Pentecost 16, Proper 20, Year A – Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Title:Pentecost 16, Proper 20, Year A – Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

 Holy Eucharist, Sept. 20, 2020 – Season of Creation III (full size gallery)

The Pavilion has come a long way since the roof went on 3 weeks ago in August. On Sept 6, the ceiling had been added with holes for lighting and a central fan.

By Sept 16 Gable end was added. The fascia board was under the roof. The post brackets were in place. New white paint had been applied. By Sept 20, The floor brick was laid on concrete with sand filling.

Further work involved an electrician to add the lighting and fan which was done by Sunday Sept 27. More filling had to be place to stabilize the bricks.

Thoughts from Lutheran minister, the Rev. David Lose on the Gospel this week:

“In reading this parable this week, I was reminded of the 1992 Academy Award-winning film Unforgiven, where Clint Eastwood plays a gun-slinging loner who rides into a Western town to settle some scores. Those of you familiar with Eastwood’s trademark westerns won’t be surprised that the film ends up in a violent confrontation, this time between his character and a wayward sheriff played by Gene Hackman. At the climax of the film, when Eastwood has bested the sheriff, Hackman’s character complains that he doesn’t deserve this. Yeah, maybe he’s a bit crooked, but for the most part he’s worked hard, he’s done a decent job, he’s built a good life. He just doesn’t deserve to have things end this way. To which Eastwood replies, in a voice as dry as a sun-scorched desert, “Deserving’s got nothing to do with it.”

“I thought of this scene when reading today’s parable because, quite frankly, it feels like deserving ought to have something to do with it. This parable – often called the “Parable of the Day Laborers” or “The Laborers in the Vineyard” – is one of the strangest and hardest and, I think, most important of all the parables Jesus tells.

“Before I get to that, let’s review and unpack the key details of the story. It begins and revolves around two kinds of people. The first is a landowner or, more specifically, the owner of a vineyard. As is true today, so also in the first century, if you own a vineyard, you’re probably doing pretty well in life. The other character – or, really, characters – are the day laborers, and they live at pretty much the other end of the economic ladder. Day laborers are people who don’t have a regular job. People who go into the town each morning hoping they’ll find work so they can feed their family. They’re not beggars, they’re not destitute, but they pretty much live right on the edge between subsistence and poverty.

“When the parable starts, the owner of a vineyard needs some help. It’s likely harvest time and the work is plentiful, so he goes into town at dawn to hire some additional workers, agreeing with them on a daily wage of one denarius, about the amount it takes to feed a family for a day. As the day goes on, it turns out that the land owner needs more help, so he goes out again at nine in the morning and tells some more laborers that if they work, he’ll pay then what is right. No amount is named, just a promise that he will do right by then. And then he goes out again at noon, and then once more at 3:00 in the afternoon, and finally one last time at 5:00 p.m., which is kind of a head-scratcher, because there’s only one hour left in the twelve-hour work day. But he hires them too and sends them into the vineyard.

“And then, at 6:00 in the evening, he tells his manager to settle accounts, and the folks who came last and worked only one hour are paid first. And when they show up, they are likely astounded that they received a full day’s wage. That’s right. They’ve worked just one hour – about 8 ½ % of the work day, but they’re getting a 100% of a full day’s wage. Which means they’re likely not just surprised, but probably overjoyed.

“And maybe the only people happier than those hired at the last hour are those hired at the first. Again, think about it. They worked twelve hours and just saw the dudes who only worked one hour get a full day’s wage. So it’s not hard to imagine that they’re expecting to get more, maybe a lot more. But when they show up to be paid, they also get a single denarius. And that doesn’t seem fair. I mean, they worked for twelve hours, enduring, as they understandably grumble, the scorch of the sun all day long. They deserve more.

“Now, I mentioned earlier that I think this parable is one of the strangest, hardest, and most important of Jesus’ parables. It’s strange because it actively invites us to identify with the characters that come out on the short end of the stick. I mean, we get why they’re angry. We would be, too. And yet when they complain the vineyard owner pretty much puts them in their place: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. I’m paying you exactly what we agreed to. If I want to pay someone else more, what is that to you?” He then goes a little further, questioning their motives, even their character: “Or are you envious because I am generous?”

“Ugh. Fine. He’s right. But here’s the thing: no matter what the landowner says, no matter that I know, technically, that’s he’s right. It still bothers me. Like Gene Hackman’s sheriff, I feel like the day laborers who worked all day don’t deserve this. And that’s why this parable isn’t just strange, but also hard. Because everything we know about life in this world tell us this isn’t fair. Whatever the contract, given that the laborers who worked just an hour got a full day’s wage, the ones who worked all day deserve more. Clint Eastwood, or in this case Jesus, the who’s telling this story, notwithstanding, it should be about deserving.

“But maybe this is why this parable is so important. Because, as I said, everything we know about life in this world tells us this is unfair. But Jesus isn’t telling us a parable about this world as it is, he’s telling us a parable of the kingdom, that is, of the world as God wants it to be, a world where everyone is treated the same, despite what they’ve contributed or have, where everyone is accorded the same dignity, respect, and reward.

“Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray. He answers, as we are reminded each week in worship, with what we call the Lord’s Prayer. And that prayer – one of the central pieces of our worship and faith – invites us pray for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done. Jesus tells us to pray, that is, and along with prayer to work, for the world that God desires, a world, according to this parable and all the teachings of Jesus, where all people are treated with dignity and respect.

“But there’s something else going on as well. Throughout the parable, the main character in the story, the one who owns a vineyard and hires the workers, is regularly referred to as a landowner, which isn’t just a description but a title designating someone who is prominent, influential, and can hire and pay as many workers as he needs.

“But something significant changes near the end of the story. When the understandably frustrated laborers who worked all day name their complaint, they don’t address the landowner with this title, or any title, or even particularly respectfully. They just complain. And when the lord of the vineyard responds, he doesn’t cut them short. He lets them speak, and then he answers, reminding them that he is paying them exactly what they’d agreed to. But before he makes his case, he addresses them as “Friend.” Not, “you” or “hey, day worker,” or “who do you think you are,” but “friend.”

“Why? I think it’s to suggest that, in the kingdom of God, these typical divisions of wealth and power don’t…really…matter. It’s a way of moving beyond all the usual distinctions they live with and invite them into deeper relationship, into genuine relationship, starting with him. The landowner who calls them friend might also be inviting them to see their co-workers – even the ones who showed up for just an hour – differently. We don’t know, at the end of the day, why those last workers weren’t hired earlier. Do they struggle with some disability or disease, is there something else about them that made employers biased against them? We don’t know. And this landowner doesn’t care. When he sees they’re available, he just hires them and pays them what everyone else gets. It’s not fair; it’s more than fair.

“Right now, we’re having a lot of conversations about fairness, about, to use another word, equity in our community and world. And not just conversations, but questions: what does real equity look like? What is fair about what’s going on right now? What is the most fair thing we can do? What does God want from us, expect from us, and look for from us as individuals and as congregations?

“There aren’t any easy answers to these questions. But I think this parable invites us to imagine that for any conversations about fairness to have meaning, we have to start with relationships. We have to be willing to share our stories, to listen to the stories of others, and especially to listen to the stories of those we don’t know as well. That’s not easy, and can be challenging, and it will absolutely take a measure of vulnerability. But I think it’s something we can invite our people to do, Dear Partner, even now. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to retreat into our separate corners. We don’t have to always agree. But we can start listening to each other, to those in our congregations and those beyond, to those we usually listen to and (especially!) those we don’t.

“We enter into these conversations recognizing that we will fall short. That our biases and preconceptions and lack of understanding and inherited fears will all get in the way. That even when we operate with good intentions we’ll make mistakes. But thankfully, this strange, hard, and important parable reminds me that, at the end of the day, it’s actually notabout deserving, but rather about being known and accepted and loved and redeemed, not because of who we are or what we’ve done or not done, certainly not because of the color of our skin, our accomplishments or lack thereof. But simply because that’s who Jesus is – the one who surrenders all titles and claims and calls us – each of us – “Friend,” and then invites us, first, to see those around us as friends and fellow children of God and, then, to work for the world of equity God desires, praying as we go, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”