2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them,If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.
4Then the Lord said to Moses,I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.
11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another,What is it?For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them,It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
20 [Jesus said,]For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When 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.’ 9When those hired about five o clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Today's scripture passage is profoundly unfair and we all know it, we
can see it and I think most of us can relate with the people in the
story. As I reflected on it this week, it reminded me of a time back
in college I was in a Spanish class where we had a group project that
was to be equivalent to a major term paper. There were six of us in
my group and we had pretty wide leeway as far as what we wanted to do
for our project… the professor encouraged creativity and so we
decided to translate an episode of the TV
show Friends… before we started, I never thought about
how many words they make up and how difficult it is to translate the
idea of some of the things that they say where the words may not
correspond with the meaning but I'm not going to get too much into the
actual process of translation… what got me remembering this
particular group project as I was thinking about the scripture passage
for this week is that among the six of us there were definitely some
who did more work than others and I guess that's pretty typical in a
group project. So when we decided that each of us would be
responsible to translate one of the main characters, there were five
who worked very hard, we met on a weekly basis, we consulted
dictionaries, we talked with friends who were native Spanish speakers
and as we approached the due date, we asked my mom who was a high
school Spanish teacher to read over it and help keep the dialog
fluid… and it wasn't just that we worked hard; the work that we
did was good. But that was only 5 of the 6 members of the group. The
other person who was the sixth, didn't invest the same kind of energy
the rest of us did into the project. He was pretty consistently late
with his part of the dialog and on the day we took the whole packet
for final revisions, we couldn't wait any longer for him… so
inevitably his part of the project didn't get as much attention as the
rest. When the due date came, we performed a portion of the newly
translated script, and everyone; classmates and the teacher, loved
it… We were the first group to go and we set the bar relatively
high… Clearly to my mind it was
A level work. So you
can imagine how surprised I was when the project was handed back to us
the next week in class and we received a
C- grade. I was
After class I stuck around to talk with the teacher. How in the world
could we get a
C- she clearly didn't understand how much effort
went into what we did… And she told me that she did appreciate
the scope of the work and she appreciated the creativity that we
brought to the project; but the grade was going to stand because of
the errors that were in the written text… she opened up the
script and pointed to a number of them, and as you might guess, every
one of them came from that sixth member of the group… there
wasn't anything marked on the rest of the work… not one thing.
I started to protest that the one person's work shouldn't affect the
other five of us negatively and she shut me down…
it was a
group project she said and we would all be held accountable to the
same standard together and I walked away thinking that the whole thing
was absolutely unfair. I did more work I put in the extra effort. I
deserved better and I should have gotten an
A… but among
the group, we were made equal and I felt justified in my grumbling.
When we come to Matthew's text for today, the grumbling actually goes
in the other direction… The people who grumbled hadn't been
brought down to the lowest level… but rather the least
deserving was brought up to the highest level. In verse 12, at the
end of the day, the people who had been in the vineyard since the
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. You brought them up to our level, even though
they didn't deserve a full day's wage for only an hour of work…
and if they did deserve that, then certainly we deserve more. In our
context and apparently in theirs too, more pay for more work seems
reasonable. It's pretty easy for us to see the injustice of it all.
When you compare what one group did and what the other group did, it
really wasn't fair.
If we were given a choice of where we would like to be in the parable, I think most of us would rather be the workers who come late and still get the benefit. But my guess is that if we were asked who we relate with more , most of us would say the workers who were there all day. We each know how hard we work in our lives… we know how hard it is to make ends meet… we know how hard it is to do what we do and to provide for those who rely on us… And it's maddening isn't it that in the parable, those are the people who seem to get the short end of the stick. I think we want them to be rewarded extra… it's the American way. It's not fair that the people who got up early and did everything they were supposed to do and worked all day didn't get some sort of a bonus for their effort… that's how we usually relate to this passage.
But when we read it closely, they did get rewarded. They were given exactly what they were promised… They got what they bargained for. If the others had never come into the vineyard, they would have received the same thing that they actually did receive and they wouldn't have given it a second thought. They would have gone home after a hard day's work and been grateful for both the work and the pay they received. Even if they were paid first and they walked away, they would have walked away happy with what they had done and happy with what they had been paid. The problem is only a problem because of the comparison we make and the judgment we pass… the latecomers are only worthy of a C- don't give them an A…
And I think part of the reason we can relate with the people who were upset is because we also know about comparisons. The world we live in seems flooded with comparisons. We compare our yards with other people's yards, and our jobs with other people's jobs, we compare our houses with other people's houses, and our stuff with other people's stuff, we compare our bodies with other people's bodies and our lives with other people's lives, the list goes on and on… and inevitably there are things we don't like about our own situation and when we look around, it's easy to see someone, somewhere who appears to have it better than we do in any aspect, in every aspect of life and we wish that it came as easily for us as it appears to for them…
But this parable shows us something different… This is a kingdom parable. Fundamentally it's not about the workers… it's not about labor practices and it's not about wealth distribution. Jesus tells this parable in order to shed light on how God works… the landowner according to Jesus represents the Kingdom of Heaven. The usual practice was that when a landowner needed day-laborers he would go to the market early in the morning and get all the help he needed… but that wasn't the extent of this landowner's invitation. Five times throughout the day the landowner went to the marketplace. We're never told that he needed more workers, but each time he went he saw people who were just standing there idle… and the landowner would apparently rather have them working for him than standing around doing nothing. With the first group of workers, he agreed on a wage, the next three groups that came in progressively later are asked to trust as the landowner says I will pay you what is right, and then with the final group, there isn't even any mention of pay, just the command to go work in the vineyard.
And if it wasn't clear before, it certainly is by the end of the day that the land owner's main concern wasn't the amount of work that got done by each worker… then the payment would have had to be different… but instead the concern was that they came and that they participated in the work in the first place. And because they did, the landowner, out of sheer generosity made all of the workers equal… we see it at the end of the day in the payment, but they weren't only made equal at the end of the day… they were also made equal at the beginning of the day. Whether they came to the vineyard at 6:00 in the morning or whether they came to the vineyard at 5:00 at night, they were made equal because the landowner called them into service in the first place. The payment at the end of the day may have brought it to the worker's attention, but the equality came long before that. Without an invitation from the landowner, they all would have still been taking up space in the marketplace.
And so, what does this mean for us. Well, first this parable reminds us that we are all recipients of God's gifts… not just at the end of the day or at the end of our lives, but this day, today and tomorrow and every day is a gift… And if there's anything that's not fair, it's that so many people aren't able to see it that way. No matter what the gift of today looks like, or how the array of gifts we've received compares to our neighbors, no matter how many things we see that could be better or that we wish were different; as long as we have air in our lungs and a heart beating in our chest we have to realize that even those are a gift from God. Even in the midst of everything that seems unfair, we have been given grace, upon grace, upon grace… and the second thing that this parable points out is that the work itself is part of the reward. At whatever time, and in whatever way we find ourselves being called into service the important thing is that we receive that call. I look back at that group project in Spanish class and I realize that I had my priorities all mixed up… not once did I try to understand what was going on in the life of the latecomer, not once did I extend any kind of compassion or grace, for all I know his life could have been falling apart around him, and at that point in my life all I was ready to do was to hand out judgment based on comparison. And I hope and pray, given the opportunity again, I would handle it differently because I realize that we've all been made equal by the love of God the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whether the invitation comes early or late is much less important than that we receive it when it does comes… that we respond faithfully to the invitations that may come more often as tugs on our heart to do the right thing than as business contracts or graded projects where the reward at the end is clear. Whatever good we're able to do in whatever time we have is only because we've received an invitation to service and we've had the courage to say yes to that grace that's been offered. In Jesus name, Amen.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Dan Holland at the United Parish of Bowie on September 18, 2011.
© 2011 Daniel Holland