9.21.14 The Generous Landowner
15 Pentecost AProper 20 Sept 21
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
So today we have Jesus’ INfamous parable of the overly generous landowner. Maybe another name for it could be the parable of the grumbling day-workers. Maybe another name for it could be the parable of God’s astonishing generosity—so astonishing that it is irrationally maddening sometimes.
This landowner who overpaid the last-hired workers didn’t cheat anyone out of the agreed-upon wage. When he called the first workers at breakfast time, he told them he’d give them “the usual daily wage.” And they agreed about that. Then with the next batch of workers who were called at mid-morning, he told them he’d give them “whatever is right.” And so on and so on all day long as he hired men to work in his vineyard, bringing some in at the last minute.
And the last hired received what the landowner deemed right, as well. It’s just that that happened to be the same as the wages that the first-hired guys received.
Imagine their outrage, will you! The early birds were there about 10 times longer than those guys who came on at supper time. 10 times longer. And still, they all got the same payment—“the usual daily wage.”
This is some crazy parable.
What’s the point of it? Well, it’ll help us to take a look at the context of the parable. If we look at the gospel of Matthew just before this parable, we find the story of Peter reminding Jesus that he and the other disciples have left everything to follow him—and so what will they get in reward? Jesus’ answer is that “everyone who has left mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” So—in other words—don’t worry, Peter, your reward is coming, but it may look upside down in some ways: the first will be last and the last will be first.
So that story precedes our parable. What comes after it?
It’s the story of the good Jewish Mother of James and John, who asks Jesus if her boys might sit on either side of him in glory. And Jesus’ response? “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” And of course these dumb, blind followers say, “We are able.” And Jesus continues, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
OK, so let’s stand back and see the big picture. We have disciples reminding Jesus that they’re following him at a significant personal cost. We have disciples jockeying for position in the next life already, even while they’re hale and hearty in this one.
So no wonder Jesus comes out with this outrageous parable in between these 2 stories of friends asking for favors. It’s a dumbfounding—a stunning—way to get them to think about their notions of fairness and reward.
Even though they see in the ways of our culture—that we’re rewarded commensurately for our work—Jesus has something else to say. Jesus reminds them that God’s gifts go beyond accounting and compensation.
God’s gifts go beyond our notions of Justice and Fairness, and they vault into the realm of Love. And as one gospel pundit has written, “Love passes beyond the realm of justice and law into the realm of relationship. Think about it for a minute: what would it be like to govern your relationships primarily by the law of justice, counting up every slight or injury done you by your partner, so that [you] could do the same to him/her? Keeping track of every time your child or parent disappoints you so you can hand them the tally at the end of the day? Logging every hurt you experience at the hands of those around you so that you can remember, keeping a record of our grievances and waiting for reparations? Can you imagine living your life this way? I think it would be hell on earth. …While the justice makes room for relationships, it’s love, generosity, and forgiveness that enable relationships to flourish.”
[David Lose, “Love or Justice?” In the Meantime for Sept 15, 2014]
So once again we’re reminded that God’s love trumps God’s justice. Mercy wins over punishment. Forgiveness is one of God’s primary M.O.’s.
And as we close this time of parsing the gospel, I’d like to pose this question for us to consider. Maybe we might try to think about this crazy parable, not from the vantage point of the guys who started working early and stayed all day in the hot sun. Maybe we can imagine ourselves as those who were brought in last. Those who had flaws that kept them out of the most attractive pool of day-workers. Maybe we are the ones last hired, with lots of baggage, lots of reasons why we aren’t attractive and muscular. Maybe, even then, we’re forgiven and paid well, anyway.
[idea from David Lose, op. cit., and from Barbara Brown Taylor, “Beginning at the End, Matthew 20:1-16, in The Seeds of Heaven, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, pp. 99-106.]
May this notion help us to remember all the ways that God holds us up, showers us with gifts, and forgives us despite our “stuff.” May we meditate on God’s largesse and generosity, and seek to become people of deeper generosity ourselves.
God gives to us. May we give back.