Rev. Adrianne M. Meier
St. Thomas Lutheran Church
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
True confessions: I am an NPR junkie. I love the pop culture interviews on Fresh Air; I love the in-depth journalism of All Things Considered; I love to laugh along with Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! I love turning on the radio and being engaged while I drive. I love the podcasts, and if you haven’t listed to This Podcast Has Fleas, then you simply have not laughed enough in your life. I even like the one or two tote bags and coffee mugs I’ve acquired pledging to support WUOM and WGTE when I lived in Ohio and WHYY in Philadelphia. Even when I wasn’t pledging, there was something about the combination of content and prizes that eased the annoyance of their regular call for money. I suppose this sounds a bit like the introduction to a stewardship sermon, and it probably is – at least, I hope, in the next month or so, that you will respond to our requests for pledges promptly and with faithful generosity. But this sermon isn’t a preamble to ask for money for our congregation. No, this sermon is to point out that God’s generosity doesn’t look anything like that NPR campaign, or most requests for money and support. Where NPR seeks to smooth and soothe, it is transactional. But God’s generosity is so outrageous it offends our sensibility. If we were to ask, how much should we give, God’s answer would be, give until it changes you.
Not the answer we expect. Actually, we might expect that which seems like a perfectly biblical answer. A tithe, perhaps, a solid 10%. But if, in today’s parable, the landlord is a stand-in for God, then what are we to make of the generosity which does not reward labor, a fair wage for a fair day’s work, but just gives equally to all? Will we, too “be envious because God is generous?” The truth is, we want a good little god who meets our expectations, who values what we claim to value, and loves who we love, and hates who we hate. We want a god who is predictable, a god who we actually like. Unfortunately for us, God has a tendency to do things like asking us to love our enemies, to appreciate children especially when they’re clamoring for our attention right in the middle of the sermon, to forgive and forgive and forgive, and to be generous. And, this is, like, hard work! And, to boot: even when we do do it, others won’t!
It is no wonder so many people grumble in the Bible. It is quite the word really, grumble, gog-gu-zo in Greek. It gets translated sometimes as murmur to try and preserve that droning, ongoing sound of the whining of adults. Out in the wilderness, it was the sport of the Israelites to grumble about the conditions, the leadership, the food, God. Grumbling was, in my opinion, the perfectly reasonable response of those who worked the longest in today’s story. It’s a drum I’ve banged myself, grumbling about how women make 81% of a man’s wage, a gap that grow for women of color. It should scandalize us that God doesn’t reward the ones who do more with more wage and pay less for less work. It isn’t fair.
Years ago, I participated in a book club in the first congregation I served. Mainly, the group read romance novels and ate dessert, but its originator was a high-minded individual, always selecting highbrow literature (yeah! My favorite!) and non-fiction books. Once, she selected a book on justice. I cannot remember the title nor the point, other than that the book omitted restorative justice, a subject a number of my pastoral mentors had a keen awareness of and had passed on to me. Restorative justice is behind the Good Friday Accords in Ireland and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. I will never forget the response in the room when I introduce the idea of justice that wasn’t about getting even or being repaid, but about strengthening the community and restoring individuals to right relationships with those they’d offended. Talk about grumbling! And they were, of course, right, when they wondered about the “fairness” of such a solution. Except that restorative justice begins by recognizing the privileges denied the offending person, the extenuating circumstances, the connection between offender and victim.
In the morning of the parable in question, every laborer was without a job. Fr. Michael Crosby, a Franciscan scholar who writes about discipleship, noted that the first-hired workers, who grumbled at the end of the day for not getting a bonus, “forgot that earlier, they too had been without resources.” God generously responds to the presence of need, regardless of amount. Everyone needed a day’s wage, whether they worked all day or not. It may not be a wise way to run a business, but as a lesson in God’s economics, perhaps it hits home.
We receive grace upon grace, whether we deserve it or not. And, newsflash, we don’t.
And that’s the real thing. In this parable, the landowner is, in Greek an oikodespotes – a householder. What a word! But what I want to draw your attention to is that the English word, economics, shares the same root – oikos – house. In this parable, God is proposing a new economics of the household, the family, of God. A new economics that suggests that power, status, and wealth have no value, especially when compared to a changed heart. (This is also from Fr. Michael Crosby’s book House of Disciples: Church, Economics, and Justice in Matthew.)
Beloved, there are days when we are those first hired workers, scandalized by God’s generosity. Scandalized that even that jerk on the other side of the TV is a beloved child of God, same as the internet troll, the foreign despot. We have long labored in this vineyard, and we demand payment. God’s grace confounds us. And thanks be to God! Because there are just as many days where we are the last hired, the lazy, incompetent – the harried working-and-schooling-from-home parent who didn’t get enough done; the out-over-her-skis new hire who isn’t sure she has what it takes; the angry, inpatient ones who tap their foot in the line at the post office and scream at the customer service worker. And yet, now we too hold in our hands the riches of God’s grace. And we have nothing left to show for it but a changed heart. In this new economics, in the words of my mentor Ann Michel, “giving is not a transaction but a transformation.” In God’s kin-dom, the first hired as well as the last both stand to gain the most, to become beloved children of the benevolent householder.
And so, my siblings in Christ, give. Give in order to change: to change yourself and to change the world into God’s kin-dom.
Matthew 20:1-16 NRSV
[Jesus is speaking] “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for a vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage (a denarius), they were sent into the vineyard. When the owner went out to the market place about nine o’clock, there were others standing idle there, and the owner said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
About five o’clock the owner went out again and found others yet standing around. To these and the owner said, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ Then, said the owner, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the vineyard owner said to the 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 (a denarius). 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 of the scorching heat.’ ‘But Friend’, replied the owner to one of these, ‘I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the denarius? 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?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”