XIV Pentecost (20a)

Mt 20.1-16

18 September 2011

Fr. Patrick S. Allen


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Matthew 20.1-16

1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to them he said, 'You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. 5 Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.' 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.' 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, 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 a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first last."

For a couple of summers during college, I worked as counselor at a boys summer camp – the same camp I myself had grown up attending.  One of our duties as counselors was to give a short devotional each evening to our campers before bed, and we were given some advice about how to do that.  We were told to keep it brief, and to focus on Jesus as the expression and manifestation of God’s love, which is good advice for a sermon as well, and I’ll try to follow it this morning.

I remember on the very first night the campers arrived, I gave a little devotion, and when the campers were in their beds and quiet, I walked out onto the porch.  I was surprised to hear that the devotion – actually, it sounded more like a heated debate – continued in the cabin next door, where the counselor had chosen to engage his young charges on the theme of the eternal fate of the never evangelized, which fate, from his hyper-Calvinist point of view, was pretty grim.  I couldn’t follow it all, but it was plain that the campers were upset.  At one point I heard them asking about a kind old man who lived all alone in the woods and was really nice to all the animals.  I couldn’t hear my colleague’s response, but the reaction of the campers came through loud and clear.  Their united voices rose in one swelling chorus that could be heard all across Lookout Mountain in the great rallying cry of aggrieved childhood:  That’s Not Fair!!

Now, first of all, the boys were right.  And second, I learned that summer that there is no more exquisitely fine-tuned sense of justice, of a strict tit-for-tat, quid-pro-quo, even-steven idea of what is fair and what is not, of a precisely equitable allocation of goods and services, rewards and punishments, and a righteously unyielding insistence on the same, than that found among children, and especially, I would venture to say, among young boys. 

These, after all, are the people who brought us “I cut, you choose.”

It’s not fair.  Maybe we feel something of that offense at fair play foregone, that affronted if childish sense of justice denied, when we hear this parable, “the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard,” from our Lord this morning.  And we are, I think, meant to – Jesus seems to be intentionally sticking his finger in the eye of our childish ideas of fair play, so that – if you’ll allow me the paradox – we can begin to see the justice of God.

Because in this parable Jesus is not just giving us a little morality play about envy, though he does expose that deadly, mean-eyed, and miserable sin.  No, he is not just exposing a sin (we have moralists aplenty, in all flavors of religion and irreligion to do that for us), he is revealing the very heart of God, the One in whom true justice meets and greets mercy with a holy kiss.

So, Jesus gives us a householder, a land owner, who goes to the market place to hire day laborers to work in his fields.  He agrees to pay them a denarius, which is scrupulously fair – the value of the denarius being calculated under the monetary system of the day to be a day’s wage for agricultural labor, working more or less from dawn till dusk.  (They worked long hours and hard back then, not unlike a curate or priest associate in our own day!)  But, oddly, the householder returns to the market to hire more laborers throughout the day, at 9 o’clock, noon, 3 o’clock, and even at 5 o’clock – the proverbial, or we should say the “parabolic,” eleventh hour, just an hour before blessed quittin’ time.  And the scandal of course is that they all, whether they were hired at 6AM or 5PM receive the same full day’s wage.

Well, it’s a scandal, isn’t it?  “That’s not fair!” those hired first protest, and we sympathize with them, our sense of justice having been honed razor-sharp on the playgrounds of youth. 

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, they protest.  But the householder exposes the moral fallacy behind their aggrieved sense of justice: 

He replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?

In this householder who rules over his vineyard in generosity, Jesus is showing us a picture of the “Kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Mt 6.33), his justice – same word in the New Testament’s Greek and the underlying Aramaic.

Now, I know that in the interpretation of the parables, it does not do to press the details too hard.  But I think it is worth in this case paying some specific attention to the householder’s actual words.  So notice that with those hired first, the householder agrees with them to pay a wage.  And, again, the economic system of the day allows, actually requires, a specific amount – a denarius.  But to those hired later in the day, the household only says, whatever is right – whatever is just – I will give you.  Unless the householder is a liar, we have to see his generosity as an expression, a manifestation, of another and higher form of justice – a justice which goes beyond (does not negate or undermine, but goes beyond) a strict “to each according to his due” justice which is the bedrock of natural law, and a cardinal virtue to boot.  But in this generous householder, this eccentric employer, we see “a righteousness, a justice, manifested apart from the law, though the law and the prophets bear it witness” (Rm  3.21), as St. Paul says.

Jesus is showing us that God is not an employer who makes contracts, he is a Lover who makes covenants, and the covenant promises are always the same, and always to the infinite advantage of his beloved – you and me in his Bride the Church:  he promises us everything he has – he will give us himself, and only our everything, ourselves, in return.[i]

In return, I say – in gratitude, for his always preceding, always searching gift of himself.  Because God’s gift of himself, his fidelity to his promise, is never a payment for effort, never a wage owed, but simply the expression and manifestation, the overflowing fullness of God’s own nature, of the eternal and internal relation of love within the Most Blessed Trinity, in which the Father, from all eternity, gives all things to the Son, who delights to glorify and present those gifts back to the Father in Love – the power and unity of the Spirit.

That is who God is:  not an employer, but from all eternity, a lover; not a wage payer, but a giver of overflowing generosity.  And he is not fair.  He’s much better than that.

And he calls us to himself, to the house, the home he has prepared for us, purchased with Christ’s own blood – he bids us come, whether it’s our first hour or the eleventh.  And he will give us what is just, what is right:  he will give us himself.

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[i] NT Wright, Matthew, ad loc.

Category:general -- posted at: 2:41pm EST





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