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I'm blogging with the lectionary this year, and this week's reading comes from Matthew 20:1-16:
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.”
In Matthew’s account, Jesus tells this story right after the apostle Peter demands, “We have left everything to follow you! What’s in it for us?” and just before the mother of James and John requests special privileges for her sons, who have “borne the burdens of the day” by joining Jesus in his ministry. So we may rightly understand this parable as a gentle rebuke to the disciples regarding their ongoing tangle over who will reap the most prestige in the Messiah’s new Kingdom, one they still imagined comes complete with money, glory, and power.
This isn’t that sort of Kingdom, Jesus says with this parable. You don’t earn your way to the top. There is no top.
But there’s even more at work in this story when we pay attention to the details.
Notice that the landowner finds his workers in the marketplace. This means that whether they arrived early in the morning or late in the afternoon, all were looking for work. All were tapped on the shoulder and recruited to the vineyards by a micromanaging landowner who just keeps on coming back...and back…and back to hire the people no one else wanted. Anyone who wants work will get work, even if they show up late, even if they stumble into the marketplace tired, hungover, uncertain, or sick, even if no one else wants them. This isn’t about being qualified; it’s about being called. It’s about being invited to join in the work, if just for a few dusky hours.
Notice too that the landowner pays a fair day’s wages. No one in this story is deprived or shortchanged. What scandalizes the workers who arrived early to the vineyard isn’t that they are cheated by the landowner but that their coworkers benefit from his generosity without earning it. Funny how something good can suddenly seem like less simply because it is shared. It’s such a universal and familiar reaction it’s hard not to see ourselves in it, particularly those of us who operate within a culture that idolizes success and self-sufficiency, where even gifts are expected to be deserved.
This isn’t that sort of Kingdom, Jesus is saying. It’s not about the pay; it’s about the work. You don’t pull yourself up by your boostraps; you simply take my hand.
And here we get to the punchline of the parable: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” asks the landowner. “Or are you envious because I am generous?
Are you envious because I am generous? Let that question soak down to the marrow.
Really, this parable isn’t about the workers. It’s about landowner. This is God’s Vineyard, God’s table, God’s Kingdom and God’s world. We don’t make the invitation list and we don’t dole out the gifts. And it’s a good thing too because no doubt we would try to make it all fair. No doubt we’d make sure everyone got what they deserved. But God isn’t fair. God is irrationally and irresponsibly generous. His mercies are infinite, offensive, new every morning.
We think the miracle is that our coworkers get to share in the reward, but the miracle is that any of us get to share in the work. The miracle is that God comes to the marketplace, pulls us out, hands us shovels and baskets and clippers, and puts us to work. If we want in on this Kingdom, if we want in on this work, we best set aside our small notions of what it means to deserve, what it means to be fair, and what it means to earn. Because what makes God’s grace offensive isn’t who it leaves out, but who it lets in…starting with you and me. Fair's got nothing to do with it.
We serve at the pleasure of a generous master; there is plenty of good work to do. So let’s do it.
In her marvelous book Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about preaching from this passage to a group of Luthern pastors at an event honoring those gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender clergy that had previously been denied ordination in the ELCA because of their sexuality. Not wanting her sermon to veer into progressive self-congratulations—“We’ve been last, but now we get to be first [fist pump]!”—Nadia focused too on the landowner:
What makes this the kingdom of God is not the worthiness or piety or social justicey-ness or the hard work of the laborers…none of that matters. It’s the fact that the landowner couldn’t manage to keep out of the marketplace. He goes back and back and back, interrupting lives…coming to get his people. Grace tapping us on the shoulder…And so, I reminded those seven pastors specifically, including the man who introduced me to grace, that the kingdom of God was just like that exact moment in which sinners/saints are reconciled to God and to one another…In the end, their calling, and their value in the kingdom of God comes not from the approval of a denomination or of the other works, but in their having been come-and-gotten by God. It is the pure and unfathomable mercy of a God that defines them and that says, ‘pay attention, this is for you.”
We have been come-and-gotten by God. So let’s stop looking at one another to decide whether everything’s fair and in-control and safe.
Because it’s not. Not even close.
Instead, let’s get to work.
P.S. Another great quote from Pastrix we've been discussing on the Facebook page is this one: "Grace isn't about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace--like saying 'Oh, it's OK, I'll be a good guy and forgive you.' It's God saying, 'I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.'"
In response, Kay wrote: "We visited a church recently where the pastor asked us to turn to each other and say, "I don't deserve God's love." Andy turned to me, saw my face, and said, "You're not going to say that, are you?" "Nope," I said. Not because it's not true, but because it's not The Truth. It's not the Gospel. Me being undeserving is just the set-up for the real Story, the Deeper Magic like CS Lewis said. There is this great redemption that has nothing to do with what I deserve and don't deserve. There's this Love that obliterates every sin. That's the Story. That's The Truth."