Sermon delivered to Covenant Presbyterian Church
San Francisco, Sunday, September 18, 2011
Rev. Douglas B. Olds (all rights reserved)
My second sermon text this morning is from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 20, verses 1 through 16 (RSV):
20“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;4and he said to them, „You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.‟ So they went.5When he went out again about noon and about three o‟clock, he did the same.6And 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?‟7They said to him, „Because no one has hired us.‟ He said to them, „You also go into the vineyard.‟8When 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.‟9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,12saying, „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.‟13But he replied to one of them, „Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?‟16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Central to Jesus’ teaching method was the succinct story—the parable--which teaches a truth about something greater than the concrete illustration used. Unlike fables, which feature animals, plants, and non-living geographic features, Jesus’ parables use human subjects and objects to stand in for a more heavenly reality.
The ancient Jews often taught the meaning of the Torah by use of parables,
so that Jesus was using this method of parables to teach his followers that was more familiar to them than to us today. What is radical about Jesus’ parables is that he is using them to teach us about the meaning, reality and central character of God and God’s kingdom. The Jews never did that. The bold, human-centered speech of Jesus’ parables—where Jesus equates God with the vineyard owner—shows that God is near. Jesus’ parables make the motives for God’s action understandable and challenges us to recognize how different this action is from all of our expectations and designs.
In a sense, a parable can be “hard,” in that it creates a sudden distance or alienated feeling against the object of knowledge. Jesus intends us to reflect on how we humans are alienated against God and are distant from that place and time that Matthew calls the Kingdom of Heaven.
The parable that we just read—of the gracious vineyard owner and the grumbling workers—should bring up for us an alienated feeling. On first reading, I confess I felt indignant about the vineyard owner; I felt that those who worked the hardest and the longest deserved a higher wage.
I thought that the workers who have borne the long, hard heat of the day as they worked, and the workers who were hired at the eleventh hour, were entitled to a fair, unequal reward. But Jesus builds on this alienation when he conclusively reverses our expectations for what justice consists of in the Kingdom of God: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” --another hard saying for humans who are consumed with ideas of merit, deservingness, and the fairness of our wages.
"No fair!" we are meant to think about this economy of the vineyard. Those who work less get paid as much as those who work the whole day. It is our everyday experience to think about justice and fairness in all that we do, and this parable confounds us because the Biblical idea of justice is something quite different than our thoughts about fairness.
Many of us, when we think about our primal need to shout “No Fair,” can hear our children’s voices ringing in our ears. That is, our offspring shouting “No Fair” or, if we are self-aware, our own inner child yelling “No Fair” when something affronts our innate sense of merit.
Among what I believe this parable is meant to confront is our inner child’s temptation to stinginess. A sense of justice that has at its core a stingy eye has no place in God’s Kingdom.
I am meant to reflect on how I mirror my children playing in a room full of toys as they hoard and fight over specific favored objects. Can’t you just see this? A room full of toys, and there is just one toy that two children each lays a claim on? When parents intervene, they tell the children to share, to take turns. The child who is forced to give up the toy for a time tells us, “No Fair!”
Jesus tells us by this parable, “Not So!” as in our daily lives our inner child claims “No Fair!” to other types of equal shares. For stinginess comes from envy: it presumes a fundamental inequality of merit where equality is intended in God’s creation. The day laborers in the vineyard are rewarded equally at the end of the day, with those who work less receiving the quicker recompense. Though all receive the same wage, the last hired move to the head of the paymaster’s line. In that sense, those hired in the 11th hour receive the better, quicker reward.
How confounding to our sense of fairness is that!
What then is the principle of justice that the parable is meant to convey? What is the Biblical principle of justice beyond fairness and merit as we so often presume? I think the fact that this parable’s day wage is equal for all workers demonstrates that economy in the Kingdom of God is egalitarian—certainly more egalitarian than our human economies of scarcity and merit presume. Just look around at the “market ideology” that drives today’s political solutions. Self-advancement and acquisitiveness seeks to control the levers of government, media, and the courts, so that our politics cannot even imagine a Kingdom economics of equal pay, beneficence, a sense of having enough to make do, the neighborhood of the common good.
Instead, our politics is stingy, it is what the Greek of our parable’s text calls the day laborers’ “evil eye.” Our eye is evil not only because it is envious of others’ success, our eye is evil because it substitutes the success of the self for the truth of God.
The truth of God’s justice in relation to humans in the parable is in these verses:
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious [the Greek says “Is your eye evil”]– Or is your eye evil because I am generous?”
God is the owner of all, and God’s will is to be generous to all, most urgently to the “last.” These that are last are also the least of us, and Jesus is telling us that God the vineyard owner would have us his economic managers be urgent in bringing equality to the poor and un-favored. I think it is very clear that this parable would signal Jesus’ intention to provide for taxation on disparate levels of wealth in this country to eliminate poverty--the 45 million American citizens who are without access to human dignity, decency, and material necessities like shelter and health care, food and clothing.
I want to get back to this idea of the evil eye. The evil eye, which our English text translates as “envious,” is a way of looking at another’s success with malice. The use of the word “evil” in the Greek lets us know that Jesus is invoking the Biblical idea of evil as profound antagonism to God’s plans that will cause God to withdraw God’s life-sustaining gifts. I do not mean to suggest that God abandons us if we are envious or stingy, but that our envy and stinginess put us beyond the reach of trusting and accepting God’s grace. God’s gracious offer of salvation, which in the parable is the equal wage to the day laborers in the vineyard, is negated by envy because it does not trust the neighbor’s good fortune. Envy leads to stinginess and anxiety that others will take away their good fortune, so that salvation when it comes to others is then grasped at by the holder of the evil eye. If the reward of salvation is open to envy and hoarding, the human agent might feel that it is a scarce resource that can easily be lost to other planners of evil. Salvation as a gift is therefore to this evil eye an untrustworthy resource. This evil eye of envy, then, is profoundly unfaithful because it makes the donor of salvation, God, seem a dealer in untrustworthy goods. Envy left to its own devices puts us outside the possibility of redemption. It counters God’s plans. It is indeed an evil eye.
Yet God knows our human nature to be stingy and envious better than we do, which is why redemption is an eternal gift that cannot be lost, and not a reward for merit that can be lost to someone “better.” Many conservative commentators have discerned in this parable the identity of the Jews as the early morning hirelings, and the church as the 11th hour workers, with the nation of Israel the envying agents of God, and Christians the favored “last who come first.”
I think there is that element, but there is also the fact that both Israel and the church are 11th hour workers. God chose the nation of Jacob in Egypt and provided them with manna in the desert despite their grumbling against Moses’ leadership. They did not merit redemption from slavery: their deliverance was a gift from God who desired a people to serve as his messengers to the other nations. They were the first, but lest Christians be too smug about their being later to the gift of redemption in Jesus, they should be aware that the maxim, “the first shall be last and the last first” works eternally, so that their being first into the church of Jesus might make them last in the coming Kingdom of Heaven, while the last in the church of Jesus might be the first into the Kingdom of Heaven. This hard saying of Jesus and this hard parable should not make any of God’s children complacent about their status, only that God will confound any hierarchy based on human pride and human stinginess over what constitutes merit.
So to return to the question that I posed earlier, what is the Biblical concept of justice if it isn’t a philosophical consideration of merit and fairness? Biblical justice is not derived from a strict definition of rights and duties—of effort and rewards—but with the rightness of the human condition before God and neighbor. Justice in the Biblical parables is concerned with our relationship to our society and with God. Human ideas that perpetuate inequality based on the ideology of the marketplace are profoundly alien to this parable, and to the prophets in the Old Testament, and to the Wisdom literature of Proverbs and Psalms. God’s justice is that which reflects the Word—the pronouncement—of God. If you have trust in Jesus Christ and his Words, you are pronounced righteous with God. Your duties to Justice then are fulfilling the commandments of Christ: to love your neighbor, to serve the lowly, to heal the sick, to bring equality of access to economic resources without diverting necessities for all into the luxuries for a few.
This is justice: to stand with clear conscious before God, pointing to our redemption in Christ and mimicking the works of Christ’s doing. Not because we merit any reward, for our good works are Christ’s merits working within us. But because we have been given the gift of grace to fulfill our innermost, deepest, truest cravings, to live authentically and beneficially for others, serving God and feeling the joy of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
God knew we couldn’t solve the human condition by our own achievements. By our own merits. Human-based economics based on human-differentiated merits cannot solve the problem of poverty and sin. Only the one gift of grace that is salvation in Jesus can allow us to step outside of our envy and stinginess and work for equal justice and for equal access. And for that salvation, all Christian give their thanks and their commitment.//