Matthew 20:1-16 1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. 3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ 7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ 8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ 9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
A couple of weeks ago my pastor preached on Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the Vineyard. She did a great job, but I cannot say that for some of the other preachers I’ve heard tackle this passage. This is one of those passages that is really hard to preach because if you are not really careful, you risk endorsing things that are horrifying, or making God seem like a jerk who rewards laziness.
If you just preach it straight from the text, no implications, you can end up with a God who doesn’t seem to reward hard work. Let’s admit it: we are all tired of dealing with the coworker who barely works at all and yet gets paid the same wage that we do. And it’s really hard to read this passage and not bristle at the vineyard owner’s ‘generosity’ because what the vineyard owner seems to reward is laziness. God endorsing this kind of behavior doesn’t work very well with our middle-class sensibilities. But God is not interested in our middle-class sensibilities, and our work ethic is not the point of this passage of Scripture.
I’ve also heard this passage preached in ways that not-so-subtley encourage oppression. I’ve heard it preached where the point is to “Be a servant here so that you can be first in Heaven!” I’ve also heard a few preachers add insult to injury by implying that this passage is God’s way of evening up the score for those who end up on wrong end of the social stick. In other words, God is going to make it better for the impoverished and those who are oppressed when they get to Heaven. This encourages the idea that lack of equality on earth is ‘just the way it is’ and we can count of God to set it straight in the afterlife, so we don’t really have to do anything to overcome inequality and injustice now. God’s got it handled.
(Yes indeed, God does have it handled, but we’ll get to that later.)
Neither one of these interpretations work for me.
Seriously? Be a servant now so that you can the first guy later? It makes it sound like we’re in a competition to see who can impress God the most and therefore score the good seats at the Heavenly banquet. Faith is not a competition, and our good works are supposed to spring from the depths of our faith…they should not be some showy way of impressing the Lord so that He thinks more highly of us. Trust me, God already likes us. If you need evidence…Jesus is evidence.
The second interpretation is even more egregious, because that kind of thinking has been used to justify the oppression of women and people of color for centuries. This was an awesome way for the preacher to tell those who were oppressed be good little servants and willfully participate in their own oppression…and God would reward them later after they were dead…as long as right now they shut up and did what they were told like a good servant should. The funny thing is that you can bet the person preaching the sermon didn’t think that they personally were going to be last in line in Heaven since they had given up a potentially lucrative salary to be a lowly preacher and servant of God…despite that preacher’s elevated social standing and overt power over their parishioners. It’s just oppression with a clergy collar on it, and that doesn’t fly with me. Not. So. Much.
The funny thing is that God isn’t buying into our ‘best servant’ competition, nor is God willing to endorse our oppressive behaviors.
And that’s the entire problem with this passage: we keep trying to interpret it according to how things work here on Earth instead of how things work when God is in charge.
My professors in seminary used to call this the difference between God’s economy and humanity’s economy.
We all think that if we are last in line, that we’re going to get screwed. That’s the way it is on Earth. Last in line for tickets means you get the crappy seats. Last in line at the church potluck means that you get the leftovers that are mostly cold by that point. Last in line on Black Friday means that the good merchandise is all gone.
Last in line sucks…in our human economy. On earth, being last in line is no fun.
The thing about God’s economy is that it looks nothing like human economy.
In God’s economy, last in line for tickets gets great seats. Last in line for God’s potluck finds a table overflowing with piping hot food, looking like God saved the good stuff saved for last, even though the folks who ate first seemed to look like they got really good stuff too. Last in line at God’s Black Friday sale means that you get the things you really need and you don’t have to fight for them as if your life depended on getting that last box…because there is always at least one more of whatever it is that you need.
God never runs out of anything. God never gives anyone the small portion. God does not hand out consolation prizes.
In God’s economy, everybody wins. In God’s economy, everyone gets the good stuff. In God’s economy we don’t have to worry about where we are in the line because there is an endless supply of everything we need, especially God’s love, time, and attention.
And how does this resolve our bad behaviors? How does this challenge our oppressiveness? How does this set right the poverty of the Third World nations, or violence, or terrorism, or war or human trafficking or…
Again…we’re trying to figure this out with a human economy.
We want God to punish the bad guys and reward the good guys. We want God to declare somebody the winner. We want God to make clear who was right and who was wrong.
In God’s economy, Jesus’ death saves ALL humanity. Jesus saves the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the winners and the losers. God saves the oppressed and their oppressors.
God redeems it ALL and that is what erases the human economy, because there are no winners and losers left in God’s economy. No one gets the small portion…not even the last guy in line.
As we walk the journey of Lent for the next six weeks, maybe the thing we should give up for lent is our human economy. Maybe we ought to try living by God’s economy and see what changes in our life.
It may be the closest we can get to finding Heaven on Earth. Check in with me in six weeks and we’ll see what happened.