As the journey of Lent continues, so does my invitation to ponder our motto: We Agree to Differ. We resolve to Love. We Unite to Serve. All throughout Lent, I am preaching a series of sermons on the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church. Each sermon will have two texts: the Scripture lesson assigned by the Narrative Lectionary and the church motto of Plymouth Church.
So right now my plan looks like this:
March 10 We Agree to Differ Matthew 18:15-35 (Forgiveness)
March 17 We Resolve to Love Matthew 20:1-16 (Parable of the Workers)
March 31 We Unite to Serve Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of Bridesmaids)
April 14 Join the Crowd Matthew 21:1-17 (Palm Sunday)
April 21 With Fear and Great Joy Matthew 28:1-10 (Easter)
Last week we started with We Agree to Differ. (You can read that blog post here). This week we move on to We Resolve to Love. And our text for reflecting on this part of the motto is a strange one: The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
“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.”
Here is the thing about this story: It is easy to understand and hard to swallow.
But the story tells us something important about love: Love is not fair. The love of God for my fellow workers in the vineyard may not look fair to me as I understand fairness. Love does not deal in cold calculations.
The story speaks for itself: Day laborers are hired to work in a vineyard at the start of the day. And throughout that day, other workers are added –at 9, noon, 3 and even 5 pm. When the workday ends, everybody lines up to get paid. Those who worked one hour get a full day’s wages! This leads those who worked the whole day to anticipate more and to claim injustice when they receive the same amount. In response to their grumbling, the landowner reminds them that he can do whatever he wants with his own money.
For MY money, the crux of the story is in verse 15. The NRSV renders it as “Or are you envious because I am generous?” But the Greek is much more poetic than that. Literally, verse 15 says, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
The love of God is not fair. It’s good. The grace of God is not fair. It is good. But when we look on the love of God through the lens of our own selfishness, it looks wrong. It may get our hackles up. It may make us angry.
But a lot of this depends on where we see ourselves in the story. A Charles Cousar points out in Texts for Preaching, this is a story addressed to insiders. Jesus is teaching his own disciples; those who got in on the ground floor. Of course they will identify with the workers who spent the whole day in the vineyard.
And, in my experience, most readers do that. We like to see ourselves as hard working and deserving of our wages.
But in his remarkable little book What Do They Hear?, Mark Allan Powell reminds us that our interpretation of a story depends on what he calls “empathy choices” –with which character in this story do I identify? Why? What if I tried stepping into different characters’ shoes? How would that change my understanding of the story?
In this instance, I want to push back on my own empathy choice. WHY do I identify with the workers who put in a full day? Why do I suppose that I am more like them and less like the workers who worked on hour?
And consider this: Matthew is most likely a Jewish Christian, writing his Gospel from the perspective of a Jewish Christian community. (I talked about this a couple of months ago). As far as they are concerned, it is the Gentile Christians who are the Jane-and-Johnny-Come-Latelys.
As far as Matthew is concerned, I am the one who shows up late. And I get paid a full days’ wage.
Is that fair?
No. That’s grace.
The thing I have to ponder as I prepare to preach is this: The parable offers a stark image of the love of God. It helps us appreciate just how offensive that can be.
But our motto says We Resolve to Love. We resolve…to do away with fairness? We resolve…to treat others as they are treated in this text? We resolve to love…even at the risk of causing great offense?
It’s a lot to ponder. See you in church!