GOSPEL READING Matthew 20:1-16
The Holy Gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.
[Jesus said to the disciples:] “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 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.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.’ 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? 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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Now let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and Redeemer
People say “it’s just not fair” about a lot of things in this world. But you know what has been near the top of my list for most of my life…assigned seating. Think about it…my last name is Vannoy, and guess where I sat a lot of the time in school…IN THE BACK OF THE ROOM.
No matter what class it was, I was sitting in the back of the room and always sitting by the same people in class. Even when the Last Names got to sit in the front of the room, I still sat by the same people…that’s not fair!
I remember thinking to myself “Self, just wait till you get to college and you can sit wherever you want.” This was true but guess what…after about 2 weeks of sitting anywhere you wanted, you would sit in the same spot with the same people. The difference being, you got to CHOOSE where and whom you were sitting with.
Sounds like churches doesn’t it. You can sit ANYWHERE you want, but you often have your “section,” “pew” and “people” that you sit with. Now everyone is going to switch it up on me to get me all flustered next week, but there is truth in what I’m saying.
We are creatures of habit and grow into routines, but we want to grow into it and not be told what we have to do. This is not a new phenomenon, it’s just a fact. We like to at least think that we have a CHOICE in everything we do. And most of the time we do, we have a choice, in every situation we are involved in, how we will respond in our words and our actions. Sometimes we just don’t choose well.
Speaking of not choosing well, just as the laborers in the Gospel story argue and moan, Jonah does too in this week’s first lesson. So let’s recap this wonderful little book…Jonah is told be God to go and warn the people of Nineveh to turn from their ways or God will destroy them; Jonah doesn’t want to do that because he doesn’t like the people of Nineveh; so he runs away from what God told him to do; God brings him back in the lovely whale story we like in VBS; Jonah warns them; the change their ways and God doesn’t destroy them.
So then we get to today in the aftermath of all of this and Jonah is complaining so much that God eventually asks him, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), and “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” (v. 9).
Jonah doesn’t think the situation he’s observing is fair. This sets the seed for the parable we hear in the Gospel today. And again, from a human perspective, it might not seem fair. But this isn’t about human perspective. Just as the Gospel lesson isn’t.
This week’s Gospel parable concerns a landowner, laborers, and the landowner’s benevolence to put everyone to work and to pay “whatever is right” (Matthew 20:4). But what constitutes what is “right” might be up for interpretation. It certainly does not seem to match the common human conception of what we might call fair or right. The question of fairness, though, really doesn’t come into play until the end of the day when the landowner begins to compensate the laborers for their efforts. Jesus tells the story and the landowner is apparently compensating in reverse order, which is perfectly his right.
The landowner went out to look for workers frequently during the day, to the point that there was apparently no one who might have been unemployed. It reminds me of the line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The landowner is providing so that all might have what they need for daily living. This is a beautiful example of abundance in God’s love. It’s also an example of God’s unlimited grace. But that’s where we start to have problems as people. Our human nature says that some should have more than others. We buy into notions of scarcity, so that some will get more and others less. But at the heart of this parable is a dismantling of that notion. In God’s economy, there is enough for everyone. No one is greater than another, for all have the shared identity of being beloved children of God.
Jesus concludes the parable famously, with the landowner responding to the grumbling laborers who believe that they are being compensated unfairly:
“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?’ So, the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:13-15).
You see, like the landowner, God will not be forced into a box—made to be vengeful or to lovingly care about only a few. God will not be manipulated into acting a certain way that we as human beings might want God to act. And absolutely, God’s true abundance and love cannot be limited. This parable provides a stewardship lesson about God’s generosity that far exceeds any human notion of what generosity, abundance, and fairness might look like. And just as that might be hard to wrap our head around, the parable includes with Jesus’ repeated notion that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (v. 15). There is a great reversal in God’s kingdom; perhaps a more level playing field so that all might have enough and what they need, and no one would have too much that would prevent others from enjoying their own daily bread.
What might this look like for us? At the very least, it might be the idea we all stop fighting like children and get along, share, and stop arguing as much about what is fair, and instead just embrace the idea that we and everyone else are loved more than we could ever imagine by God.
These are stories about just how far God’s love, grace, mercy, generosity, and abundance will go. God will go to—and through—the point of death on a cross so that God’s love might be known, seen, heard, revealed, believed, and lived out.
And God will do this, because that is who God is as the psalmist reminds, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8).
Since we believe the Bible is God’s Living Word, I believe Jesus is inviting the disciples of all times and places to hear this parable with fresh ears this week. What would the world be like, if we did hear it differently, and then took it to heart? Perhaps the kingdom of heaven might just break in to our world here and now a bit more powerfully.
This week’s gospel is a story about a group of workers recruited by a landowner to work in his fields. In the end, some of those workers feel they have been treated unfairly. They have put in a full day’s work, while another group of workers only put in an hour or two. Yet they all got the same pay. The landowner reminds the workers that he is not obligated to pay anyone any more than what is “right,” which he did. He pays the early workers the normal daily wage, but chooses to be generous to those who start later.
We don’t really know the circumstances of the workers in the marketplace that day. Perhaps they all gathered early in the morning, and some received jobs while others did not. So, when the landowner came back and saw there were people not working, he gave them an opportunity too, so they could take care of their families. Perhaps their jobs finished early and they had worked early, but were also finished early, which would not allow them to make what they needed.
Of course, it’s possible that some of them were lazy, slept in, and took advantage of a generous man. However, it seems unlikely that the entire group of workers left in the center of town were late only because they were “lazy.” Generally, most people who come to work come because they need to.
This story doesn’t really differ from the experiences of people in our own time, does it? I can think of a number of examples like this that I hear about in from friends and colleagues that live in the Southwest states, where there are a large number of people who come into the country looking for work from Mexico and all parts of Latin America. They risk their lives to come to a place that might provide a little more money, safety, or opportunity for them and their families.
There are also people in the states who have lived here for generations but have only been able to find work that pays a minimum wage and not a living wage. In these cases, their children also have to work as soon as they are old enough to support their family, and the younger ones often care for even younger children while the older members of the family work, which isn’t different at all from the biblical times we read and hear about. They are caught in a cycle of poverty that feels impossible to break out of.
Education is one way people break out of poverty. But it is hard to succeed if you do not have a parent at home to supervise you. Also, an older child who has to care for siblings or work in the community before school, after school and late into the night, is less likely to succeed. Even if a person wants to succeed, they must overcome greater obstacles than a person like me. Even though I didn’t have a lot of extra money growing up, I always had people in my life that made sure I had what I needed and then some. I also had the opportunity to use my time to do extracurricular activities and outside learning with my family, which contributed to my performance in school.
In the U.S. according to a study by the children’s defense fund, in 2021, at least 1 in 5 Black children were poor in 42 states and the District of Columbia; Hispanic children, in 36 states; and American Indian/Alaska Native children, in 29 states. Not one state had a white child poverty rate above 20%.
When I listen to the story of the parable in the vineyard and compare it to the stories of poverty in our own culture today, it helps me understand the difference between something being “fair” and something being “right.” More importantly than that, it teaches me to love with the compassion of Christ. The workers in the morning were paid “what is right.” Perhaps the landowner recognized the plight of the later workers and wanted to give them equal opportunity. To do so required him to pay more than what was the appropriate hourly wage. But what a gift to receive what you need when you otherwise would not!
God’s sense of justice and fairness does not always look fair or right to us because we are often unable to see with the same compassion, generosity and understanding. Thank goodness we believe in a God that looks past that and gives what is “right” to all people, even when from our human perspective it doesn’t seem “fair.”