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Jonah 3:10-4:11 or Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 145:1-8 (8) or Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 (1, 45)

Philippians 1:21-30

Matthew 20:1-16 – The Laborers in the Vineyard

There are 13 weeks left in our year of walking through Matthew’s gospel. We will cover major portions of Matthew 20-25, the last of five major sections that make up Matthew’s gospel. Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, so Matthew has five sections just like the Books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy).

In the early 20th century a guy named B. W. Bacon noticed that Matthew used the phrase, “When Jesus finished saying these things…” (Καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοuς τοὺς λόγους τούτους…) five times, at the end of five long discourses, or sermons (Mt. 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). He pointed out the five-fold narrative/discourse structure. One could organize Matthew’s gospel as follows:

Introduction: Matthew 1

Section 1

Narrative: Matthew 2-4.

Discourse: Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)

Section 2

Narrative: Matthew 8-9.

Discourse: Matthew 10 (Missionary Discourse)

Section 3

Narrative: Matthew 11-12.

Discourse: Matthew 13 (Parables of the Kingdom)

Section 4

Narrative: Matthew 14-17.

Discourse: Matthew 18 (Living in Community)

Section 5

Narrative: Matthew 19-22.

Discourse: Matthew 23-25 (Olivet Discourse)

Conclusion: 26-28 (Death and Resurrection)

Our gospels through the end of the year look like this:

September 18, 2011 – Pentecost 14A: Matthew 20:1-16 – The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

September 25, 2011 – Pentecost 15A: Matthew 21:23-32 – Jesus’ authority questioned and the Parable of the Two Sons (not Prodigal Son, but the one who says he’ll work but doesn’t, and one who says he won’t, but does)

October 2, 2011 – Pentecost 16A: Matthew 21:33-46 – The parable of the Wicked Tenants

October 9, 2011 – Pentecost 17A: Matthew 22:1-14 – The parable of the Wedding Banquet

October 16, 2011 – Pentecost 18A: Matthew22:15-22 – The question about paying taxes

October 23, 2011 – Pentecost 19A: Matthew 22:34-46 – The Great Commandment and the question about David’s son

October 30, 2011Reformation Day: John 8:31-36 – True disciples continue in my word. If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.

Tuesday, November 1 or Sunday, November 6 – All Saints: Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount

November 13, 2011 – Pentecost 22A: Matthew 25:14-30 – The parable of the Talents

November 20, 2011 – Christ the King, Last Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 25:31-46 – The parable of the Sheep and the Goats

November 24, 2011 – Day of Thanksgiving (U.S.A.): Luke 17:11-19 – Jesus cleanses the Ten Lepers

Prior to this week’s gospel in Matthew 20, we have the Scribes and Pharisees giving Jesus a hard time for eating with sinners and not keeping the letter of the law. He has responded with stories about lost things: lost sheep, lost coins and a lost son. The message seems to be that God cares about those who are lost, much more than keeping score. In Matthew 19 we had the parable of the unforgiving servant. Forgiveness is not optional. Then Matthew 20 begins with the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, which might also be called The Parable of the Day Laborers.

6, 9, 12, 3 and 5. These are the times that the workers are deployed. Note that the landowner goes out looking for those who are idle to work in the vineyard. Recall that way back in Matthew 9 (section 2), Jesus made the comment, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Lutherans consider it a doctrine that God’s kingdom will come without our effort: “The kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer, of itself; but we pray in this petition that it may come unto us also.” (Luther’s Small Catechism,Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer:http://bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php#lordsprayer). This does not, however, mean we have no role. The kingdom comes even if any one of us bails out, but God uses people to accomplish God’s purposes. Jesus makes it clear: God needs people for the harvest. Get to work. It is interesting that the landowner even says, “Why are you standing around?” Similar words are said by the angels after the ascension (Acts 1:11). Perhaps this was a problem for a church of people who believed the end of the world was coming in their lifetime. Why do anything?

Perhaps the “get to work” theme needs to be heard in our congregations. Even with the 50-year worship attendance decline in the U.S. there are still plenty of churches, including some very big churches. One would think that with all these churches, Jesus’ vision of the hungry fed, naked clothed, strangers welcomed, sick and imprisoned visited would be manifest in our country. It sometimes amazes me how little influence our churches have on poverty in the city. In my prayers, I imagine Jesus looking at my church and saying, “Why are you idling?”

The workers arrive at different times but are all paid the same, not a great story for capitalistic society. The first folks start at 6 a.m. They are offered “the usual daily wage.” Let’s say $15/hour, for a 12-hour day. That’s $180 for the day. We can assume a 12-hour day because at the end of the parable, the folks that arrived at 6 a.m.complain that the folks who arrived at 5 p.m. “only worked one hour.”

So, when it comes time to collect their pay at the end of the day, the 5 p.m. folks are paid first. Lo, and behold they get $180. The 6 a.m. folks, are thinking, “Yee haw! $180/hour!” Robert Farrar Capon has an excellent treatment of this story in his book Parables of Grace. He says we’re all inveterate accountants/score-keepers. The 6 a.m.folks immediately begin calculating. C’mon, we’ve all done it. 12 hours times $180/hour is, let’s see, well, something around $2,000.

The 3 p.m. people step up. $180. The 12 noon folks: $180. 9 a.m. folks: $180. When the 6 a.m.folks step up, they are really disappointed to find out that they too only receive $180. They are not happy.

Let’s stop for a moment and ask: Why is Jesus telling this story? How might the Scribes and Pharisees be hearing this story? Why would Matthew choose to retell this story? (This parable is peculiar to Matthew. Mark and Luke only have some version of the phrase: “The last will be first and the first last.”)

When the early birds get upset, the landowner’s response is classic. He says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” Capon suggests that this word for friend (Ἑταiρε, hetiare) is edgier than the usual (φίλοs, philos). Herzog (Parables as SubversiveSpeech) agrees that this is a condescending form of the word “friend” (http://userwww.service.emory.edu/~dgowler/chapter6.htm). It’s an interesting thesis. If he’s right the sense is more like, “Listen pal…” or perhaps “Look buddy…” This is my vineyard. You agreed to work for $180 right? (Marlin Brando voice now.) I’m sorry. Do you believe I have I been unfair with you? Do you wish to lodge a complaint with the Better Business Bureau? Do you really want to mess with me? Pal…

Last week a small group at my home congregation discussed this passage. The group discussed how difficult it was to find reliable hard workers. One businesswoman said she didn’t pay all her workers the same amount. Some jobs are harder than others. Some people work harder than others. But she’s the boss. It’s her business. They can take it or leave it. She pays what she agreed to pay.

This story is similar, but different. In this story everyone is paid the same, even though they didn’t work the same amount. Not even close. Some worked 12 hours and bore the heat of the day. That’s a pretty tough sell here in triple-digit Texas. Some worked only one hour. This story makes no sense to the bean-counters of religious purity. It only makes sense in light of a gracious God.

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” the landowner says. “Or are you envious because I’m generous?” Perhaps those on the score-keeping plan, who are “winning” (in their own eyes) don’t want a gracious God. It’s like the frontrunner of the marathon being told everyone is a winner. What?! But I worked so hard!

The phrase “Are you envious because I am generous,” literally says, “Is your eye evil, because I am good?” (ἢ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σουπονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι;). This “evil eye” phrase is loaded. Translators don’t render it literally, because most modern readers won’t recognize the allusion.There is more here than can be dealt with in this short reflection. Look it up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evil_eye(especially alsohttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evil_eye#In_Judaism). In particular, one with an evil eye is so envious, that they are distressed when others prosper.

Clearly, those who come last are on equal pay with those who came in first. Those who think they should enter the kingdom first, because of their righteousness, moral superiority or religious heritage are in for a surprise. This seems to be a shot across the bow to the religious leaders. It’s a distressing parable for the score-keepers.

To make matters worse, in next week’s gospel Jesus will really pour gas on the fire with this phrase, directed to the chief priests and elders: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” He explains why: They believed John the Baptist and you (y’all) didn’t. More on that next week.

I like this story. It’s fun to read with groups. I suspect we might hear a different story if we read this parable with actual day laborers. They would tell stories of being under paid, not paid at all, verbally abused and treated as trash. Some have suggested this story also subtly illustrates Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, and his awareness of the vulnerability of the poorest day laborers in the barter economy of his day. The laborer really has no choice in the matter of payment. The subsistence-level laborer is utterly dependent on the generosity of the exploitative urban elite. Jesus becomes the model of the broker between the rich and poor. He symbolizes the coming of a new economy, an economy of the kingdom, where all are equal in the eyes of God. Jesus truly embodies the prophetic vision of “good news for the poor.”