Psalm 105: 106, 37-45 – A song celebrating delivery from Egypt and quails in the wilderness.
Psalm 145: 1-8 – God’s providence. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.
Philippians 1: 21-30 – For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
Matthew 20: 1-16 – Grace: Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
Prayer of the Day
Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual loving kindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. Open our | hearts, O Lord, to give heed to what is said | by your Son, Alleluia.
Believe it or not, there are only 10 weeks left in our year of walk through Matthew’s gospel, Year A. 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’s Gospel is organized into 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…” 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)
- Section 1
Our gospels through the end of the year look like this:
- September 21, 2014- Pentecost 15A: Matthew 20:1-16 – The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard
- September 28, 2014 – Pentecost 16A: 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 5, 2014 – Pentecost 16A: Matthew 21:33-46 – The parable of the Wicked Tenants
- October 12, 2014 – Pentecost 17A: Matthew 22:1-14 – The parable of the Wedding Banquet
- October 19, 2014 – Pentecost 18A: Matthew 22:15-22 – The question about paying taxes
- October 26, 2014 – Pentecost 19A: Matthew 22:34-46 – The Great Commandment and the question about David’s son, OR Reformation Sunday: John 8:31-36 – True disciples continue in my word. If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.
- November 2, 2014 – All Saints: Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount
- November 9, 2014 – Pentecost 22A: Matthew 25:1-13 – The Parable of the Virgins
- November 16, 2014 – Pentecost 23A: Matthew 25:14-30 – The Parable of the Talents
- November 23, 2011 – Christ the King, Last Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 25:31-46 – The parable of the Sheep and the Goats
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.
This is a great story, but it drives people nuts. The justice of God does not seem just.
A landowner goes looking for workers to help with the harvest. At 6 a.m. he finds some people to work and agrees to pay them a fair daily wage. Then he finds more workers at 9 a.m. Then again at noon, 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. These are the times that the workers are deployed. Each time the landowner looks for people who are standing idle to work in the vineyard.
Here’s the kicker. At the end of the day (6 p.m.), the landowner pays everyone the same amount (the fair daily wage he had negotiated with the 6 a.m. folks). “That’s socialism!” – I can hear it now. In fact, that practically is what the 6 a.m. folks say.
Imagine the daily wage is $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, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. $180. Everyone agrees and shakes on it.
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 5 p.m. folks rejoice. $180 for one hour of work. The 6 a.m. folks also rejoice, thinking, “Yee haw! $180 per 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 at $180/hour is, well, let’s see, over $2,000.
The 3 p.m. people step up. $180. The noon folks: $180. 9 a.m. folks: $180. When the 6 a.m. folks step up, they are angry to find out that they too receive only $180. “This is not fair!”
Before we get to the landowner’s response, 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 this phrase: “The last will be first and the first last.”) Could they all be measuring their status before God? Their righteousness? Their place in heaven? Are the Scribes imagining themselves as 6 a.m. folks, and the Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners as 5 p.m. Johnny-come-latelies! Who is more righteous? Who will God reward the most? Who will be greatest in the kingdom of God?
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 (Ἑταῖρε, hetaire) is edgier than the usual (φίλοs, philos). Herzog (Parables as Subversive Speech) agrees that this is a condescending form of the word “friend”. 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.) I’m sorry. Do you believe I have I been unfair with you? Perhaps you wish to lodge a complaint? Do you really want to mess with me, pal? Take the money we agreed upon and skedaddle. Or are you going to make trouble because I choose to be graceful?
I remember a small group at my home congregation discussing 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. Period.
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 throughout 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 σου πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι;). This “evil eye” phrase is loaded. The evil eye has a long history. Translators don’t render it literally, because most modern readers won’t recognize the image. There is more here than can be dealt with in this short reflection. Look it up: (especially evil eye in Judaism). In particular, one with an evil eye is so envious, so covetous that they are distressed when others prosper, and wish to do them harm. When your neighbor gets a raise and prospers in any way does it upset you, or do you celebrate over their advantage?
Clearly, those who come last are on equal pay as those who came in first. The first are last and the last 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 score-keepers.
To make matters worse, in case they missed the point, in next week’s gospel Jesus will really pour gas on the fire by saying 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.”
I like this story. I really like it. It shows a loving God who is like hopeless parents that love all their children, underachievers and overachievers, those who score and those who struggle. This is a fun story to read with groups. Don’t miss the opportunity.
Here’s an idea: invite some actual day laborers to join the conversation. Pay them (quite fairly – a day’s wage, perhaps) to be with you for the morning of study and worship. You might hear a different story. They would tell stories of being underpaid, not paid at all, verbally abused, and treated as trash. We might gain a fuller understanding of the text if we listened to reflections of actual day laborers.
Some have suggested this story 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. Today we see the same problems. The laborer really has little 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.”