Complementary Text – Psalm 16:5-8
Preaching Text – Matthew 20:1-16
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Last week we observed the first Sunday in Lent by examining one of the parables of Jesus and pondering how our lives are shaped by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven. In reading that parable from Matthew 18, we learned that the Kingdom of Heaven is built on God’s radical forgiveness, and that as disciples of Jesus we are called to acknowledge the depth of forgiveness that God offers to us and to extend that same forgiveness to others. As our Lenten series continues today, we look at the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Before we find out what this parable has to teach us about Heaven’s Reign, we need to talk a little bit about first-century economics.
The scenario laid out at the start of this parable would not have been unusual in Jesus’ day. Day laborers would gather before dawn in the local marketplace in the hopes of being hired to work in the surrounding fields. For their part, most wealthy landowners preferred the flexibility (and relatively low cost) of temporary labor, and so they were eager to snatch up those workers early in the morning and get their money’s worth. It’s a little strange for the landowner himself to go out and hire the workers personally, but other than that this story would have been all-too familiar to the people who heard first heard Jesus tell it. Then, things start getting weird; the landowner, presumably having hired everyone he needed at dawn, goes back to the marketplace four more times – around 9:00am, 12:00 noon, 3:00pm, and 5:00pm – each time hiring another contingent of workers for his vineyard. Around 6:00pm, the landowner tells his manager to call the workers together and give them their wages. The first set of workers had agreed to work for the day for one denarius, by no means an extravagant sum; in fact, the denarius was just enough to ensure that a worker and his family could get by. You can imagine the outrage, then, when the landowner starts handing out the same wages to the laborers hired at 5:00 in the afternoon as he gave to the ones hired at 6:00 in the morning! Who wouldn’t be frustrated at the thought of working all day long in the sun and heat and then getting the same amount as someone who showed up an hour before closing time? What’s going on here?
What’s going on is that Jesus is describing God’s economy and not the world’s. As human beings, we have this intrinsic sense that people should be rewarded in accordance with what they’ve done. Logic dictates that people who work harder should be paid more, and this logic of fairness largely governs the way that we look at the world, to the point that we read it into this parable. Why were those workers standing around at five o’clock, anyway? Was it because they were lazy or because they showed up late, as is often assumed? The parable reveals the answer: they hadn’t been hired. It’s likely, in fact, that they’d been passed over by the landowner in our story all those times for some reason or another. No matter the reason, though, it’s not fair to pay all these guys the same amount, is it? Well, no. But that was never the agreement. The first workers agreed that they’d work for that denarius. Then the workers hired at nine went into the vineyard when the landowner offered to pay them what is “just” or “right”. Though it’s not explicitly stated, it’s not difficult to imagine that the invitation was the same to the workers hired at noon, three, and five. What was just in this scenario, then? In the eyes of this landowner, justice was not paying these workers in proportion to the amount that they worked, but paying them enough to make it through the day!
In responding to the outrage of the first workers, the landowner expresses the difference between our understanding of fairness and the goodness of the kingdom of heaven: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. (Matthew 20:13-14, NRSV) For Jesus, to give the same amount to the last workers as to the first is to do what is just and good, and to reflect the values of God’s righteous reign.
Last week we learned that a community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community.* This week, Jesus’ parable teaches us that God’s generosity goes beyond business as usual, and God’s generosity is our business.. How might this work itself out in practice during this Lenten season? Perhaps you find yourself struggling with uncharitable thoughts toward others; you might consider taking time this week to cultivate generosity of spirit by intentionally thinking and speaking well of people you dismiss or demean for one reason or another. Maybe you have a tendency to regard some group of people as undeserving of generosity; you might consider how this parable invites you to empathize with those in need and, maybe, to extend generosity where you might not have otherwise. Maybe your circumstances have left you feeling that you are undeserving of generosity yourself; you might consider reflecting on the boundary-breaking love of God and allowing yourself to receive the generous mercy and grace that God offers to you in Christ Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and with it God’s forgiveness and generosity have come. As we enter the second week of Lent, let us pray that God would grant us the strength to leave behind the ways of this world and to embody that forgiveness and generosity, both as individuals and as a community formed by the values of the Kingdom. Thanks be to God. Amen.
*R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI: 2007), 702.