Broken & Blessed

Click here to read Matthew 20:1-16.

I wonder if I should begin with an apology. The scriptural story we’re considering today is one that is extraordinarily offensive—there really should be warning labels on texts such as this one. It is much more appalling than an R-rated movie. It offends our sense of fairness and topples our concept of love. And it breaks God out of the jail cell we so often put him in, revealing a God who is so merciful and so gracious we are left infuriated, mystified, and maybe even humbled.

The parable of the laborers of the vineyard is what my mother would call a “humdinger.” Jesus once again uses brilliant images to reveal the nature of the Kingdom of God to his disciples, spinning a story worth telling and retelling. In this scripture, a landowner goes out and hires workers to contribute to the hard work of cultivating growth in his vineyard. He finds his workers in the marketplace, where they congregate to wait for work. The first batch is hired at the crack of dawn. These workers are promised a denarius, the amount of money needed to support a family for one day. The workers were probably thrilled that they had been discovered by a landowner willing to pay them a living wage—I imagine they often had to settle for less. The laborers get to work as the sun continues to get exponentially hotter on their backs.

Meanwhile, the landowner returns to the marketplace, hiring more workers at 9:00a.m., a respectable enough time to start a day’s work. Their wage is not discussed; the landowner simply assures them that they will be paid “what is right.” More workers are hired throughout the day, at noon and at three and at five o’ clock. When the sun retreats, and the landowner is ready to call it a day, he has his manager attend to the payroll. Starting with the workers hired last—the workers who did the least amount of work in the vineyard, the workers with the least pain in their muscles and sunburn on their foreheads—he proceeds to pay each and every single worker the same amount. One denarius, enough for each of them to support themselves and their families for the day—the wage that had been promised to the early bird workers. As you can imagine, the workers are livid. They grumble about the perceived slight—only to be rebuffed by the landowner, who reminds them that they received exactly what they were promised. He says, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

We are invited to imagine that this landowner reflects something of the nature of God. By abolishing human definitions of fairness, by obliterating an algebra of merit, the landowner models a way of grace that is truly unnerving. You might have noticed the cartoon I included in the bulletin this morning—I just couldn’t resist sharing such a funny treatment of the gospel passage. This divine landowner seems to have no mind for business and no concern for profit-margins. God really is abundant to the point of appearing bonkers. But beyond the joke, this parable calls out a very real seed of envy and a very potent sense of entitlement within human nature. Imagine yourself in the place of those early bird workers. You have worked hard for what you have. You have earned your share of the profit—you deserve your piece of the pie. So when you find out that the folks who have been lollygagging at the marketplace all day are receiving the same payment as you… well, that’s when our righteous indignation flares up. No matter how many times we’ve been told “life isn’t fair,” we still want to know that our cookie is as big as anyone else’s. We still want to believe that a man who works twice as long should receive twice as much.

And no matter how much we grumble and whine, the God revealed to us through Jesus Christ just will not abide by our standards of fairness. What that landowner wanted was for his workers to have enough for the day. No more and no less. This concept of immediate, daily needs is pretty important to God. It comes up a handful of times in scripture. Proverbs 30:8 petitions, “give me neither poverty nor riches, feed with the food that I need.” And every time we pray the prayer that Jesus taught us, we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” No more and no less. So we really shouldn’t be surprised that justice, to God, means that each and every laborer in the vineyard should receive what he needs to get through the day.

In God’s economics, what we have earned and accumulated is worth nothing. What we give and what we share—how closely we have been able to imitate the kind of generosity demonstrated by the Landowner and by his son, Jesus—that’s what God cares about. One of my colleagues in ministry, Jerry Goebel, writes that when we encounter God face to face, God “will not ask us how much profit we amazed while on earth; he will ask how broke we became- broken hearted, broken in love, broken and blessed! It is in the breaking of the bread that we are blessed, it was in the breaking of Christ’s body, it is in the breaking of our pride and greed. Our blessing comes in giving, not hoarding.”

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is ultimately about our capacity to respond to the first commandment, particularly that part in the small print about loving our neighbors. By responding to the landowner’s generosity with fitful envy, the laborers revealed that they would rather their neighbors go hungry, rather than allow their concept of fairness to be crushed by the landowner. And knowing Jesus, the definition of “neighbor” is cast widely. Our neighbors include those who look, speak, believe, and act differently than us. Our neighbors include not only our friends and family, but our most determined enemies, those folks we foolishly judge to be completely undeserving of the grace of God. This parable is convicting, because it reveals how easy it is to be unloving, how tempting it is to flaunt our supposed goodness in front of God as if God will forget that we were all once idle and purposeless in the marketplace. This parable blows the whistle on our game of self-righteousness, in which we define the boundaries of mercy as if we earned the grace that God has given us.

This parable is a sober reminder that loving our neighbors doesn’t always mean doing what is prudent, logical, or fair. It is a humbling lesson about the character of real love, the quality and density of love that genuinely seeks the goodwill of all people. If we thought we could love our neighbors without caring deeply for their needs, we have been exposed as sentimental at best and hypocritical at worst.

For all painful conviction this parable serves up, it also proclaims the good news loud and clear. This parable is a joyful reminder that all will receive the gift of God’s unconditional love and grace. Each and every laborer was given what he needed to survive and thrive—the first and the last alike. It may be hard to loosen our grip on what we think we are entitled to. It may be hard to get over the lie that the last one to finish the race is a rotten egg. But once we do, once we recognize that everything is God’s, once we inhale the grace of God and realize that it is sufficient, we are freed to be broken by generosity. Broken, and blessed.


Anonymous said...

This was a totally different facet than I heard last Sunday at our church. I appreciate the view and am thoughtful of the differences in the two messages. Thank you for your slant on the message.


Running2Ks said...

I like this interpretation as well. Thank you for coming over and reading what our pastor had to say, too. You have great insight!