Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 20 September 2020; Proper 20A (RCL); Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
As I read this passage from Matthew, I can just hear you saying, “But, wait! That’s not fair!” I had a teacher in high school who would reply every time someone said that, “Who promised you life would be fair?” But this is a parable of Jesus. Surely we would expect fairness here.
Of course, the guys in this story who worked the whole day grumble that the landowner is not fair; so even Jesus understands our expectation that life is fair. I think Jesus tells the story precisely to challenge our understanding of what is fair. And even more importantly, I think Jesus tells the story to force us to think about the appropriate use of wealth.
There is a meme that goes around Facebook every so often. In the first panel, it shows three kids trying to look over the outfield fence to watch a baseball game. The kid on the left is tall enough to see over the fence. The middle kid can almost see over the fence, and the kid on the right is shorter still, and is staring right at the fence.
In the next panel, each of the kids is standing on a peach box. The tall kid is now really tall. The middle kid can see over the fence, and the short kid is still too short to see the game. This panel is labeled “equity.” All the kids have the same resources. The third panel shows the tall kid standing on the ground – he can see over the fence. The middle kid is standing on one peach box, and he can see over the fence. The short kid is standing on two peach boxes; now he can watch the game! That panel is labeled justice. The resources (peach boxes) aren’t distributed equally, but everyone has access to the game.
Think about this parable. I’ve never been in the position of looking for day labor, but there were corners in Denver where you could see guys standing out early in the day, hoping to get hired by a landscaping company or for some other manual labor. A contractor’s truck would pull up, and the contractor would signal two or three of them to get in the truck, and off they’d go. Of course, there were some days when there would still be guys standing there after the last contractor had hired everyone needed. You can be sure it would be a hard night for those guys.
Notice in the story, when the landowner asks the men why they’re still standing there at five o’clock, they don’t say, “We got here late.” They say, “No one has hired us.” It’s going to be hard night at home for those guys. A denarius was not only the average wage for a day laborer: it was also about what you needed to put food on the table for a day. There will be hungry families in the village.
So, the landowner pays the guys he hired at five o’clock a denarius. Their families will eat. Think of the good will he buys in the village. Those guys are going to want to work for him again, even if he hires them at five o’clock in the morning! And if they ever have a little extra and can afford to buy wine, you can be sure, they’ll buy his wine. Fair or not, he keeps the village in good shape. So, what’s fair and what’s just are not necessarily the same thing.
But even deeper is how the story challenges us to think about the use of wealth. Last week, when Peter asked how many times he should forgive a brother or sister, Jesus told the parable of the ten thousand talents. The slave who was forgiven ten years of Herod’s income throttled his fellow slave for 100 denarii, the usual daily wage. Clearly Matthew wants us to connect one story to the other.
The parable of the ten thousand talents comes at the end of chapter 18, and this parable comes at the beginning of chapter 20. We skip over chapter 19. Chapter 19 contains three basic units. The Pharisees ask about divorce, saying the law allows a man to divorce his wife with a certificate. Some of the rabbis after Jesus’ time allowed a man to divorce his wife for burning the stew. Jesus absolutely forbids divorce except for infidelity. Then, some people bring some children to be blessed and the crowds try to keep them away. Jesus blesses the children and says whoever doesn’t accept the kingdom like a child cannot enter it.
And then, the rich young man comes to Jesus and asks, “What good deed must I do to inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and he says he has done so since his youth. Jesus looks at him and loves him, and says, “You lack one thing. Go and sell everything you have, and give it to the poor. Then come follow me.” The man leaves crestfallen, for he had many possessions.
When a man divorced his wife, she was in deep trouble. If her father would not take her back, she was thrown on her own resources, which usually weren’t much. Often, she ended up in prostitution. So, Jesus forbids treating women this way. He also treats children, who were equally vulnerable, as if they are worthy of blessing. And then he sends the rich man away.
And then tells this parable. How does anyone amass many possessions? And note, the word is possessions. One can amass much only by hoarding what really belongs in circulation. Origen, an early interpreter of scripture, said about this parable, that the rich only hold their wealth in trust for the poor, and when the poor demand it, the rich must give it back. The owner of the vineyard understands that he holds his wealth to make the community work – the wages belong to the worker, so they can eat.
The Old Testament lesson is the story of the manna in the wilderness. In the next few verses, God will get extremely angry with the people, because they want to gather more than one day’s worth of manna. Of course, it rots overnight, except on the Sabbath. Pharaoh hoarded all the grain in Egypt and bought everyone into slavery. God’s people are not to hoard even a day’s worth of manna, so they don’t become Pharaoh. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for our daily bread.
The king forgave his slave ten thousand talents, so basically everything he owned, even his life and his household, was pure gift from his king. When he demanded a hundred denarii from his fellow slave, he was trying to hoard what wasn’t his. When the laborer grumbles in this story, the vineyard owner asks, “Can’t I do what I want with what is mine? Or is your eye evil because I am generous?” The evil eye was much more damaging than jealousy. The evil eye damages community. The appropriate use of wealth is build community. What is ours, and what belongs to God and we only hold in trust? This is not a stewardship sermon, but that is the question of our whole life. It’s all gift. And we should be profligate with it.