Matthew 20: 1-16
March 5, 2023
I think we all know that churches have been finding themselves in financial messes due to the pandemic and to church-goers getting older and being less able to make the trip to the building.
But imagine the financial possibilities if we offered “liturgical premium packages” or even a “sacramental platinum package” to those attendees whose offerings topped a certain level.
In order to goose the contents of the offering basket, we could offer preferential seating in the pews … for a certain amount you could sit in the front pews … although being Lutherans, the back pews would likely be the premium seats.
Or perhaps we could offer comfortable recliners instead of pews … or access to a mute button for the pastor when he drones on and on … just imagine the money flowing in the coffers for that feature!
The people who give the most money or provide the most volunteer hours would move to the front of the line when communion is offered.
Maybe we could even offer fresh-baked bread to those at the front of the communion line and then something less fancy for those who are farther down the line?
we could give those making substantial offerings in time or money a greater say in how the congregation operates and what it values … placing their voices above everyone else’s.
These enhancements could really take care of some of the financial challenges that churches face and … after all … why shouldn’t someone’s deep pockets or freer schedules work to their benefit?
Of course, I’m just joking … to a degree.
There are churches that operate on similar systems … for them, grace seems to carry a price tag. And even in those congregations that don’t overtly operate in such a fashion … there can be a sense of entitlement when it comes to sizeable offerings of money or time being made.
There could also be a sense of envy arising if someone is perceived to receive special favour from God when they themselves did not.
All of which brings us to today’s reading from Matthew…
Jesus shares the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In this parable we can see broken relationships in that vineyard … relationships broken by envy and by feelings of entitlement and privilege.
Jesus tells the gathering that the kingdom of heaven is like an owner of a vineyard.
This particular landowner heads to the marketplace early one morning and hires a group of day labourers to work in the vineyard. They agree on a day’s wage and off the workers go to the vineyard.
The landowner makes another visit at 9 a.m. .., and at noon … and at 3 p.m. and finally at 5 p.m. The landowner tells the first three of those groups that he’ll pay them whatever is right. For the final group, the landowner doesn’t even make a promise of payment … just that there is work for them.
And they just go to the vineyard anyway.
When evening arrives, the landowner has the manager of his vineyard pay the 5 p.m. group first … then the 3 p.m. group … then the noon group … working back to the workers who had spent the entire day toiling under the hot sun.
The first group receives a daily wage even though they only worked for an hour … the second group gets the same amount … as does the next and the next.
The workers who have been working all day … and who find themselves at the back of the line … witness the landowner’s generosity and believe that they will experience that same generosity, as well.
If workers who had only been there since around 5 p.m. received a daily wage, just imagine what those who have been in the vineyard for 10 or 12 hours will receive.
When they reach the front of the line … they receive exactly what was agreed to when they were hired early in the morning.
You can almost hear the workers go “What the blankedy blank blank!”
The group complains to the landowner … they believe they are entitled to more money than the other groups of workers … after all, they were there all day-long.
They believe that the landowner is being unfair to them. The landowner may be generous, but not generous enough. While the landowner treats all the workers equally, the first group of workers expect preferential treatment.
We can see that this sense of entitlement and privilege has broken the relationship between the landowner and this group … and the relationship between this group and the other workers.
The landowner’s response is that the workers who have been there the longest aren’t diminished by his decision. They received what they were promised … no more and no less.
Paying the late-arrivers the same wages … isn’t taking anything away from the other workers. Besides, the landowner reminds them that he can choose to do whatever he wants with what is his.
Jesus tells the disciples that the last will be first, and the first will be last in the kingdom and this should be their practice in this world.
Today’s parable illustrates what that means and how such a concept can be unsettling because it turns the economy of the world on its ear. This is when God breaks in.
Keep in mind that this last group had been overlooked and pushed aside all day long while they waited to be selected. Now, they are at the front of the line. That is how God’s righteousness can be reflected in the life of the world.
It’s interesting to note how often the landowner in this morning’s passage from Matthew kept going back to the market throughout the day.
The original audience for this story would know that a landowner would only make the trip once … but this landowner goes to the marketplace four more times … and brings people back with him each time. Is he a bad planner … a poor businessperson?
His actions certainly don’t reflect the values and practices of this world.
The landowner isn’t concerned about profits or the harvest or the crop. By continually bringing in more and more workers, the landowner shows he is concerned with their welfare.
In short, the kingdom of heaven is like the landowner … bringing in … and welcoming … all.
That is the economy of the kingdom. The kingdom doesn’t operate on the customs, beliefs or sense of justice present in this world. It operates on love and on right relationships between peoples and with God.
If you look at the payment offered by the landowner as being God’s grace … then there is an abundance for all. It is freely and equally given … you cannot earn more and it is not rationed out according to our actions.
To believe that you have to work to earn grace … and that the longer and harder you work, the more you’ll receive … the more favoured you are in God’s eyes … is called “works righteousness” and it lies in opposition to what we … as Lutherans … hold to be true.
Martin Luther held the concept of “works righteousness” in utter contempt.
In one of his sermons on Matthew, Luther said, “By grace, He promised beforehand the coin to everyone who is in His vineyard, in His Christendom, and to everyone who does his work in all diligence and faithfulness, but no one shall get more or less on account of his works.”
By human standards grace is not fair … it contradicts the lessons we are taught by society. By the world’s rules, the more you work and the more you give … the more you are entitled to receive … the more power you should be given … the more grace that should be bestowed on you.
This parable invites us toward renewal and to consider the incomprehensible nature of grace that is displayed by the landowner … that the last will be first, and the first will be last … that privilege and entitlement have no place in the kingdom nor in a faithful community that seeks to do God’s work.
The story invites us to consider whom we consider first and whom we consider last.
This is the key point of our theology as Lutherans … it is a key to who we are called to be and how we are called to serve.
Through God’s actions, we are given grace … which calls us to work for others and not for ourselves … to share the grace of forgiveness … the grace of justice … with those around us.
This parable shows that God calls us to be equally generous and not place our own expectations at the forefront of our lives.
Through grace … we are free to open our hearts to the world … free to forgive and free to be grateful … and to be free from being envious or concerned about what others have received as if we are diminished by it.
During our Lenten journey, let us reflect on times when entitlement and resentment toward others found their way into our lives … and to remember that God’s unconditional and abundant love is for all … equally shared and equally given.