16 Pentecost – Proper 20A
Jesus told this parable to the disciples following his conversation with a rich young man who was unable to give up his possessions to follow Jesus (Mt. 19:26). When Peter pointed out that he and the other disciples had in fact left everything behind and should receive a greater reward, Jesus responded with this parable.
This story may sound as if it describes an imaginary scene but this is far from the case. This kind of scene happened frequently at harvest times in Palestine. The grape harvest ripened towards the end of September. If the harvest was not gathered before the rains broke, it was ruined. So, it was a frantic race against time to get the harvest in. Any worker was welcome, even if he could only work for an hour.
What is described here is typical of labor practices in the ancient world. However, the story takes a curious twist when the landowner instructs the manager to pay all the workers the customary daily wage of one denarius, beginning with those who had worked for only one hour. Seeing this, those who had worked longer expected that they would be paid more. However, to their astonishment and anger, they too received just one denarius.
The disgruntled workers confronted the landowner, pointing out that they had toiled for twelve hours in the scorching heat. It was unfair that they would receive the same pay as those who had worked only one hour. The landowner reminded them that he paid them exactly what they had agreed on earlier in the day, so they should take their pay and go. He asked, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The lesson here is of the landowner’s generosity. Everyone got a day’s wage. Everyone could go home and feed their family. Just as it was with manna in the wilderness in the Exodus journey, everyone got enough, no one got too much, nothing was left over: God’s economy.
Jesus was telling a simple agricultural story whose meaning wasn’t in the specific details of the story, but in the story itself. The extravagance of God’s grace and love is the main point of this story. Human standards are not to be used to measure God’s generosity. In God’s kingdom, all are equally loved.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we can understand why the laborers who worked all day are angry. Everything we know about life in this world tells us they were treated unfairly.
But Jesus isn’t telling us a parable about this world as it is; he’s telling us a parable about God’s kingdom, the world as God wants it to be; a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.
The scandal of this parable is about coveting, about our frustration with the grace of God as it applies, not to us – but to others. The grumbling on the part of the full-day workers was natural. The answer to the landowner’s question, “Do you begrudge my generosity?“ is, in all honesty – yes! No one has been denied, no one cheated, no one received less that what was agreed upon. The offense lies in the generosity to others.
This parable is also a warning against pride and a sense of entitlement. The generosity of God often upends our estimation of who deserves what. The offense of grace is not in the treatment we receive, but in the observation that others are getting more than they deserve.
In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jonah was offended that God accepted the repentant people of Nineveh. God’s forgiveness and generosity didn’t seem fair to him. God sends sun and rain on the just and the unjust, the good and the bad (Mt 5:45). That offends some of us.
Jesus invites us on a journey that includes our being generous with others as God is with us. We are created in God’s image to love, to give, and to be extravagantly generous with others.
What if we acknowledge each of our sisters and brothers in Christ as God’s beloved child, not worrying about what they deserve or don’t deserve?
What if we honestly “forgive others who trespass against us” in the certain knowledge that God forgives them and us?
What if we earnestly pray that God will use us as instruments of his peace and love, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves”?
The good news of this story is that God’s grace is so extravagant and surprising. God provides for us no matter how late in the day it is. We simply need to accept and receive it. It’s never too late to accept God’s amazing grace!
Sermon for Proper 20A, September 20, 2020, YR AResources: William Barclay, 1975; Fred Craddock, et.al., 1987; Synthesis, 2017; David Lose, 2020.