16th Sunday after Pentecost | The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard – Mt. 20:1-16
Whenever we hear a good story, the normal thing is to look for a connection–
To identify with the characters, and see where you might fit.
That’s not weird or wrong.
In fact, it’s what makes stories powerful and effective.
And it is naturally the first thing we do with the parable Jesus tells today.
You hear the story and you try to figure out which type of laborers you are.
You begin to consider whether you entered the vineyard early, late, or somewhere in-between.
You may find yourself wondering just how hot it is out there at mid-day.
And, how much would a denarius be today?
But the answers to those questions will be of little help because this parable isn’t primarily about you.
Instead the story Jesus tells is about a Master with an enormous harvest,
And a vineyard that always has room for more laborers,
That’s why the very first words are about the Master, and not the laborers.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”
Jesus starts off by saying that this parable is about Him and His kingdom before it is about you and me.
And everything that follows involves Jesus setting the record straight for Anyone who would insist on minding the Master’s ledger,
Consulting on His business practices,
Or, on the flip side, estimating just how late you can sleep in and still get paid.
This parable is about Jesus and His kingdom of grace before it is about those who are in it.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, Grace always comes first;
I.e. Jesus always comes first.
He always makes the first move, without any help from you.
It is by grace alone that anyone comes into the vineyard at all.
And yet, despite all that grace,
When it comes time to get paid, there’s still complaining.
Even in the vineyard there is something to groan about.
In this case, it’s that the laborers don’t approve the Master’s hiring practices.
Those who are fortunate enough to get picked up early are later found grumbling at the Master, saying
“These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.”
Or as you might hear today:
“I’ve been a good Christian all my life. I’ve served the Lord wherever He’s put me. I take care of my family and volunteer at the soup kitchen. Surely I have more coming to me than the guy who was baptized on his death bed!”
That’s our way – always thinking we deserve some special treatment for our so-called faithfulness.
Even among us Lutherans, who are so constantly reminding our Roman Catholic and Baptist neighbors that our good works earn us nothing,
We still fall into this trap of asking for what we think we deserve;
Whether that is money and influence now, or a whiter robe and a better seat at the table later.
It is absurd on its face.
And yet, here we are, throwing around our Lutheran credentials:
“I have been a member of this congregation for 10, 15, 20, or 50 years, and this is the way it’s done.”
“I have been organizing this or that event since it began; and you think the new guy is going to help?”
Sadly, some are actually begrudging of those whom the Master brings into the vineyard late in the day, in the twilight of their lives.
Why should they enjoy the same reward as me? To which Jesus may reply: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” ‘Why are you upset that I am good?’
If it’s true that you have really been laboring in the vineyard all day,
It stands to reason that you would have quite a bit more to show for it.
But we don’t.
We’ve been wasting time griping about how mundane the work is,
And imagining how much better this place would be if only the Master adopted some of our clever programs, slogans, and hiring practices.
After all, it’s neither fair, nor is it good business, to pay the latecomers the same as the long-timers.
In fact, it’s not just irresponsible; it’s bad for morale.
But if you think that getting ridiculed or looked down own by others for speaking out in support of life or traditional marriage,
Or getting up to go to Church and Bible Study once a week is bearing the burden and the heat of the day,
There is a band of Christian martyrs, burned alive, who can tell you what real heat feels like.
There is a host of Christians in places you can click past on the news, even women and children, being crucified and beheaded for the sake of the Gospel.
It’s time to drop the excuses about how tough it is to be a Christian.
Early hires? Late comers?
Most of the time we look more like someone hired early,
Who got bored and went back to the market until he got hired again:
Unworthy, unprofitable servants.
The bottom line is that you would all be much better off if you stopped trying to keep track of how much you’ve done.
Because that will not be good news.
The real Good News is much better, and it is this:
The Master brought you into His vineyard,
And graciously agreed to reward you for work you haven’t even done.
A close reading of the text shows that the Master did not even tell the laborers exactly what or how much work they needed to perform.
That does not appear as part of the contract,
From the text alone, it appears the laborers are being paid simply for being brought there to the vineyard and sticking around until the end of the day.
And yet the Master expects that those in His vineyard will do what He has bid them. That is why they are called laborers.
So “Laborer” is not so much a title as it is a description.
Managers manage, fisherman fish, farmers farm, and laborers labor.
What is different in Jesus’ Kingdom of grace is that laborers are not working for their wages;
They are working so the Master can have a harvest, one to be a blessing to everyone, and glorify His Name.
The vineyard, then, is a place of joy:
Joy in your labors,
Joy in your vocations,
Joy in everything the Master has given you to do.
There’s even joy in fellowship –
In getting to spend the day with all the other overcompensated laborers.
Not to mention the overly-generous retirement package.
Remember that the work isn’t for nothing.
From Jesus vineyard flows wine and the fruits of the earth,
The gifts of our God, who loves His creation so much that He uses His own laborers to bless and care for those who are not yet His laborers.
He does not pay you what you think is fair.
He does not reward the rewardable for anything they’ve done.
If He did, you wouldn’t have anything.
On the contrary, our Master does the unfair thing imaginable.
God sends His only Son, the Master of His vineyard; to die for the sake of the unworthy and unprofitable servants He has dragged from the marketplace – even you, and even me.
Jesus has been crucified in your place, for all that you,
His laborers have done and left undone.
And, as He says in another parable, it’s His own laborers who have killed him.
Having rejected the prophets and even the message of John the Baptist, the Father finally sent His only Son, saying:
“They will respect my [S]on.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the [H]eir. Come, let us kill [H]im, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took [H]im and killed [H]im and threw [H]im out of the vineyard” (St. Mark 12:6-8).
On a cross outside His own vineyard,
Jesus received the payment His laborers truly deserve;
And out of pure mercy and Divine goodness,
He has given you the reward you do not deserve.
And because He desires that all should be saved, when He is lifted up,
He draws all people to Himself (St. John 12:32).
In His life, death, and resurrection,
Jesus seeks to bring more and more laborers into His vineyard,
Into His Kingdom of grace.
And when all the laborers have been gathered,
When the whistle blows and the Sun sets on this world’s final afternoon,
The Holy Meal that nourishes you even now,
Will be the food and drink of the feast which has no end.
On that day, nobody will be calculating his or her wages.
Nobody will have to worry about who was first or who was last.
We will only rejoice in the graciousness of our Master,
Who has brought us into His vineyard.
To Him be the glory forever and ever, and to the ages of ages.