Parables of Jesus: Laborers in the Vineyard 8-14-16

Our reading for this morning from Matthew 20 is a passage which will come up in our assigned readings later this fall. I moved it up to be part of our consideration of parables this summer because it is a great example of the way Jesus uses short pithy stories to surprise us and make us think. I didn’t want to think that much on my vacation to tell you the truth, and I found myself wishing I hadn’t chosen such a provocative passage, but pretty soon I found myself quite engaged by it- almost as much as the Olympics. I hope you will find it engaging as well.

Matthew 20:1-16  The kingdom of heaven is like the owner of an estate who went out at dawn to hire workers for the vineyard.  After reaching an agreement with them for the usual daily wage, the owner sent them out to the vineyard. About mid-morning, the owner came out and saw others standing around the marketplace without work and said to them. ‘You go along to my vineyard and I will pay you whatever is fair.’ At that they left. Around noon and again in the mid-afternoon, the owner came out and did the same. Finally, going out late in the afternoon, the owner found still others standing around and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ ‘No one has hired us, they replied. The owner said, ‘You go to my vineyard too.’ When evening came, the owner said to the overseer, ‘Call the workers and give them their  pay, but begin with the last group and end with the first. When those hired late in the afternoon came up, they received a full day’s pay, and when the first group appeared they assumed they would get more.  Yet the all received the same daily wage. Thereupon they complained to the owner, ‘This last group did only an hour’s work, but you’ve put them on the same basis as those who worked a full day in the scorching heat.’ ‘My friends, said the owner to those who voiced this complaint, “I do you no injustice.  You agreed on the usual wage, didn’t  you? Take your pay and go home.  I intend to give this worker who was hired last the same pay as you. I’m free to do as I please with my money, aren’t I?  Or are you envious because I am generous? “Thus the last will be first and first will be last.“

August 14, 2016

Parables of Jesus: The Laborers in the Vineyard

First, let me talk about the engaging Olympics. I like to imagine myself right there with the athletes, don’t you? Sure, I was standing right there next to Michael Phelps. I call him Mike. I’m slapping my biceps to keep loose. My arms are long like his. I love swimming. We take our marks. Everyone is quiet. That little buzzer crickets and we dive in. I take a few strokes, get about half way across the pool and notice Mike is already swimming back from the other side! I reach the end of my first lap out of breath and get out of the pool. Phelps gets his gold medal. Then, to my surprise, they call my name, I get a medal too! A gold medal.

Jesus says that’s what the kin-dom of God is like.

You can try it with any sport. Anybody wanna dance or vault with Simone Biles? OK, Adrienne (or Nancy?), let’s try a vault, all right? Simone takes her turn leaping and somersaulting through the air, doing a back flip and a blind landing. No one can top her. Then you go up and take your run. Can you do a cartwheel? You land on the vault thingy and sit there for a second. Then you hop off of it and do a little kick and a pirouette. You do it with flair. Sure enough, you are up there on the winners stand getting a gold medal!

Jesus says the kin-dom of God is like that.

The rest of you would probably say it isn’t fair. The Olympics is a competition and the best is supposed to win – after practicing for years and competing to be the absolute best! And you would be right, of course. It wouldn’t be fair. And that would never be how the Olympics could work. The Olympics is a competition.

And that’s Jesus’ point: The kin-dom of God is not a competition.

I heard someone suggest that every Olympic event should have one average person competing in the pool or on the course just for reference – just to show us all how great these athletes really are. That’s an interesting idea. For our purposes, it’s kind of beside the point, which is that The kin-dom of God is not a competition.

 

Jesus says the kingdom of God is like when the owner of an estate goes out to hire some workers and the first ones she finds work for a full day, folks she hires later in the day work for half a day and then she hires one or two for just an hour. She pays the last ones first and gives them wages for a full days work! The others get really excited thinking they are going to get paid more.

When they don’t get paid more, they start to complain. This isn’t fair! If you are going to pay someone who works an hour, a full day wage, the others should at least get paid a little more! maybe a lot more! It isn’t fair that they would all be paid the same!

 

I know when I was growing up with four younger brothers, I was acutely aware of issues of fairness – of who got what when and who got more than I did. A grandmother told me recently that in the pictures of her children and grandkids she has hanging in her home, she always makes sure she keeps the same number of pictures of each one, because somebody is going to count! And even if they say it doesn’t matter, they are going to notice.

Jesus seems to suggest that the kin-dom of God operates with a different sense of rules and fairness. When this parable comes up in the lectionary, it is always paired with the story from Exodus of the people grumbling in the wilderness and receiving manna from God to fulfill their daily needs. Jesus suggests that we not pray, “Give me this day my daily bread.” But “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Commentators have suggested that maybe there were some people in the early Christian communities or the early Jewish-Christian communities who were resentful that late comers to the faith were being treated so well it made the old-timers feel like they were not being honored and respected for their years of loyalty and service. Any of us can have these same kinds of feelings as we feel slighted or under-appreciated.

 

I love to watch modern dance. One of my favorite troupes years back was led by a woman named Liz Lerman. The troupe was called the Dance Exchange. Liz Lerman did dances with young people with lithe gorgeous bodies along with senior citizen dancers who performed parallel moves as well as they could, slowly getting up off the floor. I thought the dances were gorgeous. The kin-dom of God is like that – like a dance in which young and old dance to the best of their abilities and it is beautiful. that’s what the kin-dom of God, the new community we envision is like.

The kin-dom of God is not a competition. It is not a hierarchy, where only some people get to be part of what’s going on, where only the wealthy or beautiful or talented get to be a part. The kin-dom is a community of the forgiven, a collection of the imperfect, a reversal of the expected. The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoy our summer rearrangement of pews in this circle. We will go back in a few weeks to the pews being arranged toward the front altar. But during July and August we have had our altar in the middle. We have faced each other and seen in each others faces the face of the divine. When I am in this circle, this intimate community makes me understand in a different way what God’s new realm is about.

While I was away, I had Deacon Tom Lank serve communion for me and he called me up 15 minutes before that service two Sundays ago to have me bless the communion elements. Technically, that is the correct thing to do. In our church hierarchy, only an elder can bless the elements – and a deacon who has been approved by the bishop and he hadn’t been approved yet. But we have our liturgists and leaders participate in communion all the time. I’m not sure we need to make such a big deal about the elder at the front of the room. This altar up here signifies the priest above the people. We expect the priest to be better than everybody else, to be celibate, to live a life of poverty and obedience. But we in the United Methodist Church believe in a priesthood of all believers. We all are blessed to be part of the kin-dom and to be a blessing for others by our love and our service.

There is a time, of course, to recognize the excellence of a Michael Phelps and the hard work of a Simone Biels. There is a time to honor the wisdom of long term members and the special contributions of particularly hard working folks, the service of great social justice models. There is a time for rewarding extra effort, skill, talent, and work. I especially love, though, the Alcoholics Anonymous way of honoring people. When they give out badges for 5 years of sobriety, a year of sobriety, a month of sobriety, they end by saying, “And now we recognize the most important people in the room. Who has been sober for one day?” And if anyone raises their hand, the whole group cheers and applauds and congratulates that person sincerely for the difficult and important step they are taking.

Sometimes, we may have feelings about some people getting something they don’t deserve. Jesus thinks we can get over that. Because that’s what the kin-dom of God is like.

 

Amen.