A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Based on Matthew 20:1-16

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY

     These parables of Jesus are teaching devices that make us think.  They are like riddles, with object lessons in them that describe the way God acts with us.  Today’s parable begins with “the kingdom of heaven” is like …, and we’re to find ourselves in them and whether we can learn something about ourselves and about God.  There are about forty of them recorded in the four Gospels, and it is typical of Jesus not to give the answer to his parabolic riddles.  They’re designed to make us think, and often we’ll hear about Jesus’ disciples grabbing him by the elbow and asking “What did that thing mean?”  He doesn’t tell them, because he wants them to think.  After all, his parables are all set in the living conditions familiar to them:  the woman baking bread, the farmer sowing seed in his field, the guy who get mugged on the street, the son who runs away from home.  It life familiar to his disciples, and he wants them to see themselves in his parables and discover how God acts with them and for them in the world they know.

     In today’s parable it is not hard to find ourselves there.  At first we think there’s a lot of unfairness going on in Jesus’ parable.  The ones who worked all day long get paid the same amount as the ones who worked only one hour.  That doesn’t seem fair. Of course, the ones who worked all day started with a contract:  they agreed with the landowner to work for the usual daily wage.  But the ones who worked only one hour don’t have a contract:  the landowner invites them at the last minute to work in his vineyard and they just go and do so.  And when the day is done and the whistle blows and paytime comes, they are all paid the usual daily wage.  They’re all paid the same thing.  And the ones who worked all day complain about that.  “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  And deep down inside we at first want to agree:  they got shafted.

     But the landowner said, “Wait a minute: you have a contract.  You agreed to work all day for the usual daily wage.  I fulfilled the contact I made with you.  But if I’m generous and give everybody the same wage, “are you envious because I am generous?”  That question is actually a paraphrase of the real words in the Greek text of the parable.  The original words are:  “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  

     Jesus’ parable is a picture of the way God acts.  It starts with the words “the kingdom of heaven” is like….”  It’s all about our own relationship with God.  If we base our relationship with God on contract, i.e. on law, we will never understand God’s grace.  The ones who worked all day think they deserve more than the ones who worked only one hour.  They are the achievers who think they deserve more from the landowner, and they complain about it.  And it is so typical of Jesus to put the very gospel of God in the mouths of the grumblers:  “You have made them equal to us….”  And the landowner then asks them:  “So why can’t you be happy about that?  Why can’t you be happy that I have given them as much as I have given you?”  

    So often in the Gospels people complain to Jesus’ disciples, “Shame on your master – he eats with tax collectors and sinner.”  “That’s right,” Jesus answers; that’s the gospel, the good news of God.  Why can’t you be happy about it?”

It is so typical of Jesus – and part of his ironic sense of humor:  the good news is put into the words of the grumblers themselves, who have trouble with it.

     When St. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he made the point that there is a difference between believers and unbelievers.  He said that unbelievers “cannot thank God” (Romans 1:21), because they do not understand that they are recipients.  Rather they think of themselves as achievers before God, because they have done so many wonderful things in life that God should thank them instead.  You have heard it many times:  “I really don’t go to church, but I do a lot of good things – I give to local food pantries, I give to the March of Dimes, I contribute to disaster relief, I share things with my friends – so I’m OK with God, because God has to be happy with me for doing all these things.  God should thank me.

     Achievers think God should thank them.  They deserve it.  But people of faith know that if God deals with us on the basis of what we deserve, it will be lights out for us.  There will be unhappiness, and grumbling, and envy, and complaining about life, about being short-changed, and finally unhappiness about God and God’s way of doing things.  Only recipients, not achievers, can say “thank you” to God.

     People of faith know that they are recipients, not achievers.  They did not ask to be born when they were; they did not ask for the gifts they have been given.  Their families, their talents, their skills to pursue their professions, the strengths they have to overcome their hardships, their church -- these are all given to them from God.  Faith means living from God’s giving, not from our own achieving.  

     And every Sunday we have something here called “Eucharist,” which is a word that means “thanksgiving.”  We thank God for the gifts God has given to this congregation.  We thank God for Christ’s own giving of himself for us, and we come to his table to receive him into ourselves, in the meal he asked us to do in remembrance of him.  By holding out our hands to receive that bread and wine we are practicing receiving, and we are saying “thank you” to God, which is what “Eucharist” means.  We have received from God his benefits of grace and forgiveness, not because we deserve it, but because God is good, and generous, and makes us all equal before him.  It is the Lord’s Table, Christ’s own supper, where everyone who considers themselves recipients are welcome.  It is another one of God’s gifts to you, where you are all welcome to receive at this Table of the Lord.

     So in the lives of Christians there is a lot of thanksgiving going on, because they know they are recipients of God’s giving, and they are able to give thanks, which is something achievers cannot do.  And once again today we thank you for joining us in the giving and in the receiving.  And we all thank God for this place, where all of God’s giving is always joyfully received and celebrated. 

                                           Richard L. Jeske