18 th Sunday after Pentecost, 18 September 2005
Matthew 20:1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and 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. 6 And 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?' 7 They 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.' 9 When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, '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.' 13 But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
A Question of Fairness
Garrison Keilor, in commentary on this text, warns preachers to avoid a text that suggests that you could, get in on the last portion of the service or sermon and still reap the full benefits. But I cannot resist this text, that raises many questions in the mind of the hearer, questions that I think deserve some thought. Most of them are about fairness. Whether between children at home or at school, co-workers or roommates, spouses or neighbors, what is “fair” is often a matter of interpretation and dispute, and certainly is in this text for today. As a way of getting into this text, I want to encourage you to place yourself in an unfair position.
Perhaps you were one of the people in the late 1990s who found that you were supervising college graduates who were making more money that you. Perhaps you are a middle child (or oldest, or youngest) who thinks that the other children get more than you get out of your parents. Perhaps you are worried that others are getting more from their retirement or government benefits than you are. There are lots of unfair situations and things in our world.. Take your pick.
I’m sure that in Matthew’s community, the actions of God and the fairness of God were under discussion. The Jewish converts in the community had been God’s children right along. There were obviously new converts who had come later. All would be welcome under God’s largess. Some issue of fairness and God’s generosity was an issue or this parable would not have been included by Matthew.
And there are certainly people who are offended by this possibility hidden within the concept of a gracious God. I remember talking to one such person, who was not Christian, who could not see how God could be gracious. She puzzled over the injustice of such a thing before announcing that in her culture someone who did such a thing would be considered weak, not strong. Others have long mused over the last minute confessions and conversions of death row inmates. Are they truly repentant? Are they truly faithful? Or are they just hedging their bets?
The “Unfairness” Of It All
In fact we have a God who is unfair. We have to say that up front, lest there be any doubts. And Christians have long struggled with this apparent inconsistency by coming to God’s defense. God’s justice is satisfied in Jesus so that we can experience God’s grace, some proclaim. Without passing judgement on that way of thinking (which would take us on too much of a detour), we have to admit that our current story does not give us a sacrificial character to pin those thoughts on. We just have the owner of a vineyard, who is hiring workers and paying all of them the same, though some have labored longer than others.
The workers first hired are upset by this, and they are pictured in our text “casting the evil eye” upon the vineyard owner in an attempt to shame him into giving them more (I don’t think they are interested in giving the others less). In fact a more accurate translation of verse 15b has been suggested by Malina and Rohrbaugh (A Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 125) “Is your evil eye because I am good?”
In the ancient world the “evil eye” of envy was a serious thing that was to be avoided or warded off if possible. People carried all kinds of charms and would wear certain colors to avoid having the evil eye cast at them. People would go out of their way because it would impact a persons standing in community. So wealth was not flaunted in front of others. One of the ways to ward off the evil eye was apparently generosity, which is shown by the owner of the vineyard in this story.
There are many reversals in this text, not the least of which is that the owner is generous. But this generosity seems unfair when we try to understand this text apart from its first century context. There is more going on here than a person hiring day laborers. When this kind of generosity was exhibited in the ancient world it was an example of an invitation to a more permanent relationship. (Again, see Malina and Rohrbaugh.) In the ancient patronage system, giving more than the usual wage spoke of a relationship that invited those who were waiting for work into a long term patron relationship with the one who was generous to them.
This gives much more import to what is going on in the text, and explains how Jesus connects this story with the end phrase, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Those who are casting the “evil eye” at the goodness and generosity of the owner find that they are paid and dismissed. Their chance at the dignity of a relationship with this gracious owner is ended, at least for now. Though they were the first invited in, they are the first to be cut off. The last ones, on the other hand, are invited into a long term relationship. They will not be waiting on the street corner the next day. These patronage relationships were permanent so long as the worker uphold the honor (and follow the example) of their patron. While it is not the best economic system, betraying class differences that we now find objectionable, it is still a good example of the ultimate intentions of our God.
An Invitation to Relationship
The deeper meaning of this example used by Jesus should now be apparent to us. Since the reign of God is compared to this story, we now understand that God is inviting people who are standing on the outside (all humanity, really, but especially the dispossessed) to be in a relationship with God. This relationship is made secure in the idea that God comes seeking for us, and not the other way around. In fact, in the story, it would have been below the dignity of those waiting for work to go looking for a job. They must be sought and asked to maintain their honor. The owner not only seeks workers, but does so repeatedly until the end of the day.
God, in Christ, has also come looking for us, repeatedly, in fact daily. Through the Holy Spirit we are constantly sought out and brought around to be “workers in the vineyard.” Even the symbol of the vineyard itself, a sign of Israel’s mission among the nations, is likely not accidently used in this story. It is for that very mission and purpose that God seeks us to be his workers, his agents of grace. In doing so, God is making his grace the hallmark of his identity and inviting us to identify ourselves with just such a thing.
Of course this is patently unfair, for we deserve none of this generosity. We think and act selfishly, most of the time. When we are unselfish it is generally out of some perceived future benefit that might come our way. True selfless acts are rare in this world. That’s why God’s action is so unusual, and inspires us to faith and love. We are invited to participate in this new and unusual way of being in the world. We are invited into a relationship with this God of grace.
So it is strange that there are those who still don’t get it. There are those who cast an evil eye at God’s goodness and generosity and who are then excluded. What happens to them? How do we understand them without now becoming the ones who gloat, who take advantage of God’s generosity at the expense of others?
While the story doesn’t say so, I imagine that it is not over with this one day. Just as those workers who were hired last can expect further days in the relationship with their new patron, so also there will be another day for those who are sent on their way. They will be back on the street corner the very next day, trying to earn a day’s wage to feed their families. But so, I imagine, will the owner of the vineyard be back. He will come again looking for more workers, and perhaps, generous as he is, he might even hire some of those same cast offs again. But that’s the way of things with a good and generous God. His forgiveness trumps all other concerns, unfair as that may be.
All I can say about that is, thank God! For I often react the wrong way to my gracious savior. I often find myself on the outside looking in at what God is doing in the world because I cannot seem to grasp and live this grace fully in the here and now. But just when I am out on the street corner again, there comes the Holy Spirit, looking for me again, and inviting me back into relationship with this extraordinary God.
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman, Pastor