Jesus’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) doesn’t seem fair. But that’s because we don’t want it to be.
Proper 20A | Matthew 20:1-16
For those who have not heard this gospel story before, or hardly recognize it, you can probably tell right away it is one of the most hated parables of Jesus. It’s hated, not because the owner is being generous but because many of us don’t want him to be.
We’re under the false impression that merit and worth have something, anything to do with the grace of God. And we would be wrong.
But before we can tackle the challenge of this gospel, let’s back up a hair, to where we left off last week.
Forgiveness and stumbling blocks
We remember Jesus spent several chapters talking about stumbling blocks: about the things resting at our feet which trip us up. Like a faithful dog, always under foot. They just want to get close to you, but they impede your progress and prevent you from doing what needs to be done.
But Jesus isn’t talking about dogs. He’s talking about people. And he’s talking about all the ways you and I keep Jesus from bringing the Kin-dom close.
We’re the stumbling blocks, offering power and influence to one another to keep Jesus from fulfilling God’s mission of remaking the world.
This is the extension of the sermon on the mount in which Jesus speaks to blessing in the making of peace and bringing humility and compassion instead of the hate and greed our culture celebrates. He’s preaching peace to the people he’s hoping will make peace out of a world in love with violence.
Make humility in a world obsessed with power. And forgive beyond all reason to forgive.
Then, in chapter 19, we have a sequence of three connected teachings which further challenge our commitment to this pursuit of peace and humility and forgiveness.
Divorce, Blessing, and Wealth
First some Pharisees try to trip up Jesus with marriage law only Jesus isn’t having it. Marriage as we know, is about love and commitment. But Jesus is far more concerned with justice and equality. His problem has less to do with the following of the Law of Moses and more to do with how it only really gives justice to men.
Jesus argues that a man’s being a stumbling block for a woman means he condemns himself.
Then Jesus speaks to these children brought to him for blessing and he repeats his earlier claim that these children are the co-owners of the Kin-dom. A teaching we rarely take seriously enough. That our children are the owners of the Kin-dom we’re all hoping to build. Chew on that as we go.
The third piece is the familiar story of the pious young man coming to Jesus to make sure he’s in with God. He’s double-checking that he’s filled out his heavenly application with the saints so he can be sure of his final destination.
Jesus, of course tells him
“go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Which, the young man doesn’t take very well. Then he teaches about wealth’s incompatibility with the kin-dom.
And this is the reason he tells the parable we heard this morning about a generous landowner.
First, Last, Equal, and Just
He tells the parable because the disciples have a hard time understanding what Jesus is really saying to them. They think he’s talking about the impossible and expecting too much of them, and Jesus is showing them how much they are misjudging the point.
They’re just like the pious young man, counting the actions and decisions, the intention and purpose. They’ve got the checklist in hand, it’s just they aren’t bold enough to ask how they can win their way into heaven. To ask how they can earn a reward for a life of good behavior.
And Jesus invites them to look at the problem sideways. Not to see a life of faith like a to-do list, checking off all the right boxes. The pious young man asked “what must I do” and Jesus said to him “if you want to be perfect”. If you want assurance of your suitability, you’re asking for the wrong thing.
Jesus has already said who God loves. He named them in the Beatitudes. People who are blessed, not recipients of blessing. He all but says, you guys are fine! Stop worrying! You’re going to be kings yourselves. Just remember the timetable is different. And hierarchies are different.
That’s how he can tell them at the end of chapter 19:
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
This is the heart of the parable he then tells. And while we’re too busy thinking of it like the workers, invited in at the beginning of the day’s work, who are negotiating a fair wage, and putting in all kinds of effort, Jesus is reminding us that the Kin-dom isn’t a meritocracy, built on the backs of the hardest working and most deserving. Like, at all.
To the landowner, paying everyone equally is not only more fair than we think, it is just. Because blessing has zero to do with worthiness.
So this parable isn’t about the complaint of the worker, but the incredible commitment by the landowner to bring more workers to the vineyard, more children to come co-own the Kin-dom. The image is about the work and generosity of one with power to hire who just keeps hiring.
He keeps hiring everyone he finds. And he keeps going out and finding more. Every three hours. 9, 12, 3.
And that’s also why, we should pay attention to what he does at the end of the day, at the eleventh hour, before they call it a day, he goes out at 5:00. Verses 6 and 7. And he sees yet more people and asks
“Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”
They are idle because they have been let down, left unhired. Nobody is caring for them. They aren’t idle because they’re lazy or bad people. They’re idle because only the landowner’s generosity will make sure they will eat today.
This is the story of justice and blessing in God’s eyes. This is how Jesus shows us what justice and blessing look like. An owner who can never hire too many people. As long as one has no means of surviving, he will promise protection.
This is why our sensitivity to the merits and the deserving and the labor that always has us asking if they’re good enough isn’t a Jesus question. It may be our culture’s favorite question. And it may have been your church’s favorite question. But it isn’t Jesus’s question.
Because this isn’t about the work at all. It’s about the blessing. A blessing given to everybody.
As a Presbyterian pastor wrote this week
Grace isn’t something you receive in spite of the fact that you don’t deserve it. Grace is something you receive because you are more than worth it.
You are how God determines worth. That all of us is “worth it”. That blessing comes our way because we all need it. And keeps coming because not all of us get it. Not all of us hear it or believe it or know it.
Not all of us are in the air conditioning now when it’s hot. Or in the heat in a few months when it’s freezing.
Not all of us will know where our meals will come from. Where we’ll live, who we’ll be tomorrow, next week, next year.
Some of us are stressed and on the verge of losing it. And some of us are losing our mobility, health, or future.
All that certainty and predictability we want isn’t here.
But none of that has anything to do with merit or what you’ve done to be deserving of anything. That may be what people like to tell you, but it isn’t what Jesus tells us. It isn’t what Jesus tells us about God and the Kin-dom.
Here, we’re blessed, forgiven, shown mercy. God gives grace abundantly and extravagantly. Not because we’re bad, but because God is good.
God deems us worthy. Every one of us: worthy. Worthy of love, peace, trust.
And this life is a journey in coming to see it that way too. To see the world as Jesus sees it. Full of hope and promise. Full of opportunity for love and grace.
And the more we travel, the more we’ll remove those stumbling blocks to the Kin-dom. Those at our feet and at the feet of our neighbors. Stumbling blocks to knowing this freeing grace. And sharing it with everyone. Generously, justly.