Sermon; 16 Pentecost/Proper 20A; Matthew 20:1-16
Today's gospel passage is one of those familiar ones that we think we hear more often than we actually do. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who hires laborers first thing in the morning at the going daily/hourly rate. He must have been pushing to get the crop in because he goes out again and again at 9, at noon, at 3, and at 5 o'clock to find workers, promising to pay them a fair wage. At the end of the day he lines them up, the last hired to the first hired, and pays them all the same wage. At which point the first hired praised him for his generosity and wished that all business owners were so good to their employees . . . Not.
We know otherwise. The first hired complain that they should have been paid more based not on their original agreement with the landowner, but on their self-comparison to the last hired. From there all sorts of opinions and interpretations are birthed as to the meaning of this parable.
This has been described as a parable of justice, a parable of injustice, a parable of financial equality, a parable of human behavior, a warning against greed, a parable about Christians and Jews, and so much more. But the area I want to focus on today is grace, and not necessarily the grace of the landowner.
The ancient Christian tradition is to interpret this parable as the relationship between Jews and Christians. In other words, Jews have been God's chosen people since the calling of Abram way back in Genesis 12. They have been working for the kingdom of heaven essentially since the beginning. Comparatively speaking, Christians have been working for the kingdom of heaven only since 5 o'clock. Nevertheless, we are all graced with the same reward, and this generosity of God has been the cause of Jews complaining to God about Christians.
We need to be careful here. Because while that is one way to understand the parable, it is an interpretation that feeds into dissension and mistreatment.
This parable of the generous landowner is, I think, Matthew's version of the parable of the Prodigal Son over in Luke. In that parable the younger son leaves home, falls into poverty, returns home as a self-described slave, but is instead welcomed back with full restoration and a party, while the older son pouts outside. The father explains to the older son that it's not about where we have been, but it's about being restored.
In today's parable we have people who work all day (the older brother) and people who have hardly worked at all (the younger brother) being paid the same (welcomed back), the all-day laborers complaining they deserve more and the landowner (the father) explaining it's about his desire to see all people treated equally (full restoration).
And while both parables may have been told to the Jews with an eye toward the acceptance of others, we can't leave it there. We can no longer say it's about Jews and Christians and their attitude toward us.
We can no longer say that because we have been at this long enough now where we have become the all-day laborers. We have become the older brothers. This parable is a parable directed at those of us who have been working for the kingdom of heaven a long time and the grace we either extend to, or refuse to offer, those new people in our midst.
We just had a ministry fair not too long ago. During the fair we were all asked to list our talents and interests for areas we might be willing to serve. Those blue sheets were collected and collated and will be passed out at upcoming vestry and commission meetings with the instruction to make use of those people. As a volunteer, there is nothing worse than offering your time only to be ignored.
There are a variety of ways to sabotage a church, and this is one of them. There are any number of organizations or ministries in a parish that develop into fiefdoms – groups run by a select few who become territorial and resistant to newcomers and change. These fiefdoms do good things, but they may also work overtly or covertly to keep newcomers at bay. Requiring people to attend meetings for five years before allowing them to actually participate, giving people a job and then redoing it “correctly,” constantly pointing out what they did wrong, rebutting any new idea with, “We tried that six years ago and it didn't work,” are all ways these fiefdoms maintain control and reject new people.
But we aren't working to maintain individual fiefdoms – we are working for the spread of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who actively seeks out people to come into his presence. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who ensures that all people are treated equally, no matter when they showed up. The kingdom of heaven can be contaminated by people more interested in their own status than by the overall grace extended to all people.
As we work for the kingdom of heaven in the larger picture, and for the life and mission of St. John's in the immediate but smaller picture, we need to keep this parable in mind. It presents us with an image of both grace and selfishness. The image of grace comes from the landowner who wants to see everyone cared for, valued, and treated fairly. The image of selfishness comes from the all-day laborers who decided they are worth more simply because of their tenure.
This parable gives us a choice of behavior – that of segregating people by tenure and controlling our own personal fiefdoms, or that of recognizing we are ALL working for the kingdom of heaven regardless of time served and extend grace to all who enter our doors.
As we move forward, the way we treat and incorporate, or not, new people will determine how St. John's is viewed – as a loose affiliation of separate and selfish fiefdoms, or as a unified and grace-filled representation of the kingdom of heaven.