a loss of employment, or a lack of opportunities can wipe away what we can place on our table. And we also live in communities and in a world with social media, tv, radio, newspapers, books, and all kinds of tools that show, and tell us, all about those who we think don’t deserve what they receive. The reasons we have for these kinds of thoughts are, we imagine, are always truthful, honest, and incredibly fair. Yet I wonder if at the heart of all those thoughts is a deep rooted sense of scarcity that believes, more than anything, that there’s only so much that can go around. Any generosity we offer, then, must be small, self-contained, and limited by the qualities of those who receive whatever we choose to give. And while we should be the proper stewards of every gift God gives, we often pretend that this scarcity is really a wisdom that ends up limiting how free we choose to be. We let the voices around and in us act as if the voice of God proclaimed that there never is, nor ever will be, enough for our lives, our world, and our souls. Yet the God who, in baptism and in faith generosity claimed as God’s own, constantly shows us how this isn’t true. It isn’t our goodness, our faithfulness, our success, our good looks, or whatever our culture uses to define who is worthy and who isn’t – that brings us into the body of Christ. It is, instead, God’s free and generous gift that knew the church couldn’t be what it’s supposed to be with you as a part of it. There’s something pretty awesome about knowing how far God will go, even to death on the Cross, to show much we belong. But if we’re not too careful, we can act as if this free gift is a limited gift that’s for us alone. It should, though, instill within us a sense of awe, responsibility, and even a little fear that the God who could include anyone decided that, in Christ, we – as we are – are part of what God is up to. This is one aspect of answering the call Jesus has already placed on our lives. And it in, and through him, we are invited to think differently about ourselves and our world. Rather than letting scarcity be what primarily defines us, we get to wonder what it would mean to let the generosity displayed in this parable be at the heart of who we are. What if, every day, instead of reflecting on the Roman Empire or whatever else we’re interested in – we chose to make God’s generosity one of our daily thoughts too? It would, I think, help us get better at recognizing our greatest needs while, at the same time, showing how generous we can be. By shifting our thinking towards God’s radical, inclusive, and over-the-top generosity, we might untangle that sense of the scarcity that has warped what generosity can be about. And I can’t wait to see how our thoughts can, with Jesus’ help, make God’s free, holy, and unimaginable generosity become the primary characteristic of who we get to be.