14th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A, September 18, 2011
Jonah 3.10-4.11; Psalm 145.1-8; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Amen.
In 2005, I lived on the border of the United States and Mexico. Around the cities of Las Cruces, NM, and El Paso, TX, there are all kinds of fields, mostly chile fields. There is an image that will forever be embedded in my mind. It is the image of the day laborers.
Their skin was dark and worn. These were people who did not have a steady job. They went to parking lots or businesses waiting to be hired. They would pile into pickup beds with their work gloves hoping to earn a day’s wage. Windy and hot, they bent over all day and picked chiles by hand.
Sometimes I would drive by these fields and see the backs and the tops of people’s heads as they worked hard to earn their daily bread. I also heard stories of parents who would work in the fields all day as their children sat in their car on the fringes of the dirt and crop rows. One could hardly pay for daycare. I had never though too much about the agonizing decision of whether one should either send their child to school or make sure they get fed at night.
This situation lends itself to a new understanding of the question so often posed, “Why can’t they just get a job.”
As he so often does, our Lord Jesus helps us to think and understand differently, to have compassion and extend unmerited grace.
In a story unique to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus shares when the kingdom of heaven is like. A landowner has a vineyard and he needs workers. He goes out early in the morning to where the day laborers gather. He agrees to pay them the usual daily wage: one denarii. It was enough to feed a small family for a day.
Then landowner continues to go out to find workers throughout the day, promising to pay people whatever is right with the exception of the last hired at 5 o’clock. To them he just asks a question: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They reply, “Because no one has hired us.” He said, “You also go into the vineyard.” They do so without promise of payment for their labor.
At this point we could ask: “Why wasn’t the 5 o’clock crew there early in the morning? Were they lazy?” But what if they were differently-abled people? What if they were sick, or they were taking care of an aging family member or child? Don’t the physically weak, ill, or disabled people need their daily bread too? The landowner and God think so.
We live in a society that gives worth and value to how much a person makes, or their ability to work hard. We give privileged positions to those with wealth and status, or those who can show up before the sun rises on a given day. We like to think of ourselves as better or more deserving than others to the point where there is a whole class of people on the bottom often referred to as “the working poor,” or simply, “the poor.”
How many fights start out with the question, “So, you think you’re better than me?”
The ones who have been working all day in the vineyard are not angry because they received less than what was bargained for or deserved for a day’s wage. They are angry because they feel the landowner has made the last to arrive equal to them.
To be honest, I think I would feel the same way too if I was in the their situation. It would seem unfair to me to get paid the same as someone who only worked an hour if I had been there the whole day. But God’s sense of “fairness” or “justice” is not the same as mine or yours.
In the story Jesus tells the landowner gives those who labored all day an opportunity. It can be easy for us to miss because we are so caught up in what we understand to be fair.
Instead of the workers grumbling against the landowner, they could have celebrated “in knowing that the generosity of the landowner is making it possible for others to feed their families (Christian Century Magazine, Aug. 30, 2017, Chris Dorsey, p. 19).” The workers only see what they feel they deserve, not the needs of another.
In the Lord’s Prayer we do not pray, “Give me this day my daily bread,” do we? We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We are to be concerned about others receiving their daily bread too, and not only that, we are called to be generous as well so that all may be fed.
There is another point to this story and it has to do with grace and mercy. Just before in chapter 19, Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
It’s true. The disciples did leave everything and have been with Jesus from the very beginning. They are like the workers who were called into the vineyard before the sun came up. They might be thinking, Surely, there will be a greater reward for those of us who have been with Jesus the longest.
Through the parable Jesus basically tells them, “Don’t bet on it.” In the kingdom of heaven those who seem least deserving and least important are also recipients of God’s grace and mercy. Not only that, but they are made equal to and even put before those who are generally considered first.
What does this mean? The story of Jonah can shed a little more light on what Jesus is getting at.
The abridged version of the story is that the Jonah is asked by God to go to Nineveh and tell the people to repent or else God will destroy them. The people of Nineveh were known for their brutality and their annihilation of the northern kingdom of Israel, Jonah’s own people. Nineveh is the last place on earth Jonah wants to go, so he tried to run away from God by boarding a ship.
There is a big storm and Jonah says its because God is angry with him and he convinces the sailors to throw him overboard. He ends up in the belly of a big fish and prays to God for mercy. The fish spews out Jonah and obeys God’s command to go to Nineveh.
He walks through the city and preaches the worst sermon ever: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Weirdly enough, the whole city repents and God doesn’t destroy them.
This makes Jonah real angry. He wanted to see them burn. He even goes and stakes out a spot on a hill outside the city to hope for and watch God destroy everyone. It doesn’t happen and Jonah complains that God is too gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent form punishing.
He didn’t complain that God was this way when he ran from God, or when he was in the belly of death, or when he disobeyed God. Again and again, God shows Jonah mercy and yet he doesn’t want it for others he doesn’t think deserve it.
We do this too. We think we have a pretty good idea about what justice is and who is deserving of grace and mercy. Through our stories today we understand that God’s justice doesn’t seem fair and that God can dish out grace and mercy to whomever God wants, even to people we think don’t deserve it.
Perhaps one day we can truly celebrate this.
In his book, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, he writes that “Mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion (p, 314).”
Jesus knows this and he tries to teach those who follow him what mercy and grace are all about.
So where are you in these stories? Does it surprise you that God is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love?
Think about God being this way in your own life. If you don’t think you deserve God’s grace and mercy, that’s actually really great! You are the ones God loves to give it to. And it is meant to transform your life. It’s meant to give you meaning and worth.
No one gets to set the boundaries of how far the love of God can reach, not even for our own selves. God keeps going out to find the workers. So, welcome to the vineyard everyone, where we see and taste the generous and merciful grace of God.