Sermon Sunday September 20, 2020


Matthew 20:1-16

Before we look more closely at this parable of a landowner and his day laborers, we should back up and consider what might have prompted Jesus to tell this parable to his disciples.  Chapter 19 ends with the rich young ruler who was unwilling to part with his material possessions in order to become a follower of Jesus.  Jesus follows up with a statement about how difficult it would be for a rich person to enter the kingdom.  The disciples were puzzled and asked, “Then who can be saved?”  And Jesus replies with, “For mortals it’s impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

But Peter just can’t restrain himself and replies to this statement with something like: “Lord, we’ve left everything in order to follow you.  Surely we’ll be rewarded for our sacrifices, won’t we?”  Jesus assures them that their reward will be great.  But then Jesus tacks on this bewildering phrase: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  Then, Jesus tells the parable – probably to illustrate this kingdom-principle of reversal – first/last, last/first.

So, there’s a landowner who went our early in the morning to hire day laborers for his vineyard.  Day laborers were typically hired at sunup and paid at the end of the day, which was in accordance with Torah regulation and Jewish practice.  The “usual daily wage” was one denarius, which was barely enough to maintain a family at the level of subsistence.  The first group of workers were hired on the basis of an oral agreement for this “normal amount.” The nine, twelve, and three o’clock workers were simply promised that they would be paid “whatever is right.”

Although the first group has a “contract” and the second can only trust in the master’s sense of justice, in reality both groups depend on the trustworthiness of the landowner.  In the closing scene in which all are paid the same, the middle groups are ignored in order to focus attention on the “first” and “last.”  Sounding familiar now?  The landowner orders that those who were hired last will be paid first.  And they receive a full day’s pay.  Those hired first now expect that fairness requires that they receive more, but they get the same amount.

It just isn’t fair, is it?  These “five o’clock slackers” are paid the same as those who’ve labored all day!  It violates our inherent sense of justice.  Children, even at a very young age seem to be equipped with an internal justice-meter that compels them to cry out, “that’s not fair!” – especially when one of their siblings appears to be favored.

And we seasoned, mature adults also react with a sense of unfairness to a story like this.  We live and function in a competitive culture which is based on a merit system that demands fairness/justice.  Ours is no egalitarian society based on the Marxist slogan:  “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”  In reality we’ve twisted the first/last sayings of Jesus to read something more like: “The first should be generously rewarded and the last should get what they deserve – little or nothing.”

This materialistic and hierarchical philosophy has also invaded and permeated the church.  Our Christian minds are held captive by the American Dream rather than by the Kingdom of Heaven – where the first will be last, and the last will be first.

The grumblers in the parable are envious of the generosity shown to the “five o’clock slackers.”  But maybe they’re not really against grace; but only against the grace shown to others whom they think are undeserving.  Ah, but isn’t that the very meaning of grace?  God’s unmerited favor toward the undeserving?  

You see, in God’s kingdom, we’re all merely “five o’clock slackers.”  We’re all saved by grace.  “While we were sinners, Christ died for us,” says Paul.  As one of my late mentors used to say: “If it’s not amazing; it’s not grace.”  Grace is always amazing grace.  If it can be calculated or earned – then it’s no longer grace.  And the bottom line of the parable is this:  God’s grace is offered equally to all.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.