September 20, 2020 Sermon—The Lord and the Laborers
Scriptures: Isaiah 55:1-13; Psalm 27:1-14; Matthew 20:1-16
I’ll begin with a confession: Although this sermon focuses on the message in today’s Gospel lesson, it’s also informed by something I saw on TV this past week. And it’s real genesis is a question that I received for our Thursday evening Q&A session. I won’t read the actual question sent to me, but after you listen to the sermon, I hope you’ll know the answer.
One morning this past week, on the one of the morning “news” shows I watch, I saw an interesting clip. An interviewer was going around to people on the street—I don’t know where they were; I don’t think that matters—asking randomly selected individuals to look at a very short video clip and answer a few questions. I’m not trying to summarize or quote the show, but here’s the kind of thing that these interviews showed:
Two people would look at the same video of a recent situation on a city street, for example. One concluded, “See, that just proves it: we are in danger; hand me an AK-47.” Another person looked at the same video and concluded, “See, that just proves it: we are in danger; we can’t just let everybody and his grandmother out there on the street with assault rifles.” Two people looked at the same thing; one sees danger in the people; the other sees danger in weapons.
Or this possibility: Two people look at the same photograph of young children. One concludes, “Look at those beautiful children. It’s a sin even to think about killing one of them before it’s born.” Another person looks at the same photograph and concludes, “Look at those beautiful children. It’s a sin not to provide medical care for them so they grow up strong and healthy.” One person values the children more before they’re born; the other values them more highly after.
What was especially interesting about the interviews shown on TV was not only that the individuals interpreted what they saw in different ways, but when the interviewer asked them, “Could you imagine how another person might look at this picture and come to a different conclusion?” people said, “No, I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly see it in a different way.” And there we are!
Now, that’s not a problem only for this election cycle. Nor is it a problem only for this year or this century. That’s the universal human problem. The engine that drives us is self-centeredness. We see examples of that throughout Scripture and everywhere else: Eve wanting divine powers for herself; Joseph’s brothers wanting their father’s love only for themselves; David wanting another man’s wife for himself; Judas wanting 30 pieces of silver all for himself. Of self, by self, for self.
We can’t help it: We see out of our own eyes; we look after our own interests; we act from our point of view. We cannot do otherwise, apart from the sanctifying, transforming power of the Holy Spirit. And we recognize that inborn human nature in the laborers described in today’s Gospel reading.
Matthew 20:1-16 is an unusual parable. It appears only in the book of Matthew. Its setting is unusual, too. So we might want a little background to understand some of the subtleties. In that place and time, the working day was counted in “hours” from the rising of the sun to the appearing of the stars, as they saying went. Also in that culture, a verbal agreement about wages was legally binding. A denarius equaled about 20 cents in silver. A denarius a day was the same pay Roman soldiers got, pretty generous for then and there. Notice that those laborers don’t get paid by the hour or by the amount of work they produced; they were paid by the day. And laborers were to be paid at the end of each day’s work. That’s an Old Testament injunction, not always honored in practice; but that’s the way it’s done in this parable.
So right out of the gate, on first reading, it’s tempting to think that this parable is going to be about money. After all, whoever said “money is the root of all evil” may not have gotten it exactly right, but money is certainly the route people take toward problems. But this parable isn’t about money. It’s about mercy.
Here’s the story: The owner of the vineyard goes out first thing in the morning and hires some workers. They agree on what he’ll pay them for their work that day, and they get busy. Then as the day wears on, he apparently needs more workers, so he goes back to the marketplace and hires four more times—at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and finally at 5 p.m. After the first hiring, all the owner says about wages is, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” When the work day is over, he tells his foreman to call the workers in and pay them. And he does it in a strange way: He gives out wages first to the ones who were hired last. And he pays every one of the workers the same amount—regardless of when they were hired or how long they had worked.
Well, then the fur hit the fan. The workers who had put in a full day were ticked off, and “they began to grumble against the owner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day’” (Mt 20:11-12).
Many commentators believe that Jesus told this parable in response to a question asked by our old friend Peter. Jesus had been teaching about giving up riches to follow him, and Peter blurted out, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Mt 19:27). In this question, Peter sounds like the laborers in the vineyard and also like the elder brother in the parable of the “prodigal son.” When the prodigal returned home, “the older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” (Lk 15:28-30).
It’s almost impossible to read those verses without whining. When we look at it in the cold light of printed text, it looks so childish to say those things. Yet you and I might very well have made the same complaints.
It’s such a loveless attitude, and it contracts so starkly with the owner’s attitude. Listen to how he responds to the disgruntled workers: “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
When my siblings and I were children, coming up with some game to play, the question was always who got to make the rules. Sometimes it was the oldest; sometimes it was the biggest. But always there was someone who “got to say.” That’s the way we described authority. She gets to say. He gets to say. Well, in this parable we are reminded of the truth that God gets to say. Why? Because it’s his world.
That’s why we should always understand that when we accept that God is creator, we implicitly accept that God is sovereign. If it’s my Barbie house, I get to do what I want to do with it. We hear this clearly expressed in Psalm 115:3: “God is in heaven; he does as he pleases.” And again in the New Testament: “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Ro 9:14-15).
The lesson could end right there. For some people, it does. They don’t blame God; they just ignore him and hope he ignores them. But Jesus didn’t tell this parable to crow about his power and authority. He wants us to understand three truths about our faith and relationship with God:
Number 1: We don’t see things as God sees them.
Number 2: God isn’t capricious.
Number 3: God can be trusted.
God says, “‘[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’ . . . ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Is 55:8-9). When you’re frustrated because God hasn’t granted your prayer, have you ever considered that maybe God knows something you don’t know? Maybe he has a greater good in mind? “But what I asked for would be good,” we might complain. But can you even imagine that God might see things a different way and know of a blessing that would be greater than you can ask or think (Ep 3:20)?
The first-hired workers accused the vineyard owner of being unfair when he paid the last-hired workers for the whole day. They thought they deserved more because they had worked longer. But the owner calls them out on that opinion: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15). Apparently, those vineyard laborers didn’t know the character of the owner they were dealing with. They expected him to be just like them—to see the situation from their perspective and to give them what they thought they deserved.
But we have an advantage. We know God. He doesn’t just do whatever comes into his head at the moment. Nor does he reward us based on what we think we deserve—praise the Lord! God deals with us much more generously, much more mercifully than we deserve. We know that because God has shown us his character in the Person of Jesus Christ, who took the cross we deserved.
God does not ask us to abandon our hopes and dreams. He knows that so much of life is a mystery to us. We cannot comprehend it all. But God’s word is good, and his love will be accomplished for our good. So he asks us to balance our expectations with trust. He is worthy of our trust in every moment of this life and all that is beyond. Now and at the end of the day, we have cause to rejoice: For “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ . . . For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ep 2:4-5a,8).
Ultimately—as Luther would have said—Sola gratia, soli deo gloria—by grace alone, glory to God alone.
All Contents (except quotations) Copyright 2020 Beverly C. DeBord.
All Rights Reserved.