Sermon for 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 20, 2020
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Jonah 3:10—4:11 | Philippians 1:21–30 | Matthew 20:1–16
Brené Brown, my favorite sociologist, attends an Episcopalian church, and so this story that Jesus tells in Matthew comes around regularly at her church like it does for Lutherans. Brené is good at being really honest about her reactions and so her response to this is pretty much just “no.” Actually, she says it’s why she keeps coming back to church: She keeps hoping that maybe next time, this parable will change. To add insult to injury, she was teaching VBS when this parable came up: So, she tried to make the best of it by having the kids do jumping jacks (instead of working in the field) at varying intervals: The first kids who started at 5 minutes were exhausted by the time the others joined in a couple minutes later and then at the LAST minute. When she went to pay them all Monopoly money in the same amount like the landowner, she felt Even though it was fake money, it just seemed so unfair.
This is how deeply ingrained it is in us how much we do and how much we get should always correspond equally: It’s considered a law of nature, like gravity. And we can see it in action: Punch in the time clock, multiply by hours, and that equals money earned: More or less, depending on the nature of your work. And these were day laborers, for whom it was important to know that their hard work in the fields had paid off so they could support their families. No wonder the early workers ins the parable speak what we are thinking when the groups who begin at 9, 12, 3 and 5 are all paid the same: Are you kidding me? “These last worked only one hour” unlike “us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat?” Indeed, this doesn’t seem natural, Jesus.
There’s some interesting things going on here, however, when the landowner hires the ones who are still waiting at the marketplace. The focus begins to shift from whether he needs the workers to whether the workers need him: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” Doesn’t that seem obvious? But it gives them a chance to speak their reality. “Because no one has hired us.” And why is this, we might wonder? Is there an economic downturn or drought? Is there a surplus of laborers? Or is it something about their physical capability: Most certainly, theses are NOT the hardiest in the labor pool that has been picked over already. They are probably NOT the most-suited to working in a field all day: old or young or sick or disabled or mentally ill. Or maybe they are looked over for others—(I know that not even I would not fare so well working in a field all day…) Even today, it is those jobs that take the greatest physical strength and even fortitude—often, that are the most volatile; depending on the market, the competition, a pandemic and the physical failings of our bodies that inevitably come. Often, what is paid is not enough to live on.
I find it no wonder, then, that the landowner in this kingdom of heaven story, tells the ones invited late to the labor: “I will pay you what is right.”
“What is right” is apparently not the same as “what is fair” in this Godly scenario.
I wonder if this isn’t also because we have a skewed sense of what is fair anyway. We think some are just more deserving than others. We really often don’t equally compensate people for the work they do. In fact, those with the most compensation in this country, do the least work usually. Now, it’s hard to measure different kinds of work, and we need a great variety of people for a variety of tasks to keep our society working, but what happens when some just can’t get what they need? Ijeoma Oluo describes her childhood in Seattle with an incredibly loving mom raising 3 kids and working a job; and the comments at Ijeoma’s corporate job later in life were always about “those people better get drug before getting food stamps” and all about the injustice of “the welfare queen” sitting around and getting what she doesn’t deserve. Ijeoma just has to keep telling them: “We were poor.” “We needed help—not because we were we criminals or needed to be constantly put down—but because we were just poor.”
In the parable, for those who waited for work all day—those for whom the system did not work—they can now also go home and feed their families? “I will pay you what is right.” And, doing what is right has a personal price: It goes beyond offending those who think they know what is fair and goes to his personal involvement of paying out much more than is “fair” to himself. Perhaps he recognizes that the whole setup isn’t really fair: With his own inherited vineyard, his connections, his wealth, his sense of security on a daily level that the laborers will NEVER know, he is happy to share. For THIS is what’s “right.”
Further, the lack-of-justice complaint that comes from the early hires who got all they were promised tells us what is really going on, “… you have made them equal to us.” Here’s the real problem: These people that not only didn’t work as much, but that get to think are inferior to us—are now equal. The hierarchy and pecking-order that we so rely upon to make us feel secure and give us self-esteem, is starting to crumble. The development or agriculture, industry, economy have both necessitated and deified a system in which some have more and some have less- which means we need to keep perpetuating the idea of scarcity- scarcity of everything from material goods to love- so that some could stay on top. We learn to think that if everyone has access, then I’m not special and there will be less for me and everyone else, too? And so we all get to swim in shame of not having or being enough: Victimize ourselves and everyone else with the mantra of shame that feeds the system: The narrative of “not-good-enoughness” in which we are always comparing and trying to find external validation just to feel okay.
The landowner gets how hard this is and therefore, I think, says gently, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong…. Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last the same as I gave to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” What God thinks is right is not what we think is right, often. As in, the next words of Jesus, “…the last will be first and the first will be last.” Indeed, what if being blind or a single parent or having mental illness or having brown skin didn’t automatically count against you? What if YOU could accept you for who you are? What if there is enough to go around and it’s not a contest and you don’t get less just because the other got “more”? What if this story actually seeks to free US from resentment and the shame of our own feeling of inadequacy… because in knowing that these laborers are provided for in time of need tells us that we will be provided for in time of need. And we can breathe a sigh of relief: We will not be left out on our own.
God’s tragic and comedic prophet, Jonah, reminds us that thinking we know what is “fair” (God had mercy on these foreigners; who are NOT God’s people; who do things differently and wrongly?) gets in the way of us understanding God’s mercy—not just for them—but for ourselves. May we be surprised and offended by the scandal of God’s love and mercy for you and for the whole world. Amen.