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 it's also the first week of the 2020 NFL football season. 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 the humans play called football. He proceeded to describe it to the rest of the animals, and they got excited and decided to play. They went out to the field, chose their 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 went deep for the kick. He caught the ball, lowered his head and charged. First, he crushed a roadrunner, then two rabbits. He knocked over two cows, and broke through to daylight, scoring a touchdown. 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. So at halftime, the lion's team led by 7 - 6. In the locker room, the lion gave a pep talk. "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 right at the ten yard line, the Rhino dropped, unconscious. There were no other animals in sight anywhere near him. The lion went over to see what had happened. Right next to the rhino he saw a small centipede."Did you do this?" he asked the centipede. "Yeah, I knocked him out," the centipede replied. The lion roared: "Where were you the entire first half?" "Sorry," said the centipede, "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. Imagine the story itself in one bowl...and the deeper, spiritual reality in the other bowl. One story, in two bowls. Often what's contained in the second bowl is 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.

This pushes (intentionally, I think) right up against our intrinsic sense of fairness and justice. Those who work MORE should be paid more, and those who work less should be paid less, 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 God is the landowner, and we are the workers. Those who choose to work in the landowners field are those who choose to follow Jesus and are thus "saved." The "reward," or payment of one denarius 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 wait until the very end to accept Jesus as their savior...all are welcomed equally into heaven in the end.

There are some problems with this interpretation of the parable. First of all, it would seem to encourage people NOT to follow Jesus until the last minute, late in life. Second is the "eternal reward" part. A denarius (the wage given to each worker) is not a lot of money. It has been described as enough to feed one family for one day. This is minimum wage, subsistence living. Does it really make sense for Jesus to compare an eternity in heaven (you know, the place with mansions and streets of gold?) to poverty wages? That's not exactly a great sales pitch for the afterlife.

And therein lies the third problem. Usually when Jesus is talking about the "Kingdom of Heaven" or the "Kingdom of God" he's not talking about the afterlife at all. He's talking about an idealized version of THIS life, here in this world--one that will come about only if and when God's people start taking seriously the command to love one another as God has loved us.

Another classic interpretation of this parable is that the early workers in the field represent the Jews and ancient Israelites--those who have been working for God a long time--while the later workers in the field represent Gentiles, the first Greek and Roman followers of Jesus who were relative newcomers. Their legitimacy was often called into question, and in fact this was the greatest debate of the early, 1st century church--can you really be a follower of Jesus if you aren't Jewish, like Jesus was? According to this interpretation of the parable, the answer is "yes." Anyone can be a follower to Jesus, even those who weren't part of the original covenant, the original deal between God and Israel.

There's even a third (and fairly recent) interpretation of this parable that says it's really all about social justice and fair wages. Everyone should receive a "living wage" as a universal human right, regardless of employment status. In this understanding, the landowner would be the government, and Jesus would be the original advocate for a "Universal Basic Income" a full 2,000 years before presidential candidate Andrew Yang coined that phrase. It's an interesting idea, but a bit of a stretch, and it probably reflects more of a 20th century fascination with Karl Marx than a first century understanding of the Kingdom of God.

I find it helpful, when reading the parables of Jesus, to ask the question, "who am I in this parable?" Usually, when we read the parable of the workers in the Vineyard, we ask ourselves, "which one of the workers am I?" Am I the early worker, the mid-day worker, or the one who came at the end of the day?" But there's one other possibility. What if we aren't the workers at all? What if we are the rich land-owner?

But I'm not rich, you say! Not so fast...In 21st century America, even if you are among the poorest 20% of our nation's population, you are still approximately twice as wealthy as the global median income level. In other words, no matter who you are in America today, you are rich and powerful compared to most people in the rest of the world.

This could also have been true for many in Jesus' 1st century audience. Yes, he often preached to the poor, but just as often, his message was directed to the pharisees, the Roman centurions, the wealthy and powerful in his time. What if this parable was directed to them, and therefore also to us?

How does the parable read then, if we read it in *that* light?

Before we answer that, I want you to do something. Flip back in your Bibles and look at the verse right before the parable begins. Wait a minute, Pastor Neal, the parable starts in verse one of chapter 20--there's not a verse before it! Yes there is. The chapter and verse numbers were only added to the bible in the 16th century, and sometimes very arbitrarily. Look at the last verse in chapter 19, which could just as easily been the first verse of chapter 20.

It says, "But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." And then look at the last verse of our parable today, verse 16: It says, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Those are bookends. Jesus makes his point, then tells a story to illustrate it, and then tells his audience the point again.

Back to the parable: In Jesus' time, like in our own time, there's this narrative that says, if you are wealthy and powerful, you are the most important one. If you own lots of stuff--like land, or a business, or a house with a garage and a car to put inside it, or enough clothes to wear something different every day of the week, or if you have enough money to eat so much food that you have to pay more money to exercise and lose your extra weight (and I'm certainly guilty of most of the above). If you have those things, then you are important. And those who don't quite have enough of any of those things to make it through one day--they are less important, less deserving--whether they work hard, or whether they hardly work.

But Jesus says that in God's kingdom, the last will be first and the first will be last. If we, the wealthiest and most powerful people on the earth, believed that...if we *really* believed that, what would we do? I think we might be a little less inclined to be wealthy, if we believed that our wealth would someday cause our poverty. We might be more inclined to give away more of what we have, even to those we don't think are too deserving, those who are last in line--if we really believed that they might someday be first in line, ahead of us, and if we thought they might remember.

If we are the wealthy landowner in this parable, then perhaps Jesus is teaching us something about how we are supposed to take care of those around us. It's not the government's job. It's not God's job. It's not even the job of that guy over there, the one who is way more wealthy than I am. Why don't you start with him, Jesus? No. Jesus always starts with me. With you. With those who have heard the parable.

So what does that mean? Are we supposed to give up everything we have and become even *more* poor than we already think we are? Well, in the Bible, Jesus actually *does* ask some people to do that, but not everyone. The landowner in this parable doesn't give up his land, or all of his wealth. He gives one denarius to everyone who seeks his help. He gives all of them an opportunity to do something in return, but what they do (how much they do) is not the most important thing. Their basic needs are the same, whether they work for an hour or a day, and this is what he attends to; this is what he takes care of. This echoes the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, when he says, "give us this day our daily bread." The generosity of the landowner is not lottery style: picking one lucky worker and giving him 50 denarii to lift him out of poverty forever. His generosity (and his fairness) consists in going back to the marketplace over and over again, to keep helping one more person make it through one more day.

So may we all.