Preached @ St. Christopher’s Ep. Ch., Roseville, MN, 9/18/11, Matthew 20:1-16
e have a provocative Gospel reading today. One that shakes up many of our understandings of fairness and justice and one that does not provide us with any easy answers. This parable Jesus tells, of who we might name as the unfair landowner, does not tell us what to do. This parable leaves us hanging, with tension in the air, over….what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
This parable may prove offensive to many of us because it challenges our understanding of fairness. What comes just prior to this selection can provide a deeper and richer understanding of Jesus’ message, but does not lessen the sting of this parable. Jesus has finished having a conversation with “the rich young man” whom he challenges at the end to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor and then follow him. That young individual goes away crest fallen and Jesus than has a conversation with Peter who asks Jesus, well then who can get into the kingdom of heaven? Jesus’ first response is to tell Peter that their reward will be great because they have left home and hearth and everything to follow him. But then Jesus tells Peter and the disciples this parable of what the kingdom of heaven is like. (Jesus gives and then he twists what he has given to make us look at the world differently.)
Notice, the kingdom of heaven is like this landowner. Jesus is not saying that God is the landowner. Jesus is saying something quite different: the kingdom of heaven is like unto this landowner. Jesus has just told Peter and the disciples that their reward will be great in heaven and then tells the parable we hear today that changes and challenges and reverses all our known values about fairness and justice. What is he doing here?Truly, this difficult parable is about resentment we feel at others who have received the same grace we have been gifted to receive. This is a difficult value system in which to live….Nevertheless, it is ours.
We have heard similar parables by Jesus: think about the prodigal son and the father’s joy upon his return, and the elder brothers resentment…..there are very close similarities to our parable today. Obviously, there is an important message we are supposed to take away from these challenging stories Jesus keeps airing. The Hebrew scholar C. G. Montefiore refers to this parable of the landowner and his hiring practices as “one of the greatest and most glorious of all.” He said this because he believed the parable contains very deep truths about God and God’s relationship with all of us.
If we study this parable closely we see that this landowner is going out into the market place area to hire people standing around. In the time and place that Jesus would have been telling this parable, the market place was the area for those who were unemployed to bring the tools of their trades and wait to be called upon to work. This scene is evocative of what I have seen out on the East Coast. Being new to this area of the world, I do not know if the same happens here. At Home Depots and similar-type stores, Latinos gather and stand around in the HD parking lots, waiting to be hired by contractors and homeowners. (Sound similar?) Toward the end of the day, the ones who have not been blessed with a wave of the hand to jump in the back of some contractor’s truck and do some work are pretty desperate and start approaching anyone getting out of a car asking if help is needed.
That market place scene in our Gospel, and as made more relevant today by the Home Depot parking lot market place, highlight one of the take-aways from today’s parable, which can be thought of as God’s compassion. Jesus is talking about the basic and natural right for everyone to work. The basic and natural right that everyone should be paid for that work, and is highlighting the tragedy of unemployment.
From those highlights, those natural rights, Jesus is leading us to understand that there are no special honors for those of us who come in first, for those of us who excel. Coming in first, excelling are reward unto themselves, and they go no further. They are, to use the words from our Collect today, earthly things that pass away. They are not things that are heavenly because they do not endure and we should not hold them fast. (Heidi Klum and Project Runway: “One day you’re in, and the next day, you’re out.)
This is a very different value system Jesus is setting out in this rough parable. We cannot be envious or jealous or made to be angry by this parable, as natural as those responses probably are for us. We are not to work for the reward, Jesus is saying, but work for the joy of doing God’s work in serving others. That joy in doing that work can bring an understanding of God’s grace….that grace is always surprising and is always unexpected. All of these parables tell us that. (Pause)
We can become so easily disillusioned if we are working for rewards sought and focusing on what others receive, as seen in those workers who were hired first in the parable. If we look closely at this Gospel passage, we will find that the last workers weren’t promised any pay, while all the groups before had been promised to be treated fairly. The last group just went to work, glad for the opportunity, the chance to work. Perhaps this parable is instructing us to go out like that landlord and find workers to help establish the kingdom of heaven amongst us. Perhaps this parable is reminding us that working to establish the kingdom is the reward in its own right and we should expect nothing else. Perhaps this parable is asking us to go out into the world and invite people to come be workers here at St. Christopher’s: workers of the kingdom of heaven, creating that kingdom by our work and those invitations for others to join.
In this very strange kingdom of heaven our parable describes, everyone matters: even the powerless, those with seemingly few skills and those who seem to get in our way. Children matter in this kingdom. Adults of all shapes, sizes and skillsets matter in this kingdom of heaven. The poor matter in this kingdom of heaven. Everyone….every single person matters.
And God’s equal treatment of all people can plain and simply make us angry: “We’re smart and wealthy and talented and skilled and been at this for decades, why should “they” be treated the same as me?” This equal-grace-of-God can be greatly distressing…..Specialized skillsets and hard work absolutely matter. But Jesus is saying they do not matter more than the humanity and dignity of every human being. Jesus is showcasing God’s abundance, God’s abundant love….there is no scarcity here….There is no scarcity in the kingdom of Heaven.
We can see why Jesus was so very unpopular, for he treated everyone as worthy, everyone as equal. He sought out those who, by society’s standards, were not equal. Jesus played no favorites….everyone is equal….Who in our community do we treat as less than equal to us? Who can we help out of the tragedy of unemployment and mimic this landlord in creating the kingdom of heaven? Who do we need to reach out to, and ensure they know that they matter….to us….and to God? Amen.
Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Laying on of hands, 2007.