Sermon Lesson: Matthew 20:1-16 (NRSV)
The Laborers in the Vineyard
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When 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.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Alternate New Testament Lesson: Philippians 1:21-30 (NRSV)
21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Psalm: Psalm 105:1-6 (KJV)
105 O give thanks unto the Lord; call upon his name: make known his deeds among the people.
2 Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him: talk ye of all his wondrous works.
3 Glory ye in his holy name: let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord.
4 Seek the Lord, and his strength: seek his face evermore.
5 Remember his marvellous works that he hath done; his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth;
6 O ye seed of Abraham his servant, ye children of Jacob his chosen.
Author: Rev. Averill Elizabeth Blackburn
A quick note on Translation
The NRSV reads that the laborers or workers are promised a “daily wage.” The daily wage – traditionally – was a Roman coin known as a denarius that held cultural significance. I will be referencing the denarius several times as it meant something to those working and was also a symbol of Rome.
The “landowner” owns a “vineyard,” which has a very specific harvest schedule. Once the grapes spoil, they have spoilt and cannot be recovered.
A note on themes
There are two parts to my mini-sermon this morning. The historical and eschatological. For those of you who regularly read this sermon series, you now how important I find customs, language, and religion of first century Palestine.
I have often touched on the eschatological as well, although I rarely use that word.
The first reason is it’s terribly long and can be a bit of a tongue twister if repeated too many times too quickly.
The second is that the word is not really used in modern day English. It’s more of a term for scholarly works and arguments. So, if you don’t know the word “eschatological” – then that’s okay. It’s one of those big, Greek words that we use to describe something quite simple.
The eschatological describes what happens in the end times. Think Revelation. All those scary predictions. But, here’s the thing, the end times don’t always have to be scary.
A Denarius for your troubles
If we take today’s parable at face value (and let’s never just take it at face value) we have a parable that seems unfair, historically and to the modern world. A guy works all day, he gets a denarius. If another worker is only helping with the last hour of work, he shouldn’t get the same amount. He’s done a tenth of the work, so, in a fair and modern world, he would get a tenth of a denarius.
That was very much how it should have gone in this parable in first century Palestine – at least at first glance. Only when we do this can we understand why it’s so important to get the harvest in and why it’s so outrageous to pay every man the exact same wage.
To set the scene, the landowner is working on a deadline. Imagine a merger of two companies. Now, most of us don’t work in “mergers and acquisitions” in a big company, but we watch law programs that deal with it all the time.
I just watched a Law & Order episode that had a defense attorney rip an infant’s mother to shred because she was spending all her time on a merger and not with her newborn child. Fair? Unfair? That’s for the audience to decide.
But we’ve all seen it on tv, in a movie, or read about something in the news. The merger has to go through and it has to go through by, say, Wednesday and it’s Monday. The clock is ticking.
To those directly involved (and many who aren’t), it’s a matter of life and death.
Now, here in the Book of Matthew, we aren’t talking about a merger. Instead, this is the harvest. Millions upon millions of dollars aren’t at stake, grant you, but a man’s entire livelihood is. If the landowner doesn’t get the harvest in, he can’t make a profit or potentially put food on the table. His crop will be ruined. He can’t do it by himself, he needs extra workers, and so he goes and hires some for a denarius.
According to one commentary I read, a denarius was anywhere between four British pence and twelve American cents. The work day was also between six in the morning and sundown or six p.m.—which meant the start of a new day. Twelve hours for twelve lousy cents.
It’s a job most of us would pass up because it’s not worth it. However, for the day workers like those hired in this parable, this work is what stands between them and destitution. They need the denarius.
Without the denarius they could not feed their family for the day, they could not put food on the table for their children. Without work, their families would go hungry. I even saw these workers compared to the lowest of the low, below house slaves even who would always have food on their tables. Of course, a house slave’s fortunes would “rise and fall” with his masters’, but the house slave had a secure place unlike these men who would hang out in the marketplace looking for work all day, staying if they must until the end of day, just for the possibility of work.
But, the landowner discovered at 9 am (three hours in) that there were more men who needed work, and he still needed to get that harvest in.
The landowner offers a verbal contract of payment, one that is important in Jesus’s time. It was enough for these men. It would not necessarily be enough for you or me, but we live in a different time, a different place, a different society. We want our contracts. We want to sign our names to pieces of paper.
And the landowner kept on going back to the marketplace throughout the day and hiring more men. The harvest is not yet in and there are hands willing and able to work.
As a side note, the Book fo Matthew never reveals why the landowner did not hire all these men at the beginning the day. They were standing all day in the marketplace looking for work, but he hired them nonetheless for his vineyard throughout the day, showing his need to get his harvest in before it spoiled or the rains came.
At the end of the day, as is customary, the dayworkers come to receive their wage. They’re only hired for a particular job, on a particular day. Once they are paid, they will go their separate ways – the dayworkers perhaps being hired the next day by another landowner who needs his harvest in or for something else entirely.
The workers who were hired last were given a denarius, enough to feed their families. But so were the workers hired at the ninth hour, and the sixth, and third, and finally at the beginning of the day. This is clearly unfair to our sense of justice.
How could this be? The workers who put in a full day’s labor have the same pay as those who only put in an hour. There is no reason for it except for generosity of spirit.
Perhaps, if this parable appeared in a vacuum, that is what Jesus would want us to take away from it: generosity of spirit. The men at the eleventh hour needed to feed their families as much as the men who were hired at the beginning of the day.
Perhaps the vineyard owner could only afford to pay a denarius to each man. He could not afford a gradation where the workers who worked all day should be paid more, and he knew that the eleventh hour workers needed to feed their families. But the text does not suggest this at all. It does not show a sense of incapacity to pay the workers, nor a sense of meanness on the part of the vineyard owner.
So, generosity then.
A note on generosity
If we go back to the example of the merger, it’s like everyone who simply helped, even in the smallest way, looking up some small case law, was as equally compensated as a person who had spent forty hours in one small amount of time, neglecting to eat, not going home until the early morning hours. This is unfair, we say. Of course it is. Our moral sense of outrage should be ignited into anger.
But we must “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk.” We must do as Jesus tells us and feel the sense of generosity that he shows us through the landowner. Look at your fellow human being. I’m not saying be stupid. But the next time someone less fortunate than you asks you for money on the street, buy him a meal at the local McDonald’s.
I used to do it in grad school all the time. Half the time, the person would run away because he probably wanted the money for drugs or some other habit, but it was generosity that moved me despite my revulsion at the person who was approaching me, who slept on the streets and hadn’t washed for at least two weeks.
There are so many other types of generosity of spirit. When your kid or grandchild needs help on homework, there’s always tough-love: do it yourself and see what you learn. But if he or she just can’t get that problem after working on it for an hour, go back to the textbook with them and see if you can work it out together. They’ll be the better for it because you’ll be teaching them. You may even be reteaching yourself.
There are so many ways to be generous. Just try it a little. Maybe it will surprise you.
The End Times
Now, switching gears, let’s go to the end times – or the eschatological.
This passage can mean what it’s like to be a Christian. You may be scratching your head, but think of it like this:
The workers who come at the beginning of the day are the people who become Christians early on in life. The ones who come at various points: the third hour, the sixth, the ninth, are people who convert throughout their lifetime. The eleventh hour: well, they’re probably deathbed conversions, and they do still happen. We’re not talking English kings who had to be protestants who became Catholics on their deathbeds. (And, yes, I’m a history buff. I’ll name one or two for you after church if you really want to know.). We are talking about true believers who accept God into their hearts with their last breaths.
From a historical viewpoint, it was taken that the Jews came first because they were the Chosen People. The Greeks, who converted, came last. Now, this is a very time specific interpretation that many held in the early church. I don’t personally hold with it. I think it’s rather narrow.
Many agree now that it’s more about who specifically joined when. And it has wider applications throughout history.
Shouldn’t the child who was baptized and remained in the church have greater privileges? They should rise to deacon, go onto the Board of Trustees, become a Church Matron (an unofficial yet all-important position), and then have a grand funeral attended by everyone?
A newcomer to the church shouldn’t have such opportunities, surely. They were Catholic first maybe, or perhaps just culturally Christian. Baptized as an infant, perhaps, but then in their wild years they were vegan and a Buddhist. It wasn’t until later, when life settled back in, that they returned to church.
However, it doesn’t work like that.
We’re all God’s children and we’re all treated equally, whether we come at the beginning of the day or at the ninth hour. We also have our particular talents. And we all go to heaven. Those pearly gates will open for all of us if we have lived good lives and were true followers of Christ.
It is as Christians that we reaffirm our beliefs, our commitment to charity and friendship and love, and hopefully are less likely to stray off the path when we gather together. We may stray anyway, of course, but when we sit in these pews (virtual or at our meetinghouse), we know we are not alone.
Who Goes To Heaven?
I am reminded of a funny little story: “A bunch of Catholics die and they go to the pearly gates, and St Peter greets them and brings them in and puts them in their mansion.
Then some Episcopalians die and St Peter greets them and brings them in and puts them in their mansion.
Then some Presbyterians die and the same thing happens.
Finally some Congregationalists die and they’re on their way to their mansion, but St. Peter tells them they must be quiet. “Why?” they ask, utterly confused. St. Peter looked at them and said, “It’s the Baptists. This is their mansion and they think they’re all alone here.”
The point is, it’s not just the Baptists. It’s everyone. It’s not the Catholics with their jokingly called “Holy Punch Card.”
We all believe in God and we will all reach the end times together. We all worship as we please and that’s the whole point of Congregationalism. We Congregationalists broke off from Anglicanism (which is what Episcopalianism is called in England) because we wanted to worship in the way we saw fit.
It doesn’t matter when we get to God, if we’ve checked off every single virtue we should possess. What matters is that we believe in him, that we become a friend of Jesus. The point is that we make the journey, whether it reaches nearly a century or just a few days.
Christ will welcome us with open arms and love us for who we are, for our paths however long or short they are, however treacherous or smooth. God loves us and he will give us each a denarius.
Back to the Denarius
That tiny little coin which means so much – and this parable can be read as an earthly story and one of the end times.
Turns out that the denarius means everything in both scenarios. So know what is waiting for you, this generosity of God. Know that he is with you every step of the way, through every stumble, and try to be like him if you can. Be like the landowner. Be generous as God is generous with you. That denarius is so little and yet means so much. Treasure it just as God treasures you.