I’m musing ahead of my sermon on Sunday. Lots of ideas still floating about. It has yet to form into a cohesive whole. The parable in question (Matthew 20:1-16) is a unique one. I’ve preached on it before, although I remember how tricky it was. Here’s the gist of it:
The owner of a vineyard goes out to hire workers in the local market throughout the day. He arranges to pay the first wave of workers one denarius, basically minimum wage for a day’s work. He continues to go and hire workers every hour or so, even minutes before sundown. When it’s time to pay, he lines them up and begins to pay from the last hired to the first, and shockingly, they all get the same pay. The ones who worked the longest hours grumble and complain (perhaps rightfully), and the landowner responds by reiterating that it’s his money and generosity. Jesus closes by saying – “So, the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
Here’s a few observations on my end:
- The author of Parables from the Backside focuses on the workers hired last. It’s easy for us to think these folks were lazy or unmotivated, but in reality, there could be lots of other reasons that they did not get hired. I found myself thinking of all of my friends and family members who have been pounding the pavement for weeks and months looking for work in our own economic situation. It is a heartbreaking and exhausting process with little reward.
- Jesus really does key in on the landowner’s freedom. It would have been very unusual for a landowner to hire workers directly, preferring to delegate that task to an estate manager of some kind. And while not paying the first workers more may seem unfair, the landowner didn’t cheat anyone. He was generous. This is one of those shocking twists that Jesus was so good at.
- Though lots of theologians say the point of this parable is not to impose some new economic system, you can’t but look at the realities of our world that produce people who have to seek out labor day by day. In Jesus’ day, this was the fruit of land being conquered, possessed, and sold to foreigners and wealthy. Some farmers may have had to sell their land to pay taxes. You end up with a whole bunch of people who need work and have no means to produce anything on their own. Such a system is very open to major injustice. I’ve heard stories of people hiring day laborers and then dumping them on a random street corner without paying them in modern day. I can imagine that this happened in Jesus’ day too.
- This whole parable is in response to the disciples asking about rewards for following Jesus. What do we get out of it? I admit that I ask that question a lot too. However, Jesus seems to say the reward is the same, no matter those who put in long hours and those who come in to work just before the store closes. That’s challenging – it goes against some of our modern notions of work and compensation. It’s also liberating – there’s not supposed to be a social or corporate ladder in the kingdom of God. We are partners in the work together.
I’ll be praying that this all solidifies into a fun sermon before Sunday.
What do you think of when you read this parable? What sticks out to you?