Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 25 • 21 Sep 2014

Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:23-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Rev. Dr Bruce Roy

Preaching of the Word

So was it fair?
Should those who worked one hour
be paid the same as those who worked all day?
Hardly a sound basis for a working economy!
Let’s all turn up for the last hour and get a full wage.

In his commentary on this passage, Charles Cougar writes this:

“There is no more cherished word
in the Christian’s vocabulary than ‘grace’.
Simply put, it describes the mercy of God
demonstrated in countless ways to undeserving people.
It is not surprising that polls show Amazing Grace
to be by far the most favoured hymn of … church members.
But just because of its popularity,
the notion of grace often loses its cutting edge.
It gets acculturated,
divorced from the character of a righteous God,
resulting in saccharine permissiveness.
When that happens,
nothing jolts and jars sentimentality quite like
a reading of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard.

In a vivid and even abrasive story,
the radical and offensive nature of grace is depicted,
inevitably leaving the reader with the questions,
Was the owner really fair?
Don’t the labourers who worked all day
have a legitimate beef?”

Charles Cougar in Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year A
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville KY, 1995

And perhaps I should share this also from his commentary:

“One word of warning:
This is a parable that needs very little explanation or interpretation.
Its impact is so forceful, so direct, so engaging
that the preacher has to worry about staying out of the way
of the parable’s confrontation with the congregation.”

That, of course, gives me permission to end the sermon here!

But there are some observation that can be made
that may make Charles Cougar’s comments even more relevant.

When I first read the parable for this Sunday
I had a hunch that it might have been a story
from the early church rather than directly from Jesus.
There are a number of such items in the gospels.
They are assessed on the basis of style, context,
how many times the story appears in the gospels
and whether it reflects themes that clearly fit with
the life of the followers of Jesus later in the 1st century
and especially after the fall of Jerusalem
to the Roman Army in 70 AD,
(observed by the Jewish community as Tisha B’Av
in July or August each year).

It seemed to me that
this parable was addressed to early church members
and the tension between
those who had been with Jesus from the beginning
and those who had come much later.

But although this is the only instance of this parable
(and therefore not in the general collection of Jesus’ sayings)
it is thought to be genuinely from him
because of the blunt confrontation
within its message between merit and grace.

But in fact my hunch about who was being addressed was not wrong.
This parable
is addressed to the disciples
as they journey to Jerusalem,
and is part of their instruction and guidance.

Even more telling is that
the passage immediately prior to this one is equally confronting:
“Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters
or father or mother or children or fields, for my sake,
will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”
It then ends with the words:
“Many who are first will be last,
and the last will be first”
which is the very phrase repeated at the end of our parable.
The parable is clearly designed to emphasise that point.

And then, following this passage,
the mother of the sons of Zebedee
asked that her two sons, James and John,
sit one on Jesus’ right and Jesus’ left
as places of honour in Jesus’ kingdom.
You can’t blame a mum for trying
but she doesn’t understand about grace and generosity
for everyone in Jesus’ kingdom.

Our parable this morning is sandwiched between those two events.

So, the passage we read is not
a general principle for employment and its rewards
but is clearly for the followers of Jesus - us.
Each labourer was paid a day’s living
and while we might be offended about how unfair it is
that those who worked all day
and those who worked for the last hour of the day
received the same wage,
we miss the point if we veer over
into questions of economic justice -
don’t be distracted by the
amount of money
if you want to understand this teaching of Jesus.

It is easy to be distracted by a particular agenda -
social justice, refugees, climate change,
seeking fairness and justice for all,
and miss the point of
why we do what we do.

God welcomes all who work for him
and rewards them equally
with all that is necessary for daily life.

"Two monks were traveling together
through lovely terraced hillsides of rural Japan.
A steady rain had muddied the road
and made it almost impassable in certain places.
On their way, they encountered
what appeared to be a "lady of the evening"
scantily clad and visibly embarrassed by their presence.
Seeing that she was unable to make her way across,
one of the monks lifted her gently and carried her over the mud.
Without a word the two monks continued on their way
until they reached a lodging temple.
No longer able to restrain himself,
the other monk blurted out,
“How could you do such a thing?
We are celibate and have no contact with women,
let alone a woman of ill repute!"
Quietly the first monk replied,
"I left the girl back there at the intersection.
Are you still carrying her?”

Patricia Datchuk Sanchez, stunned by grace, Celebration, 28 (9): 397
(Celebration, P.O. Box 419493, Kansas City MO 64141)

If we focus more on
the unfairness in the parable
about the value of work,
it’s time to let go of that as the central issue
and focus on amazing grace and generosity.

I’ve been in congregations
where your value was measured by
how much you participated
in the congregation’s programs.
I’ve been in congregations
where your value was measured by
how long you had been in the congregation.

Both the Presbyterian and Uniting Churches have elders,
although we don’t have any here at Crows Nest.

I was Presbyterian before church union in 1977.
Elders were ordained - just like ministers.
In fact elders and ministers were both “presbyters” or elders -
the former being ruling presbyters
and the latter teaching presbyters.
They were ordained for life,
and in the Presbyterian church of some years ago,
and indeed in our culture generally,
this carried a certain amount of prestige.
But God’s grace and generosity rewards
the smallest toddler in the Sunday School
and the most esteemed elder equally -
perhaps to the chagrin of the elder.

God’s grace and generosity ignores our different status,
our different heritage, our cultural baggage,
our sense of racial superiority,
our first world or third world living,
and simply rewards everyone whatever they contribute
to the realm of God.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t work for
justice, universal care, the well-being of creation,
inclusive relationships between races, cultures, faiths,
generations, gender, handicap, etc. etc.

So long as we don’t expect a greater wage or honour
for all our hard work while others tarry.

But we can turn the lesson of the parable around
to look at
our generosity.
Let’s hear about two generous wage-payers.

Once upon a time Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn
were doing their white wash scam on the local kids.
It worked every year.
They conned five kids to white wash all the fences.
Then when they had finished,
Becky Thatcher … said to the suckers, come on guys,
Tom and Huck are going to take you down
to the ice cream store for a cone.
Hey, Tom and Huck said, we didn’t promise that.
But you’re going to do it, she replied,
because you’re nice guys
and you want to be generous to these kids.
Generous to suckers? Shush, Becky said.
You want them to come back next year.
Well . . . OK, but next year we won’t. We’re not THAT crazy! 
Yes, you are said Becky
because both of you are very generous people.

Being generous for what you can get out of it
hardly seems to be true generosity.
This kind of generosity stands in stark contrast
to that of the owner of the vineyard
i.e. God, in the parable.

So let’s end on the note I struck earlier
and get away from focusing on worth and value
but on God’s amazing grace and generosity
to ALL of us.