Sermon for September 20, 2020

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 20:1-16

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said:] 1“The dominion of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5“When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘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. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

If indeed the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which we just heard, is about God and God’s dominion of heaven, God is not fair. God is not fair by the measure of typical standards of human fairness and justice.

Children are generally well attuned to and quite vocal about a sense of fairness, about everyone getting their fair share. If one gets a smaller portion of the birthday cake, they will quickly call out the unfairness of it all. A child’s sense of fairness lives somewhere in all of us who are adults. It doesn’t quite go away. Nor should it for the sake of how we organize ourselves in human society. But as we well know, the scriptural witness reveals that God often operates according to a logic different from our own. We see this going on in today’s first reading from Jonah, where Jonah is angry enough to want to die because God ended up withholding divine punishment from the people of Nineveh and graciously spared them. Jonah wanted to see the punishment. God’s logic of grace and mercy ran afoul of Jonah’s more judgmental, they-should-get-what-they-deserve sensibilities.

We also see the conflict between divine and human logic in the gospel parable for today. From the human take on fairness, it’s astonishing that the laborers who arrived at 5:00 in the afternoon, very close to quitting time, would receive the same wage as the laborers who arrived first thing in the morning, and who worked hard all day in the scorching heat. It’s just not fair.

When the grumbling turned into a confrontation with the landowner, the landowner had this to say: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Another translation reads, “Or do you begrudge me my generosity?”

Again, God’s justice does not operate by the same logic as typical systems of human justice. For God’s justice is rooted in justification. Not self-justification as we might frame it and often practice it, but justification by God’s grace effective through faith, a divine economy in which there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor. God’s grace is given to us all as a gift apart from what we do, how hard we work, or what time of day when we show up to do that work.

When salvation or any kind of sacred reward is rooted in grace and not in human behavior or misbehavior, what we do or don’t do, then our sense of fairness is short-circuited.

Or as one commentator put it, “Grace is always amazing grace. Grace that can be calculated and ‘expected’ is no longer grace.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8, 394)

Who experienced grace in the parable? Those who showed up and went to work later in the day, especially those arriving at 5:00 pm just before quitting time. Those who worked all day, who bore the burden of exhaustion and a full day of the hot sun did not experience much grace at day’s end. They are the ones who were envious because of the gracious generosity of the landowner.

What are we to make of all of this? One question is this: Does the grace-oriented logic of the dominion of heaven have any applicability to how we organize ourselves in our earthly, worldly realms?

Lutherans have never been known for utopian visions and schemes of building God’s reign on earth in direct and theocratic ways. In terms of the relationship between Christ and culture, Lutherans see Christ and culture in paradoxical tension. But for Lutherans, Christ and culture are not divorced from each other. There is a relationship.

An implication of the parable, it seems to me, is that we are perhaps called to see our world through grace-colored glasses and lenses and to seek to organize our world accordingly.

And a grace-colored orientation would suggest a willingness perhaps to resist approaches to social reward reduced solely to the typical principles of human fairness.

In terms of usual human proclivities, the world’s wealth and abundance should be awarded according to what you earn, how hard you work. Those who show up late in the day should receive less than those who worked hard all day long….

Viewing the world’s abundance through grace-colored lenses may suggest a willingness to err on the side of generosity, even for those who come to work late in the day.

Grace colored lenses may have a communitarian approach to the share of the world’s wealth, a view in which individual well-being has its roots in the well-being of the whole community.

As an example, there have been a few Lutherans in some parts of the world who have advocated for paying all clergy equally, without regard to the size of the congregation a pastor leads and serves. In lieu of paying salaries, congregations would give contributions to the Synod who then would create a pool of money from which pastors would be paid in equal amounts no matter how big or well-resourced their congregations. Needless to say, this kind of arrangement is rarely practiced in Lutheran churches. Most seem to prefer human logic to divine logic in how they organize the church.

As I explore all of this, trying to tease out the implications of today’s parable for how we live our lives in human society, I run the risk of making the parable into an allegory, a “no, no” according to my teachers. Allegorizing parables is always a temptation. Even the Gospel writer, Matthew himself, may already have done this to today’s Jesus parable, editing it and elaborating on it to make his own points.

So, before I go any further down slippery slopes theologically speaking, I’m going to stop before things get out of hand.

Parables are meant to be evocative and expansive in their possible meanings. Parables often unsettle us. And that’s where I feel drawn to leave it. We cannot finally figure it all out when it comes to biblical parables attributed to Jesus.

So, what I’d like to encourage is this: I invite your wonder at and thanksgiving for God’s amazing grace, for when it’s all said and done, we are all latecomers to God’s work in the sacred vineyard of the dominion of heaven. We are all in need of God’s lavish, prodigal, extravagant, even reckless-seeming, grace.

And that said, precisely because we are sinful latecomers, we will inevitably be envious because of divine generosity. The ways of God’s grace simply cannot help but confound and short-circuit human wisdom, logic, and understanding.

It doesn’t all add up, nor should we need it to. Let us dwell in the tension of both giving thanks to God for amazing grace and our sometimes-begrudging struggle with that same grace and mercy.

God in Christ lead us more deeply into gracious, divine wisdom in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Now I invite your reflection and conversation:

  • What are your honest struggles with the assurance that we are saved by God’s grace apart from what we do and what we think we deserve?
  • Name some times in your life when you’ve thought of yourself as the one who came to work first thing in the morning and worked hard all day, and yet others who seem to not have worked so hard have nonetheless gotten the same blessing as you.
  • Name some times in your life when you’ve experienced yourself as the latecomer who received unexpected, maybe undeserved, blessing and grace.
  • Linger with a sense of thanksgiving for God’s gracious, merciful generosity.