The Compassionate Employer - Matthew 20 (The Story of Us #1) Notes
The Story of Us: The Compassionate Employer - He Comes to Us (Matthew 20:1-9)
Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Executive Pastor, Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, July 12, 2015
As the poet Rukeyser declares, “The universe is made of stories, not just atoms.” The scientists among us might have a different insight, and as they offer their rebuttal, you just might hear them say, “let me tell you a story of the nature of the universe.” Why? Because stories are the connections, the glue that binds us together to a shared experience, a shared understanding.
All of human history is anchored in a story: the stories we receive and the stories we tell. A story is the best way of talking about the way the world actually is. Our lives are lived within a narrative. It’s the story of our lives because
story is central;
story binds us;
story creates connection;
story creates emotions;
story shapes our reality.
The stories we tell reveal not just who we are, but who we hope to be.
Introduction - The Parable of the Compassionate Employer.
Over the next several weeks, Nigel Berry, our youth director, and I will preach in a sermon series we are calling “The Story of Us: The Parables of Jesus.” Each week, we will anchor ourselves within a Parable of Jesus.
Today’s parable is found in Matthew 20:1-16. In your Bible, they may refer to this story as the “The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.” This title suggests that the focus of the parable is the workers, but this is a great disservice, friends. You are being primed to focus your attention on the workers, their role in the story, their activity, but you might miss the point of the parable and what Jesus is doing by telling this particular story. So, this morning, I want to flip that title and refer to the story as “The Parable of the Compassionate Employer.” And in the same way, I want you to focus your attention somewhere, in this case on the employer; let’s get started by listening to the entire parable:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his supervisor, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20:1-16)
We Don’t Earn Favor with God
I’ve always struggled with this parable; mainly because, I side with the laborers who complain at the end of the story. Their complaint is simple, “We worked all day and got paid the same wage as those who only worked a few hours.” “How is this fair to us?” they ask. And I tend to side with them — to me it doesn’t seem fair at all. My initial reaction to this parable is my classic response — this just must be “Jesus being Jesus.” He’s not making any sense to me! How is it fair to pay someone who worked an hour the same as someone who worked 10 hours? I think I’m offended because I’ve always been taught that justice meant equality. If we treat everyone the same, everything will be okay. Imagine with me, three people trying to watch a game over a fence. There are three boxes, how would you distribute the boxes?
If they are equally distributed, each person receives a box. However, this distribution is incomplete. Before I lose some of you, look at this picture. In this example, there are still three boxes, but they are justly distributed and equality is actually achieved.
Many of us have inherited a false narrative about God that goes like this, “God is good, we are bad, so try harder.” When we uncritically marry this false narrative about God with all of the striving that Empire demands — our hard work, our excellence, our performance — we create a distorted picture of God that Jesus would find completely unrecognizable.
Just before we get to this parable in Matthew 20, Jesus has just given the some shocking and unsettling news – the rich aren’t automatically included in the Kingdom of God! For them, it was assumed that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, and if the rich weren’t automatically included in the Kingdom of God, then who was?
In response, Jesus tells this odd story about a landowner and some workers. This is a kingdom story. On the surface, as Jesus opens, you just assume you know what’s going on in the story, there’s a landowner, apparently without a manager, who needs some workers.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. (Matthew 20:1-2)
Those who are ready, willing, and waiting will be hired, and everyone else will be excluded, and that’s how the parable opens. In exchange for a day’s wage, he expects a day’s work, or so you think.
Then something odd happens, the owner goes out again at 9am, 12pm, 3pm.
About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. (Matthew 20:3-7)
Initially, we are taught to assume he just underestimated the effort needed to complete the work that was needed in the vineyard. But that’s when the story is focused on the workers. If you think about the story from the landowner’s point of view, is it possible that he already has all the workers he needs? Pay attention to something that you may have missed, this time, when he engages the workers, he doesn’t promise a day’s wage. He says, “I will pay you whatever is right.” Each time, the workers are told, “I will pay whatever is right.” it raises a question of what is justice, but the question isn’t answered. What does justice look like for someone who is standing at a gate, hoping to work, in order to feed themselves and/or their families?
If you caught the change in the contract, you probably just did some basic math, assuming the landowner will keep track of who arrived when, and therefore distribute their pay based on the number of hours worked. We don’t even notice that we are applying our sense of justice and equality into the story. But remember, this is a kingdom story, and Jesus is trying to explain what the kingdom of God is like.
Let’s continue to push here for a moment. Why does the landowner return to the gate every three hours or so? Maybe the landowner goes to the gate hoping and expecting that the other laborers have found work for the day, then finding workers still waiting, he invites them to work in his vineyard knowing that if they don’t work today, they, and most certainly, their families, won’t eat today. What is Jesus trying to tell us about God? Who are the characters, and where is God in this story? Where are we? What should we think, believe, and understand about the kingdom because of this story?
About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
At five, an hour before sunset, why does the landowner go out again? If we are still operating with our understanding that the landowner is inexperienced or young and couldn’t anticipate the work effort, that makes sense, but why not just leave the rest of the work for tomorrow? Could there be something else going on? He invites all those he finds where they have been waiting all day for, waiting for the opportunity to work, and he invites them work in his vineyard — they agree and go.
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his supervisor, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
As you sit with this new thought about what the landowner might be doing, the next scene unfolds and a new character emerges, a supervisor.
Who is this supervisor? Where did he come from? Where was he all along? Why didn’t he do the footwork and hire the workers and account for their hours? Again, remember, Jesus is trying to tell us a story about the kingdom and about God. Is it interesting to you, as it is to me, that if God is found in the story as the landowner? It’s he, not the hired manager, who goes out to select those who work in his vineyard? And then if God is in fact represented by the landowner, isn’t it interesting that the landowner continues to go out again and again to the gate to find workers? What does this tell you about this landowner? What does this tell you about the kingdom? Hmmm. What’s clear to me is this landowner is determined, caring, and compassionate. The incarnation of Christ is revealed here in this story too — the landowner is both the embodiment of atonement, that is to say, he literally saves, and he is the manifest presence of God going out to those in need.
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
As each of the five groups of workers get paid the same wage, those who have worked all day are starting to get frustrated, angry, even. Isn’t this supposed to be a story about the Kingdom of God? How is it fair to pay those who worked less the same as those who worked longer? Why embarrass the workers by paying them all in front of each other? Doesn’t the landowner realize what he is doing and how it provokes the others? Does he care? What’s going on?
Finally, one of the workers speak up, now realizing that they will all be paid the same, and he declares what we are all thinking, this isn’t just.
“But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
I love that the landowner replies, “Friend.” This signals to me that the landowner isn’t angry with the complainer. The landowner explains and defends his right to be just, merciful, and compassionate because mercy and compassion are found in justice. In telling this story, Jesus defines justice as more than an equal application of the law. He includes respect for and the dignity of those in need as a part of justice. The Kingdom, Jesus says, “Is where costly grace is offered to those who need it.”
As I imagine the inner dialog of the owner, it sounds like this:
On what basis should the grace I show others irritate you, the complainer? Why are you jealous of them and angry at me? It appears that you do not care whether or not the others can preserve their self-worth, feed their families, or survive day-to-day by trying to find work and working when given the opportunity. None of that seems to matter to you. No, what seems to matter to you is that you want more for yourself. You want to control and dictate what is not yours. I, the landowner, have chosen to give more of myself. At the end of the day, you just want to be richer. I have chosen to be poorer instead. I know this seems unfair to you, but you cannot control me. If I want to be generous with what is mine, I will. I will not be held your idea of what justice is.
I see that Jesus is trying to help the disciples and us understand how the kingdom works. There are competing kingdoms at work in our lives friends: the world of merit or performance with the world of grace. This story is striking because the culture teaches us that we earn what we get. That’s how the workers measured themselves and their self-worth. They were what they earned. They worked hard, and expected to be rewarded for their efforts. Into this picture of how the world works, “Jesus reveals a God who does not demand, but gives; who does not oppress but who raises up; who does not wound, but heals; who does not condemn, but forgives.” Jesus reveals to us the good and beautiful God who is generous, compassionate, full of grace and mercy.
Try to enter into this story as one of the characters, either as the workers who were hired earlier in the day or those hired at the end of the day.
Take a moment to consider why you made this selection, why did you identify with who you selected? Now, consider coming before Jesus with this identification.
How do you find Jesus towards you and those those who were “hired” earlier or later?