Sermon for September 13th, 2020

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Matthew 20:1-16

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When 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.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Jesus & His Pair of Bowls: The Vineyard Workers

Today is the first sermon of a brand new series on the parables of Jesus, but I'm aware that this week was also the first week of the 2020 NFL football season--one many people weren't sure would actually happen. And so, in order to tie these two "firsts" together, I have a story, a fable, a "parable" if you will...

The animals were bored. Finally, the lion had an idea. "I know a really exciting game that the humans play called football. I've seen it on T. V."He proceeded to describe it to the rest of the animals and they all got excited about it so they decided to play. They went out to the field and chose up teams and were ready to begin. The lion's team received. They were able to get two first downs and then had to punt. The mule punted and the rhino was back deep for the kick. He caught the ball, lowered his head and charged. First, he crushed a roadrunner, then two rabbits. He gored a wildebeast, knocked over two cows, and broke through to daylight, scoring six. Unfortunately, they lacked a placekicker, and the score remained 6 - 0. Late in the first half the lion's team scored a touchdown and the mule kicked the extra point. The lion's team led at halftime 7 - 6. In the locker room, the lion gave a peptalk."Look you guys. We can win this game. We've got the lead and they only have one real threat. We've got to keep the ball away from the rhino, he's a killer. Mule, when you kick off be sure to keep it away from the rhino."The second half began. Just as the mule was about to kick off, the rhino's team changed formation and the ball went directly to the rhino. Once again, the rhino lowered his head and was off running. First, he stomped two gazelles. He skewered a zebra, and bulldozed an elephant out of the way. It looked like he was home free. Suddenly at the twenty yard line, he dropped over dead. There were no other animals in sight anywhere near him. The lion went over to see what had happened. Right next to the dead rhino he saw a small centipede."Did you do this?" he asked the centipede."Yeah, I did." the centipede replied. The lion retorted, "Where were you during the first half?""I was putting on my shoes."

Parables are fictional stories that contain a teaching of some kind. I'm not quite sure what the teaching was in that story, but in the Bible, parables are Jesus' favorite method of teaching. In fact, one third of all the teachings and sayings of Jesus are parables. A few years ago, I did a series on the most famous parables of Jesus--the parable of the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the good samaritan, among others.

This time, I want to focus on some parables that are less familiar, less well known. I'm calling this series "Jesus and his pair of bowls." Of course, that's a pun, a dad joke, a play on words (pair of bowls, parables) but there's also a deeper meaning to this title. Every parable has two meanings, two bowls. The surface level story that Jesus tells in one bowl...but the deeper, spiritual meaning in the other bowl. One story, in two bowls. Often what's contained in the second bowl may not be what we expect, or even what we have been taught to believe.

In today's parable, a landowner hires some laborers to work in his field at the beginning of the day. Then he hires some more workers in the middle of the day, and some more still at the very end of the day. And when the time comes to pay them their promised wages...he pays all of them the same amount, regardless of how many hours they have worked.

As those listening to the story (both in the first century, and also in the 21st century) this goes against our intrinsic sense of fairness and justice. We understand that those who work MORE should be paid more, and those who work less should be paid less. Thats the way the world works, right? That's basic economics and capitalism. And yet, Jesus teaches that this is NOT the way the "kingdom of heaven" works. This is NOT God's economy, not God's justice.

The traditional understanding of this parable is that the workers in the vineyard represent those who are "saved," by converting to Christianity, and the "reward," or payment represents our eternal reward, or going to heaven when we die. Those who live good and faithful Christian lives from their earliest days receive the exact same reward as those who live hedonistic lives and wait until the very end to accept Jesus as their savior...all are welcomed equally into heaven in the end.

I don't disagree with this viewpoint, but I think it misses the point. I'll come back to that later.

Another classic interpretation of this parable is that the first workers in the vineyard represent the Jewish people of Jesus' day--those who

  • The promise of the landowner is one denarius--enough for one's "daily bread."
  • Calvin: Do we work for reward/punishment, or out of love for working in the vineyard (God's kingdom)?
  • It is better to be humble and generous than to be "fair".
  • Parable is bracketed by sayings of "first/last"
  • My favorite question: WHO ARE YOU/WE in this parable?