Generous to a Fault?
Trinitarian Congregational Church 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Anthony S. Kill September 3, 2017
Texts: Psalm 145:1-8; Matthew 20:1-16
Since this is Labor Day weekend, I decided to focus today’s sermon on Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
One thing to note about this parable is that it was told long before the 8-hour day movement put new labor practices into effect.
In this story, the workday begins at 6’o’clock dawn, the “early morning” time when the first laborers were hired, and what we read as 9 o’clock, noon, 3 o’clock and 5 o’clock in the original Greek was called the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour and the eleventh hour of the work day, which ended at the twelfth hour.
After 12 hours in the vineyard, is it any wonder that the first workers were a little cranky by the end of the day?
This really is a very troubling parable, and it has many facets – even many messages.
For one thing, our sense of fairness, of justice, is offended here, and we can’t help but find ourselves in sympathy with the first laborers in the vineyard.
Put yourself in their situation.
After working from sun-up to sundown, through the heat of the day, you are standing in line, dog-tired and achy-sore, to receive your just day’s wages.
Then the word comes down the line: the landowner is being very generous today! More than generous, in fact! magnanimous!
The workers who worked only the last, cool hour of the day are receiving a full day’s pay — eight or ten times what they had expected to receive.
The employer was giving out big bonuses!
Surely those who’d worked a full long day would receive at least time-and-a-half or even double-time this evening.
Then you get to the front of the line and find out that there were no bonuses at all for the hardest and most faithful workers!
You receive exactly and only the same basic day’s pay that you’d contracted for, and then the landowner has the gall to accuse you of small-heartedness when you protested, saying you had no right to begrudge him his generosity to others.
Wouldn’t you feel like you had every right to begrudge him his lack of generosity or of justice?
From the laborer’s viewpoint, this is utterly unfair, because the employer chose to treat one group according to their rights and his justice and another group according to their needs and his generosity. If he is to be generous to one, let him be generous to all; If he is to be legalistic with one, let him be legalistic with all.
And this is precisely the sharp point on which this analogy turns.
Jesus is proclaiming a new order, a new understanding of the Kingdom of God, as far from human understanding as heaven is high above the earth:
How can God be both merciful and just?
If God accepts some on the basis of merit and others on the basis of forgiveness, the situation is just as inequitable and unfair to the recipients as this landowner and the laborers.
By our human reckoning, either all must work out their salvation in fear and trembling, or all must rejoice in the goodness and mercy of the Lord.
So Jesus is challenging the very foundations of the theology and spirituality of merit, of earning or gaining the Kingdom of Heaven
Everyone gets the same grace and mercy from the heart of God
— faithful laborer or fickle latecomer; moral leader or modest petitioner; life-long servant or deathbed convert.
It’s a gift given to them freely, not a payment given to them in justice for their good work.
As I said, there are many facets of this parable.
To Jesus’ Jewish hearers, it might be a reminder that in God’s generous design, it was not just the religious faithful and the upright keepers of the covenant law who would receive their reward in the Kingdom.
It was also the tax collectors and sinners, even pagans and gentiles, those who had come late to the banquet table of grace and forgiveness.
They too would be given mercy and salvation.
The world is the Lord’s vineyard, and God is the landowner; and God is free to distribute the Divine bounty however God sees fit.
This all seems to make good sense.
We can nod our head in agreement and say, “That’s right. God can do whatever God wants with God’s grace and blessing.”
But we human beings, and particularly religious human beings, have always cherished the principle of “reward” and “punishment”
The equation has it that the good are rewarded — with heaven, of course, but preferably before that! and the wicked are punished –with hell, of course, but again, preferably before that!
But what happens when the good are not rewarded, and those we would perceive as evil, or undeserving, or failures, seem to be blessed and privileged?
In telling this parable, Jesus is addressing the charges of those who took offense at the fact that he spent so much time with people from the wrong side of the tracks, the unrighteous and the unemployed and the unlearned, people from the wrong social groups, the wrong racial groups, people with the wrong moral codes, and the wrong occupations, the wrong gender, the wrong orientation, or the wrong religion.
The good, respectable, religious people — even some of those who accepted Jesus’ message – were offended and scandalized at such implicit acceptance.
It is to them that Jesus addresses the words, “so the last shall be first, and the first, last.”
Those who fail to comprehend, and accept, and model their lives on this astounding truth about the priorities of the heart of God end up cutting themselves off from the power and possibility of God’s surprising grace.
That’s one message of good news in this parable — not that we can all be idlers and reprobates until the eleventh hour, but that God is ready to be generous and compassionate to all.
Our merit or our lack of it does not bind God to reward us or punish us according to our history or our deeds, or the success or failure of our work.
As one preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor has said, “This is a little like cod liver oil. You know Jesus is right, and you know it must be good for you, but that does not make it any easier to swallow.”
But in this part of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus isn’t primarily speaking to the scribes and the Pharisees.
In chapters 19 and 20, he’s speaking to the disciples as they leave Galilee and begin making their way to Jerusalem for his final journey.
Jesus is telling them about the new order of things in the Kingdom of God, when the usual cultural norms will be turned on their heads.
These chapters cover such topics as marriage, divorce, celibacy, children, and rank, and privilege and money!
Jesus is talking about the new relationships that are to be initiated in his community, the Jesus community, the community of the church, where “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
There is another aspect of this story that I can’t resist mentioning, at least briefly.
In verse 15, at the very end of the parable, the New Revised Standard Version translates the landowner’s words as: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
But a literal translation from the Greek is, “Is it not allowed for me to do what I wish with my own things, or is your eye evil because I am good?”
I think that is as insightful and captivating a description of the destructive power of envy as any I’ve ever read: “Is your eye evil because God is good?”
For a person trapped in the web of envy, every good gift in the world looks to them like an evil.
When I envy another good fortune, my whole perception of the world is distorted.
I feel like any love given to anyone else, any favor or blessing or help given to the other person, is robbing me of something I crave and think I deserve.
My eye becomes evil in relation to any goodness I see around me.
When we look at another person’s gifts or blessings or good fortune through the green filter of envy, we say, “Why didn’t I get what they got?” or “If he got that much, I should have gotten twice as much” or “How come I had to work for all of mine, and hers all came to her so easy?”
And each of these statements, of course, ends up demeaning and denying the very worth and value of the good gifts and blessing I have received. Envy mostly robs us of our own goodness and happiness; It is a refusal to accept the gift of our own good selves from the hands of God. We throw God’s gracious generosity back in God’s face when we choose to envy another.
“Is your eye evil, because God is good?’
I’d like to close by sharing just one more facet of this parable:
Remember, Jesus is talking to his disciples, when he says that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner sending laborers into his vineyard for harvest.
Think of the other times that Jesus uses that image, of laborers in the vineyard, like when he looked on the crowd with compassion and said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest”?
Now, here is the Lord of the harvest, inviting people to become laborers in his vineyard.
The ones who complain are focusing on the hard work, the long hours, the scorching heat.
But as disciples, shouldn’t they feel honored, privileged, delighted to be invited into the vineyard for harvest (that is to say, to be a disciple, an active part of the Jesus movement, in the community of the church)?
In fact, those who had the opportunity to participate in the Lord’s vineyard for the full day, or for a full lifetime, should not only be honored and thrilled to be there, but might even feel rather sorry for those who had only gotten to come at the last minute.
They’ve missed so much!
How sad for those latecomers, who spent the day standing idle in the marketplace, waiting with empty time and hungry spirits and anxious hearts, yearning for a life that was worthwhile and a work that had purpose!
Many of those – many of you – who have worked in the vineyard of the Church long and hard, have found it to be a great blessing in their lives in many, many ways.
They get to be part of the Kingdom community at the end of the day, and they got the opportunity to help build and shape the community from the start of the day.
As I’ve gotten to know many of you here in this congregation, I know how many of you have felt blessed and privileged to have been part of this church for many years – many decades.
Even the hard work of leadership and volunteerism has felt like a privilege and a blessing.
And that is as it should be.
If you perceive the opportunity to serve in the vineyard only as a burden, then you really are missing out on the fun part, the gracious part, the joy of being a child of God in a community of sister and brother children of God.
If you perceive the opportunity to serve in the vineyard only as a burden, then I’m afraid you might be in the wrong church! (or at least doing the wrong jobs in the church.)
Oh, there’s always plenty of work to be done, planting and pruning, cultivating and harvesting, visiting and encouraging, feeding and serving, many ministries, many opportunities to serve. But our service in the Lord’s vineyard can be all the more joyous, all the more fun, because in the end we will be compensated, not according to our skill or our success, not according to our sinlessness or our slavish dedication to duty, but according to God’s boundless love and mercy.
And who of us, in the end, doesn’t need that assurance: that we are saved by God’s mercy, rather than a human standard of justice or perfection?
I once knew a pastor who was fond of saying, “Don’t complain too much about the faults of your church. After all, if the church were perfect, you wouldn’t be able to be part of it!”
So too with the Kingdom of God.
If it were only for the perfect, none of us would be part of it!
But by the generous mercy of God, we can be part of it.
Because God’s blessing is so freely given, our labor and service can be freely given as well. Amen.