Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16

Below the fold is a manuscript version of my (John’s) sermon from Sunday, September 24, 2017, on Matthew 20:1-16. It’s a sermon about getting not what we deserve, but what we need.

Matthew 20:1-16 (NRSV)

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’

7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The great question this parable raises, the question that kind of determines how you feel about this passage is “how do you see yourself.” Do you see yourself as someone hired early in the morning? Or do you see yourself as someone hard late in the day? Or do you see yourself as coming somewhere in between? Your answer to that question makes a big difference in how you hear today’s reading.

Were you hired later in the day, maybe even as late as five o’clock? Well, good news. God, the generous landowner, will give you not what you have earned but what you need to support yourself and your family.

Were you hired early in the morning? That one’s tougher. You would expect extra after the folks hired at five o’clock received a full day’s wage. But you don’t receive a bonus. You get the same amount they did even though you’ve “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

Now, as Jesus points out, you don’t really have the right to be upset. After all, it is the landowner’s money to do with as they please. But I think being upset even angry is so normal as to be almost unavoidable.

Wendy gave a beautiful illustration of this in her children’s sermon: some kids got more than one piece of candy, and we all readily see that as unfair. You know what bothered me the most about that: she didn’t level everything out at the end. Now if she had done that the whole point would have been lost and forgotten, but it still bothers me.

It reminds me of growing up in Council Grove United Methodist Church; my family, every one of us, was always in church on Sunday. We were even in church on Sunday’s like this, the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost. My dad was the lay leader; my mom was Sunday school superintendent. I had countless years where we were there every Sunday (and somewhere at home I have the one-hundred percent attendance pins to prove it). If we were not there on a Sunday, then it was a safe bet that we were visiting my grandparents and in church with them.

I remember countless Sunday’s sitting in our regular pew in a half-empty Church on many a Sunday and how that would change when we would come to Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday we could still find a place to sit close to our regular pew. And I thought this is nice. Finally, people realize how important this is and they are here. And I was happy about that. Or at least I tried to be happy after my mother told me that I should be. But you know what comes after Palm Sunday? Easter Sunday. I got out of Sunday School I came up to the sanctuary, I went to sit down … and you know what happened, don’t you … our place was gone. Our pew was full as were all the pews around it. And we ended up sitting on hard, metal folding chairs in the narthex. I could barely see, and I was ticked. Christ was risen, but I sure couldn’t see it from where I was sitting.

And we got home, and I was complaining about the injustice of it all. Didn’t those seat stealers know that they were in our place? Shouldn’t that pew have been saved for us?

My mom tried to explain it to me, telling me “you really should just be happy that there were so many people there.” And I remember thinking that I was happy that there were so many people there, but I really felt they should have been sitting on the hard, metal folding chairs in the Narthex. I wanted to sit my regular place. My understanding of what was fair and just had been violated. We had been there all the time. Didn’t we deserve to have our regular seat on Easter Sunday?

But that’s not the way it worked. That experience was actually a good introduction to how the kingdom works. We made the effort to be there every Sunday, but we had no right to that pew.

Likewise, when you’re building for the kingdom by volunteering your time; by tithing your income; by sacrificing your ease; by serving others by loving your neighbor; by forgiving your enemies; by prioritizing God above all else you know that building for the kingdom is not easy to do. Building for the kingdom is sometimes hard work. Not all of it, sitting here in worship is not that taxing, but on the whole, being a Christian is hard work. You know that, I know that and so it can be hard to accept the teaching that a Johnny-come-lately to the faith is our equal.

And so this passage is not an easy one. It is a hard one. And I know because people have told me how much they dislike it. And when they tell me how much they dislike it I can truly tell them that they are preaching to the choir. I don’t like it either. It goes against my sense of justice, my basic sense of fairness and decency that all the workers received the same wage. When I read this parable, I find myself standing right there with the workers hired early in the morning and I am complaining just as they were.

But I try to remind myself of the fact that God’s generous love exceeds God’s justice (because everyone getting paid the same: that’s not justice, that’s love), is not just good news for those who come late in the day. It’s good news for all of us because none of us can earn what we need.

We like to think we can. We like to think where we’re putting God in our debt. We like to think we’re doing God a lot of favors. We would love to think that God owes us one. But it doesn’t work that way.

I cannot remember a time when I was not a Christian. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t laboring in the vineyard. And yet all that time I have not been racking up credits, I have been racking up debits because of the good I failed to do and the wrong that I committed.

If God kept strict accounts, we would find ourselves growing deeper in debt every year. We can’t earn our salvation. We can only receive it. And so the news that God’s love exceeds God’s justice is good news for us.

In addition to that, hopefully, the labor we do is a labor of love. Hopefully, we find joy in our labor. Hopefully, when you’re volunteering you get some joy out of that. Hopefully, when you’re working on a mission project you get some joy out of that. Hopefully, when you’re reading your Bible or attending worship you get some joy out of that. Hopefully, at least some of the labor we do for God is a labor of love.

Finally, the third and biggest reason for me to try to find peace with this passage is this: time spent building for the kingdom is time spent living in the kingdom.

C.S. Lewis wrote a fictional account of life after death called The Great Divorce. In this book he gave one of his heroes of the faith. George MacDonald, the following words.

… Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn [every] agony into a glory. … And that is why, at the end of all things, … the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,” … [1]

The idea is that when we look back from the end, when we look back from the viewpoint of eternity upon all the work we did for the kingdom here, we will recognize all that work not as a labor, not as an agony, not as drudgery, but as time spent in the kingdom. A foretaste of the kingdom itself.

Are you satisfied with those answers? Some of you need to work on your poker faces; it’s obvious you are not satisfied. And if you’re not satisfied, I’m not surprised. I’ll be honest these answers don’t always satisfy me when I really think about it. They can satisfy me for a while. But then that fades, and I’m back to asking “why are those who came so late in the day my equal?” And I’m left with the fact that when we can’t grasp and understand God’s ways in the world, we are left with only our trust in God’s goodness. Trust in God’s goodness includes trust in the fact that in the end, we will not get what is coming to us. We will not get what we have earned. We will not get what we deserve. Instead, we will get something far better, and finally, we will understand.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (1945), Chapter 9.