Call to Worship/Psalm 145 (NRSV)
I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.
The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.
The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them.
The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.
Your generosity is extravagant, Jesus; your grace and mercy so freely given, your love and presence so readily available, your Spirit and strength so reliable. We are grateful for all of these blessings that we enjoy, and for the goodness they bring into our lives. We praise you for your always coming Kingdom, and the abundant life it offers. But, Jesus, we are also fearful, that your gifts may not be enough, that things may change, and we may find ourselves in need, and so we hoard your goodness, and separate ourselves from others. Forgive us for our little faith, and our selfish grasping; forgive us for our failure to understand that your blessings are always meant to be shared. Teach us to remain awake to your coming and always ready to invite others into the blessings you so freely share with us. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Matthew 20:1-16 (NRSV)
1“For 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.’
8When 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.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am 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.”
Message/Enough Is Enough!
In Atlanta, researchers have been testing the behavior patterns of capuchin monkeys. They gave them the task of picking up a small granite stone and bringing it to the researcher within one minute. If they were successful, they were rewarded with the “wage” of a slice of cucumber. The scheme worked well. It was happy lab situation as long as each monkey received the same wage. But it all turned sour when the researchers varied the pattern. They tried giving one monkey a grape for its reward. Indignation broke out. First, the others withheld their labor, and later they even took to throwing away the cucumber and the granite stone.
Unfortunately, we human beings don’t seem to fair much better. Take a little memory trip with me and think back to your childhood. Think of some of the things children say and, after a moment’s reflection, name what you think they say perhaps more than anything else. Maybe, “I love you”? I’d like to think that, but I’m not so sure. Now that we’re adults we may know how important it is to say and hear those three words often, but I’m not sure we knew that as kids. When I think back to my own childhood—and if I’m totally honest with myself—I’m likely to name three other words: “It’s not fair.” “It’s not fair that I have to do my homework before watching TV.” “It’s not fair that I can’t go play with my friends just because I stayed home sick from school.” “It’s not fair that they got to go swimming today and we didn’t get to.” “It’s not fair!” You can probably fill in the blank and finish that sentence as well as I can, because if there’s one thing we’re all born with, it’s an innate sense of fairness. That’s a powerful and wonderful thing, because that sense of fairness, when developed into maturity, is the foundation for justice and equality: “It’s not fair that some can vote and others can’t, that some ride in the front of the bus while others must stay in the back, that some are paid more for the same work, that some go to bed hungry while others fill landfills with their excess.”
Indeed, our innate sense of fairness can lead to a strong and life-giving sense of justice. But not always—because our innate sense of fairness is often quite egocentric. We tend to assess fairness, as the examples from childhood demonstrate, in terms of what seems fair not only to us but also for us. We tend to measure fairness in terms of our own wants, needs, hopes, expectations, often with little—or at least secondary—regard for the wants and needs of others. And unfortunately, this doesn’t end with childhood. Theologian and author Barbara Brown Taylor says that Jesus’ parable here is a little like the cod liver oil that mothers used to give their kids to cure what ailed them: you know it’s good for you, you trust the one who is giving it to you, but that doesn’t make it very easy to swallow!
Right up front, it’s important to recognize just how tough it was to be a day laborer in Jesus’ time. These are the folks with no regular employment and so must stand undignified and on display in the town square hoping that some landowner or manager needs extra work done and will hire you. The trouble is, there’s always more laborers than there are jobs. And there’s no safety net upon which one can fall back. So if you were both healthy and fortunate, you’d get chosen and work a twelve-hour day and when you were done receive a day’s wage that would provide food for your family for the next day. If you were unlucky or unhealthy, however, you’d be passed over, possibly waiting all day, only to return empty-handed to face the disappointed looks of those who depended on you.
In the parable Jesus tells, everyone finds work. Some are chosen early, some later the late morning, at noon, and mid-afternoon, and some just an hour or so before quitting time. No doubt these last were not just pleasantly surprised but downright flabbergasted by their good fortune when they received a full day’s wage for an hour of work. Not because they hadn’t wanted to work all day. After all, they’d been there just the same as the others—ready, willing, and eager—but they had been passed over, time and again, until right near the end. And so I suspect they were delighted to discover they would be able to provide for their families, at least for another day.
This act of generosity, however, sets up some expectations. Those who had worked all day started doing their calculations (or as Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies would say—“cipherin’”), adding up and anticipating just how much more they would receive than they’d originally expected or contracted for. To be honest, it’s hard to blame them. After all, if the folks who worked just one hour got a full day’s wage, wouldn’t it be only fair to give the folks who worked twelve long hours a little more, or maybe even a lot more? But that’s not what happens. They receive a full day’s wage—nothing more, nothing less—just as they were promised. They are disappointed, probably a bit angry, murmuring their displeasure under their breath through clenched teeth. Can you believe this guy giving us the same pay that those other lay-abouts got? It’s not fair! But the landowner reminds them that, in fact, it’s totally fair—they are being paid just what was promised. If anything, the landowner is being more than fair—he’s downright generous—to those who were invited late in the day, as well as perfectly fair to those who were fortunate to be called to work early.
Why, then, do we begrudge such generosity? Why indeed? Except, perhaps, it’s human nature—fallen human nature, to be more precise. There are many ways to read the story of humanity’s fall into sin in Genesis 3, of course, but to me it’s primarily a story about how, through our own insecurity and lack of trust, we come to understand and assess our lives—not through the abundance we have been given by God—but instead by what we feel we still lack. There was an abundance of fruit in the garden. But we know, given our proclivity to operate out of this same mindset, it still wasn’t enough. It reminds me of something my mother-in-law is prone to say. My mother-in-law’s name is Joanne and, given that our children have always called her Granny Jo, we often describe some of her more proverbial expressions as “granny joisms.” One of her favorites comes to mind here: “Enough is enough and too much is good for nothing!”
Because of this gnawing sense of lack, we define ourselves over and against others, comparing and begrudging their good fortune because it wasn’t our good fortune. Think for a moment, of what this does to the grumbling day laborers. Rather than feeling fortunate to have found work for the day, they feel unfortunate at not having received more. Rather than rejoicing that these other workers—who waited all day for the possibility for work—can return home blessed to be able to feed their families too, they can only begrudge them, perhaps even curse them and their good fortune. And rather than be grateful to the landowner who has given them an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work, they can only grumble against him with resentment.
There is a historical dimension to this parable. Jesus tells it to illustrate the hardness of heart with which those who deemed themselves righteous considered those who by almost any standards were not, begrudging them the grace and mercy of God and the attention of God’s Son. But there’s also an existential dimension that speaks as truly to our own day and time, and lives as it ever did to Jesus’ original audience. This parable lays before each of us a choice as clear as can be. When we look at our lives, do we count our blessings or our misfortunes? Do we pay attention to the areas of plenty in our lives or what we perceive we lack? Do we live by gratitude or envy? Do we look to others in solidarity and compassion or see them only as competition? The hard thing about this choice is that it really is a choice—as unavoidable as it is simple—you can’t really be grateful and envious at the same time. So, which is it going to be?
Jesus is eventually killed precisely because he offers this choice. That is, Jesus is crucified not just because he proclaimed that the grace and mercy of God was available to all, even to those deemed so incredibly unworthy, but also because his declaration revealed the hardness of heart, the stone-cold entrenchment of spirit that is part and parcel of the human condition. His inclusive, boundary-breaking generosity unveiled the envy and competitiveness of those in power. His vision of another way of being in the world—he called it the kingdom of God—betrayed the lie told by the protectors of the status quo that theirs was the only way. Shamed by such a vision, and unable to embrace it, they put the visionary to death on a cross.
Why have we bought into the world’s economics of scarcity and so offended by God’s generosity—God’s economics of excess? The story of Jonah makes a similar point. When God had compassion on the pagan Ninevites, Jonah complained bitterly. When Jonah finally preached to Israel’s neighboring conquerors, the Assyrians in their capital city of Nineveh, the unthinkable happened. The city famed for cruelty and wickedness believed the message and repented. The king even proclaimed a national day of civic repentance. But Jonah found it hard to believe that the city of Nineveh was “important to God.” And just as Jesus asked the grumblers a question, so God asked Jonah a question in the very last sentence of this story: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Or, in Matthew’s Gospel when Peter asked Jesus how much he should forgive someone who offended him, Jesus responds forgive that person 490 times—”seventy times seven.” Divine forgiveness, given and received, is beyond calculation or comprehension. Forgiveness on that scale is wildly disproportionate to the sincerity of the penitent or the seriousness of their offense.
In Luke, Jesus compares God to a shepherd who abandons a flock of ninety-nine sheep in order to find the one lost sheep. In the parable of the prodigal son, God’s like an indulgent father who welcomes back his indigent son with the best party that money could buy, despite the anger of the older son at such excessive generosity. Near the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus signals the abundance of God, even to excess, turning water into copious amounts of wine and at the conclusion of his gospel, John says that the whole world couldn’t contain enough books to describe the deeds of Jesus. Another story in John tells of a woman who caused a degree of controversy by anointing Jesus with a bottle of perfume worth $50,000 in today’s wages.
Barbara Brown Taylor strikes at the heart of this hard-learned lesson by asking a few questions with which I am going to leave us with this morning for our own reflection this week. When we read this parable, why do we tend so immediately to identify with the folks hired at the crack of dawn? Why do we so readily assume that when God’s kingdom fully comes, we will be the ones tempted to feel upset in that we will also be shown to have been the hardest workers of them all? Who told you or me that we’ve been working for twelve hours? How do we know that, just maybe, our work totals the measly one hour after all? Taylor imagines that in the parable, when the farmer improbably hands the one-hour pickers a whole day’s wage, there must have been hoots of laughter and some “Ain’t we the lucky ones!” good-natured backslapping going on. But on that great and final day when Christ shall come again and bring us to himself, we should pray not only that we will discover that the grace of Jesus is more than enough. We should also pray that when we discover that eternally joyful fact, the great laughter and joyful backslapping will be our very own. Indeed—enough is enough.
Third century church father John Chrysostom was known as the “golden throat” due to the eloquence of his preaching. In an Easter sermon, Chrysostom referenced this parable, bringing his sermon to this soaring conclusion.
Let everyone who loves God rejoice in this festival of light!
Let the faithful servant gladly enter into the joy of his Lord!
Let those who have borne the burden of fasting come now to reap their reward!
Let those who have worked since the first hour receive now their just wage!
Let those who came after the third hour keep this festival with gratitude!
Let those who arrived only after the sixth hour approach with no fear;
they will not be defrauded.
If someone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him come without hesitation.
And let not the worker of the eleventh hour be ashamed: the Lord is generous.
He welcomes the last to come no less than the first.
He welcomes into his peace the worker of the eleventh hour
as kindly as the one who has worked since dawn.
The first he fills to overflowing: on the last he has compassion.
To the one he grants his favor, to the other pardon.
He does not look only at the work: he sees into the intention of the heart.
Enter then all of you into the joy of your Master.
First and last, receive your reward…
Abstinent and slothful celebrate this feast.
You who have fasted, rejoice today.
The table is laid: come all of you without misgivings.
The fatted calf is served, let all take their fill.
All of you share in the banquet of faith:
all of you draw on the wealth of his mercy.
We humbly approach your throne of grace, O God, acknowledging our tendency to see others as more fortunate than ourselves, as getting more than their fair share, as somehow more beloved by you. But your love, O God, is so much more than fair.
We are so caught up in our quid pro quo culture; so entrapped by our desire to win at any cost; so ensnared by the temptation to keep scores, that we often forget that your immeasurable love is completely unearned.
Compared to our carefully calculated giving, your love towards us seems illogical, reckless, extravagant, but such is the nature of your grace.
Forgive us when we claim all that we have as our right rather than as your gift.
Forgive us too for when we have resented the love you show towards others, for when we have been angry because you have brought joy to those whom we consider to be unworthy; for when we have measured our own worth rather than rejoiced in your mercy.
Source of all Blessing, you call us to work in your vineyard to reach out to others in your name and bring your healing word, your gentle touch, your encouraging light to them.
Help us to be good workers—ones who seek out the lost in the market places and village squares; ones who are unafraid to see the image of Christ in a stranger; viewing others as brothers or sisters for whom he died and rose again.
Empower us as individuals and as a church to be the kind of ambassadors who know and do your will, so that in meeting us people meet you.
Lord, hear our prayers for our family and our friends, for our church, our community, our nation, and our world. Bring comfort for the grieving, healing to the sick, mercy to the addicted, hope to the depressed, and peace for those suffering from broken relationships.
All these things we pray in the name of Christ Jesus, he who is our life and our hope, who taught us to pray these revolutionary words:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Commission & Blessing
Go out from here as workers in God’s upside-down kingdom,
where the last are first and the first are last,
where needs are often met in miraculous ways, and there is grace enough for all!
And may the blessing of God,
the love of Jesus Christ,
and the presence of the Holy Spirit
surround you and sustain you forever and always. Amen.