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The Rev. David Minnick
Sunday, 21 September 2014
Text: Phillipians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Sermon 09-21-14 Matthew 20: 1-16
Today we hear a parable from the lips of Jesus that is either extremely good news or extremely troubling news. This lesson comes during Jesus’ travels from Galilee to Jerusalem. In chapter 19, we hear that Jesus and the disciples are leaving Galilee and in chapter 21, we read that they are arriving in Jerusalem. And along that journey, the end of which would lead to the beginning of that time we now mark as Holy Week, Jesus gave a series of teaching lessons and this one very special parable. Jesus may have known that these are likely to be the last few days of normalcy for them, knowing that once they enter Jerusalem, the stakes will be raised, and life as they have known it will become very different. And so, the lessons take on a more personal nature and the parables become more dramatic.
Because so many look to God for divine justice, to be the one who levels the playing field, this parable seems out of sorts. Those who hear it are likely to want to go back to the beginning, sure they have not misheard it.
It is an odd parable. The owner of a vineyard goes out to where the available laborers are gathering that morning. It looks to be a hot and dry day, an ideal one to gather up the harvest. He selects a group of them, early in the morning about 6 am and promises to pay them a denarius for a day’s work. They head out into the field to earn their daily bread. After breakfast, around 9 am, the vineyard owner heads back and hires more laborers to work, to work what will now be a 9 hour rather than a 12 hour day and promises to pay them each one denarius. At noon, he stops by again, this time hiring more laborers to work a six hour day for one denarius. He comes by again at 3 pm, hiring some to work just three hours for one denarius, and then again at 5 pm, this time, promising those willing to work just one hour, the same wages, one denarius, as those who are nearing the end of their 12 hour day.
Sure enough, this style of economics is celebrated by those who worked only one or three hours that day and harshly criticized by those who worked all day. In his defense, the vineyard owner points out that everyone got the wage they agreed to and then challenges those are unhappy, asking them, “are you envious because I am generous?”
Now, not all of us can relate to the emotions of those who have worked all day under the hot sun and the differing emotions of those working just one hour. And so, one faithful preacher of modern times, Will Willimon, tells the parable in what would likely be for most of us, a more familiar setting, an academic setting.
Imagine if you were taking a two semester class in higher mathematics. On the first day of the class, the professor hands everyone a thick loose leaf binder, which contains a very complicated math problem. He assures everyone that if they are diligent, using the lessons they learn each class, and apply themselves to working on this problem on an ongoing basis, they should succeed. And he warns them that they had best work regularly and steadily on this problem, integrating the knowledge they learn each week, as their success in solving this will determine their grade for this demanding two semester class.
And so, you do as the professor suggests. Working each night on solving the problem, investing yourself a some time each night, week after week, through the first semester. As the semester draws to a close, you see another student from the class and ask how they are doing in their work on this detailed problem. “Oh that, I haven’t opened the book yet. I’ll get to it over the break.”
When everyone comes back from winter break, you see the same student and ask how they did in their effort to solve the problem. “Still haven’t gotten to it. I had a chance to go to Colorado to go skiing with some friends. I’ll start on it next week.”
Asking around, it appears that you are in a distinct minority of students working on the project. Almost everyone you speak to has excuse after excuse as to why they haven’t gotten started yet.
Finally, the last day of class arrives. The professor asks that the students look over their work one more time before submitting it to him for final grading. You faithfully double check your work and head up to the professor’s desk. The professor looks over the workbook, dutifully reviewing one page after another, adding a check mark at the top of each. He closes the book and congratulates you on your hard work and on the A you’ve earned as a result.
You sit back to glory in your A and to see what grade the other students will get. Next up is the ski bum. He hands over his notebook and the professor reviews his work, page after page. At the end, the professor congratulates the student on his work, announcing that he too has received an A for the two semesters work. The ski bum smiles and says in response, “I could never have gotten it all done if you hadn’t come over to my apartment last week and spent the afternoon walking me through it.”
Sitting there stunned, another student who you recall couldn’t even find the loose leaf workbook last week, turns it in for review. The professor checks it out thoroughly, page after page, before declaring it complete and awarding yet another A. The procrastinating student gratefully thanks the professor, commenting, “You’ve saved my life professor. I can never thank you enough for coming over to the dorm and spending all last night going over this with me. The least I could have done was taken you to breakfast this morning.”
You complain to the professor of the injustice here; about how unfair it is that you worked methodically on the project, how he never had extra time to work with you on this, and how it doesn’t seem right that others can avoid any hard work and get his assistance to get the same grade. To which the professor responds, “I want all of my students to do well, to get As. Are you envious of my efforts to help them succeed?” (textweek.com website)
All of us can relate to the inferences of injustice. Not a month goes by that a letter doesn’t come to Dear Abby about unfair inheritances among siblings. It seems like every week I get into the line at the grocery market which moves the slowest and I grit my teeth as those who got in other lines are on their way out the door while I’m still waiting to be checked out.
And while all of that eats at us, the fact is that in this parable, Jesus is not seeking to teach about justice and fair play, but grace. Through the filters of our own minds and life experiences, this appears to be a story about justice, but it’s not. It is a story about grace; God’s abundant, overflowing and transformative love that comes to us in ways we do not and cannot earn, but comes to us nonetheless.
This parable unsettles us because God’s ways are not our ways. In an effort to follow and be faithful to God, we seek to establish justice and order. We are confident we are doing the right thing in following the Word of God. But this parable unsettles all that with the reminder that even more than justice, God blesses us with grace.
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fear relieved
How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”
God’s abundant, unilateral love is indeed something that is unnatural and out of the ordinary, that ought to unsettle us. In that way, grace can lead our hearts to fear and believe.
Picture that everyone, at the time of their birth, is given a silo full of grain, symbols for the love and blessings one will consume over the course of their lifetime.
Early in life, an infant, child, young adult, only takes from that silo. No one expects someone at that age to contribute or add to the grain in their silo at that stage of life. But at a certain age, we are expected to start giving back and not just taking. Over the course of a lifetime, one will never ever re-fill that silo. We end our days on this earth, no longer how many they are, in debt. No one can ever fill that silo from which they draw grain. Only grace can.
Grace is unearned love. We cannot earn it and that confuses us as people of faith. We want our discipleship to count. We want God to acknowledge our sacrifices and effort. And yes, our discipleship does count. And yes, God does acknowledge our sacrifice and hard work in the name of faith.
Paul challenges us in the lesson from Phillipians—“live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel.” Living life fully, with a rich appreciation of the injustice but wondrous gift of grace, is what we are called to do.
But more importantly, and this was the tough lesson Jesus is trying to communicate with this lesson, God’s grace flows to those who are in the church every time the doors are open as well as those who have come here for the first time today. That’s the grace that teaches our hearts to fear. It’s unsettling, unfair, out of the natural order of things.
Sometimes the good news of this parable frustrates and dissettles us. And sometimes it is redeeming and renewing.
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.
Life isn’t fair, you’re right. But even better than fair, life is full of grace.
Last Sunday was Rally Day Sunday here, the beginning of a new program year and a new year in Sunday School. The story is told of a church school superintendent who was registering two new sisters in the Sunday School. When she asked them how old they were, one replied, “We’re both seven. My birthday is April 8th and my sister’s is April 20th.” The superintendent replied, “That’s impossible girls.” The older sister spoke up and said, “No, it’s true. One of us is adopted.”
“Oh,” the superintendent asked, “Which of you is adopted?” The two sisters looked at each other and said, “We asked Dad the same question awhile ago, but he just looked at us and said that he loved us both equally and that he loved us so much, he couldn’t remember.” (from God’s Little Lessons on Life for Women,)
To be the recipient of that kind of transformative and redemptive love is to know the wonder of “grace my fears relieved.” That kind of love is the kind of love Jesus seeks for us to know and glory in as he tells this parable.
This is not a parable about justice, but about grace. God’s overwhelming love for us that allows us to know the wonders of life, forgiven, renewed, starting anew. Grace is a level of love that likely only God is capable of, but to which we are called by Jesus, and encouraged by Paul today, to strive toward. “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel” is yet another reminder of the gospel call. Even knowing that we are unlikely capable of loving and forgiving others, extending the wonder of grace to them, Jesus calls us to try. To stretch, to risk, to seek to love as freely and wastefully as God does.
“Are you envious of my generosity?” the vineyard owner asks. More than likely we are, but those who have known the wonder of God’s redeeming and transformative grace will find themselves envious not of that level of generosity, but envious that they have not yet learned to love as wonderfully and completely as God. The good news is that is that we are blessed today with another day of life and for those who know the wonder of the grace of God, it is yet another day to try to share that grace with others. Thanks be to God. Amen.