Sermon given by Rev. Patrick Crocker at First Christian Church in Las Cruces on September 17, 2023.
Let’s hear what Spirit is saying to the Church as found in the Gospel of Matthew.
“God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work.
“Later, about nine o’clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.
“He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock. At five o’clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, ‘Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?’
“They said, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“He told them to go to work in his vineyard.
“When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, ‘Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.’
“Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, ‘These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’
“He replied to the one speaking for the rest, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’
“Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”Matthew 20:1-16 (The Message, Eugene Peterson)
Let’s pray. Gracious God shepherd the words my mouth and the thoughts and meditations in each of our hearts that they may grow pleasing in your sight and transformative to our spirits. Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
What images do we use for justice? What images do we use for grace? And where do they intersect? This parable that we have this morning is one that reminds us not to take things, not to take the parables allegorically. Where we just insert the name or role of something in the world into the particular place.
It’s all too often that we come to the parables automatically thinking that the king or the owner of the vineyard is God. And so our mental worldview shifts to, automatically, that’s the good one. That’s the one that we need to get behind. That’s the one that we need to identify with. Tweet I saw this last week said, “some of y’all didn’t go through or pay attention in middle school language arts class when they were talking about the protagonist. Protagonist isn’t necessarily the good guy, it’s just the guy the story is about.”
And so it is with our parables. Because if we take this as parable rather than allegory, then we might find ourselves more easily siding with the workers who came first. After all, we are working toward equal pay for equal work. It is still a tragedy that some folks for accidents of their birth are not eligible for the same pay for the same work. And there is that aspect of justice that we look toward, that we wrestle with.
This parable has been used in a variety of ways over the course of Christian history. For some it has been obviously – that’s one of those wallpaper words that you use when there’s a crack in your argument and you hope nobody notices – obviously, the workers who came first, that was Adam. And then the worker hired next, that was Abraham. And then the next was Moses. And then the last ones hired, those were obviously the Gentiles who came to salvation late, but still got in. And those who came early groused about it. I’m not sure that Adam really would have groused all that much. He didn’t have a whole lot to say, from what I recall in scriptures, other than trying to pass the buck.
Others have said, obviously this is about those who are looking at works-righteousness. And you can insert whichever group because several groups have been thrown in there. But those of us who came later or who focus on grace and recognized that salvation is only by the grace of God, we are the ones who came later. And while there is some nourishment in that reading, there’s also the fact that at the end of the parable, the owner of the vineyard does not say that justice isn’t worth anything. He’s asking for a redefinition of justice.
We might also look to the fact that there’s that phrase in there when the workers who came first, the workers who worked the most or at least differently, groused about what had happened. That phrase, you made them equal to us. I wonder if in the original and in our own lives, this parable might point to the way in which we as workers have found our wages used as a weapon to divide us. The ways in which those who control have said, “you are only getting one slice of the pie. Beware of those immigrants who are coming in who don’t have any. They’re after your slice.” Neglecting to mention that they’ve got the other seven slices of the pie.
I wonder. I wonder what this parable might be for us as we look for the intersection of justice and grace, recognizing that there are no easy answers that this is something that is always held in tension, that we work toward the justice of God, while also recognizing that most of the time our ideals of justice don’t live up to God’s ideals. Most of the time we find ourselves scrambling after the hopes and dreams of God.
This parable also reaches back. Just as the last two Sundays the Gospel Lesson has reached back to the passage in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us as we forgive.” So this parable reaches back to, “give us this day our daily bread.” We’re reminded to pay attention to how we pray and ask ourselves, Are we changing the words in our minds? When we pray, are we asking, “give me this day my daily bread”?
It’s a rather more difficult prayer, “give us this day our daily bread.” Because then the question is not about the bounty of God, it’s about distribution. This comes up because the wage agreed on by the daily laborers. And while I agree with Peterson’s translation on some things, a dollar? Well. What was agreed on was a day’s wage good enough for a very poor person to subsist on themselves, nothing else. They agreed to work for their daily bread. And that was all.
The questions of justice and grace come up with this question of daily bread, and this question of where is it that we find ourselves with enough, but not too much?
I saw someone who pointed out recently that if a monkey were to take more bananas than they could eat and pile them up to where they rotted away and not let any of the other monkeys get to them, scientists would study that monkey and try and figure out what went wrong. But if it’s a human who does that, we put their picture on the cover of Forbes.
Where do we have enough? Where are we still in survival mode, yearning for more than enough, because we’re not sure that there’s going to be more tomorrow.
The story of the manna in the wilderness is the Hebrew Testament lesson for this morning, and it reminds us that God provides on a daily basis. In that story, all who were part of the community found their needs provided for. Those who tried to hoard up for several days, found that their efforts turned to mold and worms. Those who were not able to gather as much because of lame legs, low energy, difficulty walking, difficulty moving, yet still they found they had enough. And in the end it was still the mystery. Even the word manna means, “what is it?” Don’t know what it is, but we know we’ve got enough of it.
The gifts and graces of God poured out upon this congregation, upon this community are enough. Even if sometimes we ask, “what is it?” We look for where we have enough, and more than enough. Where do we have some to share? Where might we let go of our presuppositions? Those ways of thinking that the empire has forced upon us in order to divide us in order to more easily control us? Where is it that we might find ourselves a bit more graceful and gracious, finding ourselves at that intersection of justice and grace, of hope and reality, of mercy and responsibility?
We find ourselves in that place siding with, all at the same time, those who have worked long and hard and those who have just come into something great. We ask ourselves what it would be like if our default mindset was to change from “they were made equal with us” to “they have enough too.” What if, instead of suspicion, we could sow seeds of joy and compassion within our hearts?
Yes, there are some folks within this world that it is bloody difficult to find some compassion for. We can think of people within our own lives personally, or we can think of leaders within the world and still we cry for God’s grace to be upon them. Because forgiveness is that act of faith, that God’s justice is better than ours and God’s imagination is better than ours. Even if I, with all of my cultivated imagination through years of reading fantasy and science fiction and decades of playing Dungeons and Dragons, I still can’t figure out something good for some of the political leaders in this world where they might change, where they might turn around. And yet God’s imagination says, “well, I’m still holding out hope for you, Patrick, so maybe we can hold out some hope for somebody else.”
Hope. We look for the places where we might find hope while still calling for justice, while still calling for something better for all of us. Some place, some time, some day, in which we find all that we need fulfilled. And yet we still have dreams of some beauty yet to come.
Gracious God, for visions of justice and grace that do not let us sit quietly, sit complacently. We give you thanks, even if we sometimes would like to just sit down for a bit.
We give you thanks that your spirit is always moving, always reaching out for something better. Help us to dance with that spirit. To find joy where needs have been met. To find grace for the places where we have worked long and hard, and other places where we ourselves have also not worked so long at all, but have just recently come into something new, something great.
Help us to have hope that those who have not yet worked, not yet worked toward your justice, might find their enlightenment, might find their call, and might yet work towards something great. Help us to be your children, more truly. This we pray in your name. Amen.