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 walking through Matthew’s gospel, Year A: Four Sundays in November, five in October, and this coming Sunday, September 24, 2017. We will cover major portions of 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)
In September and October, our gospel texts in the Revised Common Lectionary come from Matthew 18-22. These are teachings and parables that are instructive to the church. Life in Christian community.
Here’s an overview of our RCL gospel texts:
- September 10: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
- September 17: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
- September 24: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
- October 1: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
- October 8: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
- October 15: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
- October 22: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
- October 29: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)
I have discovered that people don’t like this parable very much. It offends their sense of justice. Why should everyone be paid the same, regardless of how long they worked? This is a story of uncompromising grace. People really have trouble with grace.
Prior to this week’s gospel from Matthew 20, the Scribes and Pharisees gave Jesus a hard time for eating with sinners and not keeping the letter of the law. He responded with stories about lost sheep and an unforgiving slave. The message seems to be that God forgives, and cares about those who are lost, much more than keeping score. Now, 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, if they really grasp its message. The justice of God does not seem just.
At dawn, a landowner goes looking for workers to help with the harvest.
6:00 a.m. – The landowner finds some people to work and negotiates with them a fair day’s wage. They agree and begin working.
9:00 a.m. – The landowner, still in need of more help, finds people standing idle in the marketplace. He hires them on and puts them to work. He agrees to pay them “whatever is right.”
12:00 noon – More workers.
3:00 p.m. – More workers.
5:00 p.m. – The landowner goes out and finds people standing around. When asked why, they say no one has hired them, so he puts them to work as well.
6:00 p.m. – Quittin’ time. Stop working and collect your wages, the last first.
Each time the landowner looks for people who are standing idle to work in the vineyard. At the end of the day there are five groups of workers:
- The 6 a.m. folks have worked 12 hours.
- The 9 a.m. folks have worked 9 hours.
- The 12 noon folks have worked 6 hours.
- The 3 p.m. folks have worked 3 hours.
- The 5 p.m. folks have worked one hour
Let’s say 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. The 6 a.m. folks heard this, agreed and shook hands on it at first light.
Now it comes time to collect their pay at the end of the day. The 5 p.m. folks are paid first. Lo and behold, the 5 p.m. workers get paid $180. The 6 a.m. folks at the end of the line are watching carefully. The 6 a.m. folks think, “Holy smokes! The boss just paid those folks $180 for one hour of work. That’s $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! We’re having prime rib tonight!
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 stare down at their paycheck: Only $180. “That’s 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 heaven?
Consider this. The cutting edge of this story, which only appears in Matthew, is not much different than the cutting edge of The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which only appears in Luke. The older brother in Luke’s parable followed all the rules, and was working hard while the younger son was goofing off. When the lost son returns home, the older, hard-working son discovers that the father loves both of his sons the same, regardless. In today’s story, the landowner seems to pay all the workers the same, regardless. Though our work is sacred, perhaps God’s love is not contingent on how much we work.
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: Jesus As Pedagogue of the Oppressed) agrees that this is a condescending form of the word “friend.”
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? Shall we alter the terms of the agreement? Do you really want to mess with me, pal? I paid you what we agreed upon at the beginning of the day. Take your paycheck and skedaddle. Am I not free to throw my wealth around as I please? Or are you envious because I choose to be generous?”
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 really want a gracious God. It’s like the frontrunner of the marathon being told everyone is a winner. Wait. What?! But I won!
The Evil Eye
The phrase that is translated “Are you envious because I am generous,” literally says, “Is your eye evil, because I myself 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).
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?
What if, while working in our vineyards of life, we didn’t worry too much about how hard those next to us were working? What if, while working on becoming righteous people, we didn’t spend so much time worrying about how righteous or unrighteous others are? What if we left judging to God, and focused more on the log in our own eyes? (Matthew 7)
Clearly, those who come last are on equal pay as those who came in first in this story. 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. The righteousness contest is bankrupt. This is a shot across the bow to the religious leaders of his day, and perhaps ours too. It’s a truly distressing parable for score-keepers, and all who think Christianity is about personal moral purity.
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. I am being totally serious about this. You might hear a different story. They will tell stories of being underpaid, not being paid at all, verbally abused, and treated as trash. We might gain a fuller understanding of the text if we listened to reflections of those who are most likely to appreciate the reality of the story.
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.”
Jesus ends the parable with his enigmatic statement, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” “This saying should be taken as a word of warning to disciples who are the spiritual firsts.” (David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary)