Lectionary 25 – A.
Prayer of the Day
Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual lovingkindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Jonah 3:10–4:11 God’s concern for the city of Nineveh
Psalm 145:1-8 The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Ps. 145:8)
Philippians 1:21-30 Standing firm in the gospel
Matthew 20:1-16 The parable of the vineyard workers
Title: Whiners or Grapes – It’s Still Undeserved Grace
A classic, probing question in a “get to know the real person” interview is “If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?” Perhaps you have asked it in a group of friends as sort of a parlor game. Anyone want to share their answer?
The historian in me likes to set the focus of the question on world events. And ask: If you could be a witness of any historical event, what would it be? (Feel free to think on that one.)
But here’s a version of the question that I’m guessing you have never been asked – Which scene from one of Jesus’ parables would you like to witness, or insert yourself into? Strange variation, I know, but go with me on this. Maybe it’s the welcome home party that is the final scene of the prodigal son. Or would you want to be there to see the shepherd’s face upon finding the lost sheep. Or maybe it is witnessing the pure joy of the unworthy guests who get to attend the wedding banquet when the worthy ones fail to accept the invitation.
The parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel reading offers us a scene that is not to be missed for all its sheer joy and its excruciating pain. Let’s place ourselves there at the payroll table as the workers are coming in after working in the vineyard some for as much as 12 hours.
The first up to be paid are the ones who were hired an hour before quitting time. At 5:00 PM these so-called laborers were still not laboring. Hmm. We all know the type they are, right? Lazy, good for nothings. Probably up partying all night. Didn’t get to the marketplace where foremen come looking for crews until around noon or maybe one o’clock. Maybe they even are the ones who have a bad reputation with the foremen so that even if they were standing there, waiting to be hired, they would have been overlooked for better laborers. You got the picture who these people are. They step up to the table and they get their envelope, look in and they see a full day’s pay. What do they do? Probably say nothing because they think this is some sort of mistake. Maybe they were given the wrong envelope. With the broadest of smiles that are impossible to conceal, they head straight to the bar. Working in the vineyard is hard work, build up a thirst. Yes, even working one hour. Oh, to be there to see their faces of undeserved joy. To hear their toasts for that old vineyard owner who is either crazy or careless. Either way, these folks are the lucky undeserving ones.
Now keep watching, because it gets better. Actually it gets sadder. The next hires step up, the one hired at three in the afternoon. And maybe they heard from their lazy friends how much they got paid for just one hour of work, so they start thinking: we worked three hours, imagine what we’re gonna get paid. But their envelopes have the same amount. But they shrug it off because they still got a full day’s wage for only working three hours. The noon hires don’t shrug quite as enthusiastically because they worked six hours but got the same as the later hires.
Finally the first hires step up, and they have to be thinking: if all those partial day workers got a full day’s pay, what are we going to get? At least double pay, right? But they open their pay envelopes and they are outraged. How dare the vineyard owner pay them the same as those low functioning, flunkies? They demand: We deserve more! But the owner simply reminds them that he made good on his promise. And then asks the question that is the heart of the story, the heart of the gospel. He says to them: 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? Oh, to be there to see their faces of unwarranted disappointment.
I venture to guess that this is not a parable taught in the prosperity gospel, in which God’s grace is given as some sort of reward for faithfulness. And this certainly is not a reading one points to when requesting seed money – that’s the money you give to a ministry with the flawed understanding that God will reward you according to the size of your gift.
God asks our capitalism-based theologies of investment and return, of works and rewards: Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
So what does it look like when we, children of God, followers of Christ, instruments of the Holy Spirit, what does it look like when we practice God’s economic practices? What happens when we start thinking about ways that we can show grace to one another. When we see ourselves and others with God’s eyes, applying God’s grace-filled equity that Jesus is teaching? On issues around healthcare, minimum wage justice, immigration rights and refugee welcome? What does it look like when we start to welcome with the generosity of God made known in Jesus, rather than judging what is deserved by others and hoarding what we are ourselves feel we are owed, we have worked so hard for?
This is what Paul is talking about when he calls Christians to live in a manner worthy of the gospel – the gospel being the good news of God’s grace, given to all through Jesus the Christ. Standing up for the other is how we live not intimidated by our opponents – especially those first shift workers who want to see a graduated pay scale based on their understanding of worthiness.
But there is another way to enter this parable. Because all this talk about working, and payment, is probably setting our Lutheran sensors off. These sensors are those alarms that sound anytime we are getting too close to teaching anything that hints of “works righteousness” – the teaching that Luther attacked with all his might that dares to suggest that we earn our salvation by doing works of any kind.
Yes, there is another way into this parable. A way that shines even brighter with the great grace of God that is beyond our human understanding and beyond our economic philosophies. Rather than seeing ourselves among the workers, whether first shift or last, what happens when we see ourselves as the grapes in the vineyard. Jesus has said before that the harvest is plentiful and the labors are few. The harvest being humanity that needs to be brought into God’s great storehouses for the sake of their own fulfillment.
So, imagine it, we are the grapes. And the vines are so full that the first shift workers are not going to be able to finish the job before we all start rotting on the vine, or before some devastating storm comes and destroys God’s valued crop. So God does whatever is necessary to bring in all of this harvest. God spends whatever must be spent to get the grapes– us – in. God’s grace truly knows no limits. The cross stands witness to this reality. The cross on which God’s unfathomable grace in the person of Jesus gave all for our sake. Where payment was made not based on logic or loge rhythms, but on love. God’s grace is witnessed in the vineyard owner who pays beyond deserving, in the father who over forgives beyond deserving, in the shepherd who searches and saves beyond deserving, in the host who shares his banquet with the beggars who are beyond deserving.
We are invited to witness this scene every day of our lives. Not just in our imaginations, but in the reality of our lives as we live with baptismal water damp and dynamic on our brows. As we gather and serve together as Christ’s body for the sake of the world. As we hear the good news in God’s word. As we are fed with Christ’s presence at our Lord’s table.
Knowing we deserve nothing – we stand in awe, seeing only that God in the grace of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, has over-paid us beyond our understanding. Take hold of that grace, for life’s sake. Share that grace, so that all might know the joy of receiving what is incredibly undeserved.
The Rev. Mark Erson,