A Parable to Grumble At

Message for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (9/24/2023)

Matthew 20:1-16


Today, I’ll lean heavily on the sermon I preached on this occasion three years ago, in part because I had an especially busy and stressful week, and in part because the sermon I preached three years ago is still a message I need to hear. I’m mindful that it was September 2020, and we had become collectively more aware of the value of essential labor, especially service work. Three years later, it’s still true that service workers perform an essential function in our society, and it’s still true that they’re less likely to earn a living wage than others whose work is more highly esteemed. That reflection guided my decision to preach this message again.

“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.”

If the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard bothers you, you’re in good company. Brené Brown tells the story of visiting her Episcopal church for the first time and hearing the priest preach and teach about this parable. “What do y’all think?” he asked the congregation. “[I think it’s] a terrible parable,” she thought to herself. “I like stuff you can earn, and I like [for] those people who are not working as hard as [I am] to pay.” She was agitated enough that she had to come back the next Sunday to hear what the follow-up would be.

And, as fate would have it, she stayed in that congregation. “If you’re looking for a church,” Brown muses, “I think if your heart’s open, it finds you, you don’t find it.” And lo and behold, when she eventually agreed to teach Vacation Bible School, which parable did she feature? The Vineyard Parable. “I brought Monopoly money,” she recalls, “and paid kids for jumping jacks.” Some students were challenged to do jumping jacks for five minutes, watching breathlessly as a second crop of kids started their jumping jacks halfway through and the last group began with only seconds remaining [in the exercise]. Brown walked down the line handing out 500-dollar bills to everyone, and as she remembers, “These kids went crazy. They were, like, ‘Uh-uh, that is not fair!’ And I’m, like, ‘I know!’ …They say God is like this; God doesn’t care how long you’re doing jumping jacks… love is going to happen to you either way.” She admits that she still doesn’t like it: “I get it,” she says, “I just keep going back to church hoping the parable is going to change.”[1]

If this story rubs you the wrong way, as it did Brené Brown, it’s because it upends the logic of fairness, which is fundamental to the way we tend to view the world. Don’t the first laborers have a right to be upset? They worked longer, so they should receive more. But, read closely: they don’t object to their wage per se; after all, they receive the amount to which they agreed at the beginning of the day. No, the first workers object to being placed on level ground with the others[2]: “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.” In other words, the vineyard owner’s method of payment has collapsed any hierarchy that might be established by rights. How can we ascertain the value of our work, the first laborers grumble, unless you compensate us accordingly? It’s a matter of comparison, of relative worthiness. But the vineyard owner doesn’t abide by the workers’ expectations: “Are you envious because I am generous?” he asks rhetorically, or, to quote a more wooden translation of that phrase: “Is your eye evil because I am good?”[3]

Jesus’ parable makes it abundantly clear that God’s ways are not our ways, no matter how stubbornly we project earthly principles onto God. One interpreter sums up the dilemma this way: “If we try to use worldly causation to reason and draw conclusions about who God is and how God works, we are doomed to fail.”[4] God’s goodness isn’t fair; God isn’t interested in keeping track of our merits and rewarding us accordingly. And for many of us, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. Maybe it’s easier to keep hoping that the parable will change than it is to change our perspective.

But, what if we put ourselves instead in the place of the latecomers? Imagine what they think of the vineyard owner’s unorthodox business practices. Bear in mind that all day laborers rely on intermittent work for their survival. They get work, or they go hungry. The fact that the last workers are “idle” at five o’clock in the afternoon doesn’t mean they’re lazy; it just means that they haven’t been hired that day. What’s more, they go to work for an hour with no guarantee of payment at all. Nevertheless, they, too, receive a denarius, the value of their daily bread. And, this is the surprise– they get what they need despite their markedly smaller contribution.

To be sure, the vineyard owner’s method of payment is a terrible way to account for productivity. It is, however, an excellent way to make sure everyone gets enough to eat. And, when we examine the biblical record, we discover that this story is consistent with divine economics all along: God showers the people with manna and quail in the wilderness– enough to feed everyone, but not enough to hoard; Jesus multiplies bread and fish for the multitudes on the basis of need, not deserving; those who have much do not have too much, and those who have little do not have too little.[5] It’s the logic of God’s reign on Earth as in heaven.

That is to say, grace has both spiritual and material implications. God’s blessing is intended for both body and spirit. Accordingly, Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in the United States, gleans from Holy Scripture a mandate for employers: “[Jesus] spoke of a living wage,” she contended, a minimum income that guarantees the basics.[6] The highest economic priority, in other words, is to support everyone’s flourishing, not to appraise each one’s value.

God is good, friends; so good, in fact, that we may be inclined to grumble. And, if you’re still bucking against Jesus’ parable, that’s good. It means that the word is working on you, continuing to form you for life according to God’s dream for the world God loves. The good news is that you’ve been afforded the privilege of working in the vineyard in the first place. And the reward, as one interpreter puts it, “comes not from each worker’s merit, not from the quantity or even quality of their labor, but rather from the gracious covenant offered by the one doing the hiring.”[7]

[1] www.theworkofthepeople.com/grace-is-not-attractive.

[2] See M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, 394.

[3] See Lewis R. Donelson, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, 95.

[4] Rolf Jacobson, “The New Math of the Kingdom of God,” www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5455.

[5] Exodus 16:18; 2 Corinthians 8:15.

[6] The Long Loneliness, as cited by Charles Campbell, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, 95.

[7] Kathryn D. Blanchard, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, 94.

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