16 Sunday Proper 20: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Ps 145:1-8; Phil 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, September 24, 2017
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
I think many of us have a romanticized view of the kingdom of heaven—one where we recline on fluffy, white clouds wearing toga style white robes, eating chocolate without ever getting fat, and drinking wine without ever getting drunk. Our version of the kingdom defies the laws of the natural order and reflects a passivity we think we long for because we’ve been promised an opportunity to rest from our labors. Yet Jesus often alludes to a kingdom experience that requires labor and does not defy, but perfects the natural order of things. This morning’s parable is one of those.
We read today’s parable and because we have come to know it and refer to it as the “laborers in the vineyard” AND because we love money, we get focused on the second part of the parable—that part where our understanding and beliefs regarding economics just doesn’t add up with a goody two shoes Jesusy approach which could only be understood as communism. In our world of capitalism and consumerism, competition and limited resources, and achievement and reward, there is no room for parables such as these. We hear this parable every so often, and maybe think that would be nice if the world could be like that but we know that if you take away competition, you take away motivation; if you take away opportunity for advancement, you take away achievement. Sure, these are nice words by Jesus but we will just have to wait until we get to heaven to experience any of that. That’s just what Jesus’s first hearers thought too, but their self-interest belayed an even greater fear.
First century members of Jesus’s audience would have believed that those who achieved more ought to receive more. So, like us, they would have been upset that the laborers who got there at the crack of dawn would have been paid the exact same wage as those who showed up an hour before sunset. An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work; those who got paid the usual daily wage for working one hour would have been considered dishonest through no fault of their own. By accepting the wage, they would have lost the respect of their fellow laborers and their honor would be blighted. They would be labeled dishonorable. We get that, whenever someone gets something we don’t feel they deserve, we respect them less and point out the unfairness of the situation. How many of us still lack respect for Tonya Harding and that whole broken skate lace incident at the 1994 winter Olympics? We see her actions and thus her person as lacking honor. But not only did we thumb our noses at Tonya Harding, we held Nancy Kerrigan up to a status I’m not sure she deserved and certainly would never have achieved had she not been pitted against this evil foe. For us, Nancy Kerrigan had been hired early and was the only one entitled to receive the daily wage.Its not only honor that gets in the way of this story, first century audience members would have also been concerned about the amount of resources available.
The ancient world thought in terms of limited goods; if any one person got more, then another person must get less. There is only so much to go around so if you are giving too much at the beginning of the line, surely you will run out by the time you get to the end of the line: there is only so much soup in the pot, or pieces of chocolate cake that can be cut; the company only made so much money last year to be dolled out in Christmas bonuses. The only time we are ever in favor of fair and equitable distribution of goods is when we are counting presents under the Christmas tree.
For Jesus neither of these things holds true. His world is less one of economic transactions infected by honor, pride, or greed and more a world in which one’s willingness to labor is celebrated. Whereas we are so focused on our limitations, Jesus sees in us only abundance.
Over and over again, Jesus describes the earth as a field ripe for harvest and sends his disciples into it as hired hands into the field. He doesn’t ask for a parochial report or a census on how many conversions were achieved, there is no accounting report given as the disciples re-gather. As someone once said, Jesus asked Peter to feed his sheep not count them. Even our parable this morning doesn’t give us a progress report as to how much was harvested. Payment is a condition of work not production, it is a method of celebration—a day’s worth of harvest has been gathered in—that is something to celebrate and instead it is met with bickering and complaints.We see the time and amount of labor as directly correlated to the amount of pay. But what if this parable had ended like this: “When evening came the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and seat them at the banquet table, fill every man’s plate with plenty and goblet with wine that we might celebrate the harvest.’” Would we be as upset about every man getting the same amount of food at a feast celebrating the work they’ve just done?
We don’t associate paychecks with a celebration of our labor or offer gratitude that we can use our gifts, talents, and opportunities given to us to make the world a little better—at least for the owner of the field, the consumer who will drink the wine, or our families who we support. It is our own brokenness that cheapens our pay, encourages our sense of entitlement, and denies us self-worth through our actions versus another’s recognition of them.
Our system of work and reward is broken because we’ve gotten so focused on the reward that the work has become an afterthought. But that is not true when it comes to the things we love or treasure—a soloist might enjoy the applause at the end of the performance, but it is the performance itself and all the hard work attached to it that are the most satisfying. An athlete might enjoy winning a competition, but they love the feel of muscle and technique joining together through years of training to make the perfect shot. Marathon runners and little league team members all know the joy of receiving a medal at the end of the race or a participation trophy at the end of the season to celebrate the hard work and time spent, the friendships and comraderie that is made, or the new skills that have been learned.
That is the kingdom of heaven Jesus is calling us too—a kingdom in which we labor not just receive payment. Kingdom work is hard work. It is based on relationships. We learn something about ourselves in that work and are transformed in the process. Kingdom work is about partnering with God to do his work of redemption in the world and whether we start first or last does not matter as long as we are participating. As long as there is harvest to be gathered, laborers will be hired and our participation trophy looks a whole lot like salvation.