GOSPEL: Matthew 20:1-16
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
Today, as we continue into the second half of this long season of green, we hear a familiar parable. The parable of the landowner and day labourers.
It is a familiar parable for most folks who have spent years sitting in pews, listening to sermons on the parables of Jesus. This parable caught my attention from an early age. I can picture sitting in church as a child, hearing the pastor talk about this story… even when listening to sermons wasn’t all that interesting to me yet. The way it sets itself up to challenge our assumptions, even when we know the story. The upside down way it treats how the world is supposed to work. They way it speaks to ancient labour practices and yet still seems so applicable and current with the way we understand work today. And the familiar indignity of the workers who worked all day contrasted with the surprising generosity of the vineyard owner. All of these parts of the parable grab us every time we hear it.
But these days we have new ears to hear and the parable comes to us from a different place and with different questions and challenges for us. So much of our focus is on the dangers and risks around us in the world. We hear about massive fires burning far, far away but still sending smoke our way. We read the news about outbreaks at schools in our neighbourhood community. We get blasted with the constant election coverage of our neighbours to the south and the election question is being asked of our own government.
This is a parable that points back to so many of the questions we have faced in the past few months and questions that we are about to face in the coming ones. Questions about privilege, equity and equality, question about justice and human dignity.
When we hear the parable again today, we remember the familiar elements. The landowner hiring workers for his vineyard. Early in the morning, again at 9, in the middle of the day, at 3o’clock and against just before day’s end. We envision this well-to-do landowner coming back again and again to the marketplace, the agora, the centre of a town’s economic and social life.
The day labourers are waiting for work, just as they probably did each day. They waited in the marketplace, hoping to be hired for the day so that they could earn enough to support themselves and their families. The basic currency of that world, the Danarii was based on a day labourer’s wage. Enough money to pay for food and shelter for one day.
We don’t have many similar systems here in Canada, but if you know the right places to look, you can still find day labourers. The first time I saw a group waiting for work as when I was a teenager. Our church youth group travelled to San Diego and then across the border to Tijuana to build houses in Mexico. We stopped at a Home Depot to pick up some supplies and there was a group of men waiting to be hired. As we sat in the van while leaders went into the store, we watched as pick-ups pulled up to the group waiting on the sidewalk. The drivers would call out a number, and the equivalent number of workers would hop in the back.
The first part of the parable would have been a common and easy to understand circumstance for Jesus’ hearers. A landowner goes a hire some labourers first thing in morning, discovers after the a bit, the harvest isn’t progressing quickly enough, so goes to get some more.
But once the owner goes back a third time at noon, this should be setting off our spidey sense. It would be strange to go a hire labourers for half a day, and strange that the labourers were still waiting at noon.
Still the parable gets more strange. The landowner keeps going back, at 3 and 5 o’clock. Why would he keep hiring? How much work could those latecomers do? And why were they still waiting, who did the labourers think would hire them in the middle of the afternoon and at day’s end?
But then we get to the important part. The part that we cannot help but identify with. The part when the landowner pays all the workers the same wage.
There is a part of us that enjoys the indignity of the full day grumblers. We identify with these ones, the ones who feel entitled, who have worked all day and recognize what they have earned. Even if landowner doesn’t pay the extra, the grumbling workers know they have earned more.
They see themselves as the dedicated hard working ones who have put in the time and should reap the reward.
And nearly every sermon I have heard on this parable admonishes faithful Christians in the pews not to complain (even if deserved because of hard work) about those who might come to faith a the end…
Yet, certainly this year, this chaotic and unprecedented 2020 year with natural disasters, protests against racially motivated police violence, and a pandemic… certainly this year is challenging our established understanding of this parable and ourselves.
It is easy for us to think we are the hard workers and the others are the lazy ones looking for a free ride. We rarely attribute our situations to opportunity and good fortune.
Surely, the grumbling workers knew what is was like to be passed over for work. Surely they knew what is was like to wait in the marketplace for the chance to feed their families for another day, only to wait and wait and wait for nothing to come in the end.
Surely, they could see that the latecomers where not lazy layabouts who are taking advantage of a generous landowner, but rather that the early workers were the lucky ones, the ones who could rest easy for the day knowing they their needs would be provided for, that their families would have roofs over their heads and food in their bellies.
If this global pandemic has taught us anything about fairness and privilege, it is often those who are perceived as lazy and taking advantage are often the least advantaged and some of the hardest working. We have see many all of sudden be without work and have nothing to do but wait. We have seen how it is often the poorest least advantaged who are forced to work the front lines of a pandemic world.
And we have heard our own Lutheran Bishops, along with Anglican Bishops write political leaders in support of Guaranteed Basic Income, which is receiving a lot of attention in the news, in legislative halls and around kitchen tables. As the CERB, the Wage Subsidy and other programs kept food on the table and the lights on… we have discovered that there is a lot of luck when it comes to earning a living and hard work is no guarantee that you will have enough.
And so as the workers who worked all day grumble about not getting more than they needed and agreed to work for, the landowner replies to them,
“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The landowner, the one standing in for God challenges the perspective of privilege and entitlement. The landowner challenges it with generosity, with a generosity that gives not based on merit and worth, but based on need. The landowner provides all the workers, the lucky ones who were picked first and the ones who had to wait all day, enough. Enough to eat, enough to feed their families, enough to live.
Guaranteed Basic Grace.
This challenge to the way we understand the world works, this reminder that hard work is often born of opportunity and circumstance and that those who are left to wait and who are left out are the unlucky ones.
And yet Jesus’s challenge to us also reveals the generosity and abundance of God’s grace and mercy given for us.
That God’s approach to us is not to measure us by our hard work or merit, not to give us what we deserve… because we are certainly all lacking and all fall short.
Rather God’s approach is to give us what we need. To show us the mercy and grace that will get us through to another day. God’s approach is to extend life where there only seems to be death. Where there would have been empty bellies and unsheltered heads, God extends life once more.
God’s way with us is to keep life going, to give us one more day. One more day that carries us to the third day, to the day of resurrection, to the day of grace and mercy when life extended. indefinitely.
And this year, God has challenged our sense of fairness, our understanding of opportunity and privilege. God calls us again to consider not what each one of us is worth nor what we think we deserve…. But to consider what each one of us needs. And God reveals the generosity that is given to us.
And however unfair that feels, God gives all the grace and mercy needed for one more day and for life eternal in Christ.