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September 24, 2017, 12:00 AM

Unfair! Extravagant Generosity

by Sandy Bach

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 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.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 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?[d] 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?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[f] (Matthew 20:1-16 NRSV)

I don't know about you, but I feel annoyed.  Here I've worked my fingers to the bone, taking care of that huge vineyard!  I toiled under the hot, scorching sun.  I'm in need of a cool shower and a good meal.  Yet, those late arrivals received the same amount of pay as I did.  They should get what they deserve!

Do you feel the same way?  Are you angry with Jesus for telling this parable?  What's up with this?

Okay.   So, before we put Jesus in the dock, we have to be clear.  The parable is about "the kingdom of heaven."

So, maybe you're ahead of me, already.  If this is about the kingdom, then everyone is equal in there.  Yes.  But, the behavior of the early workers isn't kingdom behavior, is it?  What else are we missing?

A lot.  This simple parable isn't so simple when you get into it.  It's rich in its teachings.

First, we see a landowner who can't get enough workers.  Everyone has an opportunity to labor in the vineyard.  No one is left out.  No one.  Not even those last hour laborers who weren't in line at the marketplace early in the morning, or at 9:00 or noon or 3:00.  Don't you wonder where they were all day?

Even the owner asks them that question: "Why are you standing here idle all day?" (Mt 20:6b)  I suspect they were busy elsewhere, their attention on something else, perhaps other jobs, or they slept in.   As the day waned, they made their way to the day laborer office and found themselves a job.

Everyone has work to do in the kingdom.  The more workers available, the easier the work.  The more workers who arrive the better the variety of gifts and talents to put towards the work.  We're all needed from the mail clerk to the CEO, from the blue-collar worker to the white collar, from the poverty stricken to the wealthy.

Everyone has work to do in the kingdom, because God is so madly in love with the world.  Not just you and me, but all of creation.  Even our enemy.  In the kingdom, everyone works for the kingdom.  Earthly power means nothing.

Another teaching point in this parable is the generosity of the landowner.  He could have paid less money to the late arrivals and no one would have blamed him.  Instead, the early arrivals complain because they don't get a bonus.

When have you felt jealous over a friend's good fortune?  Why her and not me?  She isn't even deserving?  Yet, God is generous.  And only after we study our own life do we realize that generosity.  The fact that you're reading this blog tells me that you can afford an electronic device on which to read it.  Perhaps you have several devices.  And you have food to eat and a roof over your head.

More important, God is watching over you.  You're walking with God each day.  You can speak to God, listen to God, see God at work in the world.  And when we get outside ourselves, we can rejoice in the good fortune of others.  That's the kingdom at work!

Most important, there was nothing any of the workers in the vineyard could do to earn or deserve God's generosity.  We work hard to earn our way in the world, to achieve the promotions and the pay raises.  We work hard to be noticed in all the right ways.  What a relief, that we don't have to do any of that in the vineyard.

When we enter God's kingdom, we are one with each other.  There is joy in the work; we are given an opportunity to work in the kingdom.  There is good work to do with no need of merit.  Work is a gift that is graced on us without our deserving it.

So, when I identify with those workers who spent 12 hours of labor in the hot, scorching sun, I wonder if I might take a different view.  First, that the 12 hours was hard work, but not without the joy of working for the vineyard owner.  That envy didn't enter into things until I got wrapped up in jealousy at the end of the day.  During the day I enjoyed a gracious and undeserved gift.

Second, I could have been the late arrival, receiving what everyone else had received and feeling the joy of being accepted equally.  What if one of those all day workers had high-fived me in celebration?

Most important, none of us in the vineyard got what we deserved.

We received a gift of work and worth: undeserved and gracious in the giving.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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