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To Know Christ and to Make Him Known

Sept. 20, 2020: Proper 20A: Matthew 20:1-16 by The Rev. W. Terry Miller

Proper 20A: Matthew 20:1-16 Recording:

Proper 20A: Matthew 20:1-16 by The Rev. W. Terry Miller

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 20, 2020
Church of the Good Shepherd
The Rev. W. Terry Miller


There was a man who owned a winery. Nothing on the scale of E & J Gallo, say, but respectable — somewhere, say, in the “J. Lohr” class. It’s the night of the second Sunday in October. September has been a perfect month – hot and dry, bringing the grapes to the perfect sweetness. But the weather service tells him that it’s about to turn cold and wet. So what does the vintner do? He gets up first thing the next morning, goes down to the town square to hire as many day laborers as he can find. Unfortunately, every other grower in the county has the same idea, so he has to up his offer: $100 for the day is the figure that finally guarantees him a crew.

Our friend the vintner — let’s call him “Jerry” — Jerry loads his crew into a couple of old school buses, drives to the field, and sets them to work, chop-chop. Just before nine, though, he gets another weather bulletin. Now, the three weeks of rain will start Tuesday — tomorrow — not Wednesday. Out he goes at nine, and again at noon and at three frantically trying to gather still more hands. Each time he rounds up all the available help, telling them he’ll pay whatever is right.

It’s a huge harvest, though, and with only one hour left before dark, Jerry realises he won’t get the crop in on time without still more help. So out he goes again, but the town square is empty. Well … empty, except for a bunch of scruffy, scrawny-looking folks just bumming about, sipping cheap beer maybe. Not much to look at, and probably not all that good in the fields. But, what the hey?, Jerry thinks, I’m desperate. So he walks up to them, asks them if they want to make some easy money. They say, Ok, why not?, and they follow him back to the vineyards.

Now, you can bet, each time one of those new bunches of workers got dropped off at the vineyard, they made sure to find out from the workers already on the job what the exact per diem rate is in order to figure out how much they should expect — $70, $40, and $10. Jerry, however, has a surprise for them. At the end of the day, he is a happy man. With his best and biggest harvest on its way to the crusher, he’s pleased — and a little frisky. So he says to his foreman, “I have a wild idea. I’m going to fill the pay envelopes myself; but when you give them out, I want you to do it backwards, beginning with the last ones hired.” That’s when things get interesting.

When one of the latest recruits gets his envelope and walks away opening it, he finds five crisp, new twenties inside. What does he do? Well, he doesn’t go back and report the overage; he just keeps on walking – fast! But when other late-comers catch up with him and they tell him they got $100, too, they can’t resist going back and telling everybody else what schmucks they were for sweating a whole day in the hot sun when they could have made the same money for just an hour’s work. But that gets the earlier crews thinking — if he paid them $100 for an hour, what is he gonna pay me … $400, or $800, or even – bless you, Mr. Lohr – $1,400!

But Jerry is generous, not stupid. He has arranged for their pay to be based only on his genial mood, not on the just deserts the workers imagine for themselves: every last envelope, they find, has five twenties in it, regardless of when they started. You can imagine how that went over! The earlier crews were not pleased. One even had the chutzpah to confront the vintner. “Hey, man,” he says; “Those punks over there only worked an hour and we slaved away all day. We’ve endured the weight of work in the scorching sun while they’ve been loafing around. How come you made them equal to us?”

Jerry should have expected something like this. “Look, Pal,” he says, “Don’t give me any grief. You agreed to $100 a day, and you got $100 a day. Take it and get out of here before I call the cops. If I want to pay the others the same, so what? You’re telling me I can’t do what I want with my own money? All I did was have a fun idea. I decided to put the last first and the first last to share my happiness: you see, when I’m happy, everybody’s happy, no matter what they did or didn’t do. I’m not asking you to like me, Mister; I’m telling you to enjoy me. If you want to mope, that’s your business. But since the only thing it’ll get you is an ulcer, why don’t you just shut up and go into the tasting room. Have yourself a glass of Chardonnay compliments of the house. The choice is up to you, Friend: drink up, or get out; enjoy yourself, or go to hell. Take your pick.”

You can’t really blame the disgruntled farm hand or any of the other workers who had been working all day. At least I couldn’t. What Jerry did doesn’t seem fair. Equal pay for equal work is fair; equal pay for unequal work is not fair. Rewarding those who do the most work is fair; rewarding those who do the least is not fair. I reckon our sense of fairness is one of the earliest to develop. Parents are all too familiar with hearing: “It’s not fair that I have to do homework before watching TV.” “It’s not fair that I can’t go play with my friends just because I stayed home sick from school.” “It’s not fair that their parents buy them whatever they want and we have to go without.” It’s not fair…

When we get older, we quickly learn that life is often not fair. An employee arrives at her desk early every morning, skips lunch in order to catch up on the filing and stays late to fill out reports for her supervisor. But when annual raises are due, she learns that there will be no merit increases this year. Salaries will be increased across the board, with everyone receiving the same amount, for “group morale.” It is not fair. Or a man cares for his elderly mother, taking her into his own home when she becomes too frail to live by herself. Sure, he has three siblings, but none of them offers to help. “They have problems of their own,” his mother tells him. When she dies, the man who has spent most of his savings caring for his mother discovers that she has left her estate to be divided equally among all four children, “because I love them all the same.” It is just not fair.

Life is not fair. Which is why it seems all that much more important that God should be, right? God should be the one authority whom you can count on to reward people according to their efforts, who keeps track of how long they have worked and how hard they have worked, who doesn’t let people break into line ahead of you. God should be the one manager who polices the line, walking up and down to make sure everyone stays where he or she belongs, so that the first remain first and the last wait their turns at the end of the line. Life may not be fair, but God should be.

Only Jesus seems to be saying that that’s not how God works, that’s not how things are in God’s country. Most of us suppose that the front of the line is the place to be, that the way to win God’s attention is to be the best person, the hardest worker, the first one into the vineyard in the morning and the last one to leave at night, the one to tough it out the longest until everyone else has left or given up or died. That’s how it should be, we figure. But according to this parable, what that will get you is exactly nowhere, or rather it’ll get us the same place as everyone else. According to the parable, those at the end of the line will receive as much as those at the front. Clearly God’s idea of justice, of what’s fair, is different from what we think is fair.

In fact, if we are to take the vineyard-owner as God in the story, it doesn’t seem like God is all that concerned about being fair. Sure the vintner says that he’ll give the later workers what is “fair,” but he isn’t too concerned about keeping track of who did what or for how long. At the end of the day, he gives them all the same pay. We might think it must be he understands how hard it is to be a day laborer — no job security, no insurance, meager pay. But the way Jesus tells the story, the vineyard owner is simply being generous, “gracious.” That’s in fact what this story is about: God’s graciousness, His generosity, His goodness. The parable teaches us that God may not be fair, but he is good.

Of course how we hear that depends on where we situate ourselves in the story, whether we see ourselves at the end of the line, or at the front. Most of us in church, I suspect, consider ourselves to be among the earlier crew. Maybe not the get-up-at-the-crack-of-dawn folks, but one of those who’ve been out working since early in the morning. Most of us were baptized as infants and raised in the church. We know the hymns, have heard more sermons than you can remember. We know when to stand, when to sit and where to go for the refreshments after the service. We would never say it, of course, but when God’s kingdom comes, we expect to be at the head of the line, because, you know, “that’s the way things should be.” We’ve been faithful, dutiful, committed. Isn’t that what God expects of us? So when it’s suggested that some punk in off the street, the same one who’s been coming around the church looking for a handout, found Jesus right before he died and so gets to be the guest of honor in God’s kingdom, we’re understandably a little miffed. Wait, what have we been waiting in line so long for? If all it took was a last minute conversion, what’s the point of all this? Doesn’t our commitment, our loyalty, count for anything with God?

According to today’s parable, that’s the wrong way of looking at it. It’s not about keeping count but about receiving grace. As C.S. Lewis once observed, we are not living in a luxury hotel with every right to demand great service but rather trapped in a prison where every kindness is a gift. Suppose then that we are not among the early morning crew, or the 9 o’clock crew or 12 o’clock crew or even the crew that starts in mid-afternoon. It is entirely possible that, as far as God is concerned, we are among the eleventh-hour crew, at the end of the line, with all sorts of people ahead of us in line, people who’ve worked harder, longer, and have been there since before the sun came up.

Imagine for a moment that you’re back there, craning your neck for a glimpse of the landowner, knowing you will never make it, that all the jobs will be gone long before you get there, and that you are about to have before you one more long, hot, hungry afternoon while everyone else is working and earning enough to feed themselves and keep a roof over their family’s head. And it wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t, like, the fifth day in a row that you’ve missed the bus and come home empty-handed. It makes you want to cry; it makes you want to give up. By mid-afternoon you are about ready to call it a day when, out of the blue, the manager comes to you and says not to leave, because he needs you. He’s got big plans for you.

That’s how things are when things are the way God intends them to be. God doesn’t promise to be fair. But, depending on where you are in line, that can sound like powerful good news. Because if God is not fair, then there is a chance we will get paid more than we are worth, that we will get more than we deserve, that we will be called up even though we are last in line — not because of who we are but because of who God is.

God is not fair; but God is good, and when we begrudge that goodness, it is only because we have forgotten where we are in line. For, from where we stand, at the end of the line, we can see the actions of the landowner for what they are — as expressions of his goodness, which extends to everyone in line, from the last to the first. God wants to give all of us a place in God’s kingdom, a seat at the table. He’s the vineyard owner who wants everyone to share in his joy and to enjoy the abundance of his goodness. No, God is not fair; but God is good, very good. And for that, we say, Thanks be to God!