9/24/17: The God of the Vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16
The God of the Vineyard
Seventh in the series: Ordinary Good News
First Lesson: Psalm 145:1-9
Second Lesson: Matthew 20:1-16
Rev. Scott Dickison
One thing I’ve learned over the last few years watching our boys grow is how each stage of childhood is magical. Lately one of the joys has been watching Billy and Sidney learn to problem solve. They love puzzles, and it’s been fascinating to watch them learn how to actually put something together when most of the time they seem more interested in tearing things apart.
But you forget that there are certain skills involved in putting together a puzzle. There’s a method that many of us no doubt learned as children, where you find the corner pieces, and then the edge pieces to give yourself a kind of framework. And then you look for pieces with similar colors that will likely fit together. But maybe the most important skill you learn in putting together a puzzle is how you often need to turn a piece and turn a piece until it fits.
I’ve watch my boys learn how to do this. Their instinct, if a piece won’t fit how they want it, is to get frustrated and either throw it aside and try another one, or try to force it in how they want it to fit but ultimately won’t work and leave you with a distorted image—not to mention a bunch of puzzle pieces with frayed edges. And so when I see that they have the right piece but can’t get it to fit like they seem to know it should, I tell them to just slow down and keeping turning it, until it fits. Just keep turning it and turning it until you see how it all comes together.
A similar wisdom is helpful when reading some of the more challenging passages in the Bible, and especially certain of the parables
that we just can’t seem to make fit into our own understanding of the world and the gospel, such as this one from the 20th chapter of Matthew of the laborers in the vineyard. We’re tempted to cast them aside or settle for a distorted, broken image of the Kingdom. So instead we need to slow down and keep turning it, and turning it until we can see the image of the Kingdom of God that emerges. And the way we turn parables such as this one is to ask this question: For whom is this parable good news?
This is an important question to ask because most of us find ourselves standing among those for whom this parable is bad news. In fact, not just standing among them, but working among them—this is entirely the issue: some of these workers have been working all day while others, we imagine, have been simply standing.
Here they are, having gotten to that street corner bright and early to give themselves the best chance of being hired. Every town has this street corner—here in Macon I understand the scene is often down the hill at the corner of Fifth and Poplar. Workers gathering early in the morning, hoping to be picked up and hired for that day. They’d been out there, were fortunate enough to be the first one’s chosen, and had gone out to the vineyard to labor in the scorching heat, every three hours or so having to stop what they’re doing to bring new workers into the fold—including a group at the very end of the day. Only to find at the end of the day when time comes for all to be paid, all receive the same daily wage—the ones who worked the whole day through receiving no more than the ones who came right at the end.
Someone said that this was the parable that got Jesus killed. Not the Prodigal Son and its message of unconditional love and forgiveness. Not the Good Samaritan, and its challenge to be neighborly even to those who would do us harm. Certainly not the sheep or the mustard seed—no, it was this story about some folks seeming to get more than they deserve that got Jesus killed. And Jesus seems to know it! Immediately after this parable, in the very next passage Jesus tells the disciples, We’re going to Jerusalem, where I will be handed over to the authorities to be mocked and flogged and crucified and on the third day will be raised. Jesus seems to know that this part of his message, more than the others, will be offensive enough for the powers to say, Enough!
And we feel this, don’t we? We feel their offense. It doesn’t sit well with all of us who would identify with these workers who’d been hired early. It feels unjust—But is it? Were those workers cheated? Did the landowner not pay them what both parties agreed would be fair—the usual daily wage we're told? They got what they agreed to, which was a fair wage. And yet something still smells off. It’s that stench of generosity. As someone put it, what we have here is not injustice, but justice with generosity, and when we’re being honest, that can be a bitter a pill to take. Generosity is a wonderful thing when you’re on the receiving end of it, or even admiring it from a distance. But when you’re close to it, or if it just misses you, generosity can feel cold. It can offend our sense of fairness. But of course, we don’t need this parable to remind us that the world isn’t fair—that’s not what this is about. What makes this parable offensive to us is that it suggests God isn’t fair. And in this way it stands squarely within a long Biblical tradition.
If the Bible is to be believed, God, in the end, isn’t fair. God, we learn in so many different places, isn’t much for tit for tat and straight lines and neat and tidy transactions; God does funny math—God is known to add an extra mile, for instance. And this isn’t even a New Testament thing—it’s right there in the Psalm we heard earlier. It doesn't say, “The Lord is fair and disinterested.” No, it says, The Lord is gracious and merciful. The whole notion of grace that we see across the whole story of the Bible from beginning to end is that we don’t get what we deserve, at least not finally. Now, this isn't to say that God doesn’t demand justice of us—if Scripture is clear about anything it’s clear that God requires justice and that all people be treated fairly. But God doesn’t stop at justice. Yes, God is just, but God is much more than just. God is just + generous, which is to say that God is merciful.
And God’s mercy doesn’t infringe upon God’s justice. It doesn’t diminish God’s justice, or negate it, or somehow undo God’s justice—mercy isn’t the opposite of justice. We confuse this sometimes, as if offering mercy somehow undoes whatever justice is required, but that’s not how it works. Mercy doesn’t fall short of justice, mercy is what lies beyond justice. And standing there among the day laborers hired early that morning this is something that’s difficult to see. The good news doesn’t seem very good to them in that moment. But if we keep turning it, and turning it, and find ourselves standing among those other workers—maybe especially the one who were hired last…
Here they are, waiting around all day, looking for work in a contracting economy. Children at home, pantry empty, rent due, debt mounting—their families too scared to come down to the language ministry at the local Baptist church for fear of getting picked up. And so they head out in the morning praying to God that there will be work to be done, but as the hours pass hope turns to doubt, doubt to disappointment, disappointment to despair—when all of the sudden as they’re about to head home (they should have gone home long ago, who would be hiring this late?) a man comes, asks them if they need work and tells them to hop in the truck and go with him. They figure an hour’s pay is better than nothing, they don’t want to go home empty handed, again, and so they jump in, get to the vineyard just in time for wages to be handed out, and just when the pit in their stomach is about to drop thinking they surely will not be paid at all, they find that they’re given a full day’s pay. And there it is. There’s the good news. The good news is found there: among those whose time is running out, the ones who are running on empty, tired, and frustrated, and panicked—the ones at the end of their rope, with no where else to turn. The good news is with them.
And the good news is with us only when we stand with them, which leads us to another piece to this puzzle.
We said earlier this scene, while perhaps unfamiliar to many of us in this room, is near universal. Workers gather early in the morning before dawn in virtually every town. And though it’s quite common, it’s not a part of the local economy we should feel good about. It all happens in the shadows for a reason. These men are on the margins. Many of them undocumented. And so they work without a safety net: risking injury without protection, certainly no benefits or health insurance—in fact, the biggest worry throughout the day is whether or not they’ll get paid at all. It’s not hard to imagine that some employers would take advantage of their vulnerability, there at the bottom rung of a broken ladder. Hired first, hired last, they’re still in the same leaky boat. And who’s to say the tables won’t be turned tomorrow? If you want to know what “the first becoming last and the last first: looks like go stand on one of those street corners early in the morning for a few days. The real evil in this story is that caught in this web of scarcity and injustice, these laborers come to see each other as the enemy!
And against this darkness comes this landowner. This landowner who seems determined to find work for them to do just to give his money away. We focus on the wage the landowner pays all the workers, but the real surprise in this story isn’t the wage the workers received, but that they were hired at all! As someone put it, “the generosity isn’t in the wage but in the need—the landowners urgent and unexplained need for workers.”
This is what throws the whole thing up in the air! Why does he need the workers? It’s almost as if his concern wasn’t hiring more workers so he could get more work done, but finding work to be done so he could hire more workers! He just hires, and hires—Here, you come and you and you. What a strange piece this is in this puzzling Kingdom of God.
In our rush to spiritualize this parable, and make it about things to come: grace “in the end” or mercy “in the end,” the first becoming last and the last first “in the end,” let’s not make the mistake of missing the here and now, the story on the surface, about a scene that happens every morning just a few blocks from here, that’s part of a network of shadows and people and families that we all know are there but would rather not think about, whose lives in so many ways we choose to not value as our own. And into this darkness comes a burst of gospel light. Against a dark background of fear and scarcity and injustice comes unexpected generosity that throws the whole arrangement up in the air. All our assumptions about these workers and their employers and the economy and markets and supply and demand and immigration policies—all of these things are brushed to the side and a new gospel concern is moved to the front, which is this: Does everyone have enough?
Will everyone’s children eat tonight?
Will these men go home with dignity, having been hired and paid?
Do we all not belong to each other in this way?
Are our lives not all connected in some fundamental way that’s too often obscured by the layer upon layer of “us and them,” and my people and your people, fear and threats and shadows and my family was hired into this vineyard first, and…
This is the piece of the puzzle we so often miss. The one that would have us not simply sit back and relish in the grace we’ve received, but calls us to do all we can to make God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The piece that reminds us daily bread is something you eat.
But when we do insert it—better yet, when we insert ourselves—the image of the Kingdom God dreams for us comes into view. No less offensive than it was in the beginning, but much more faithful.
And this is how it so often is with the good news. You spend all this time trying to make it fit, or casting it aside, or even turning and turning, and all the while the missing piece is you.
 Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable, p.282
 Ibid., 297
 Amy Jill Levine is immensely helpful in grounding this and other parables in the here and now in her book Short Stories By Jesus.