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Generous Landowner, Generous God (Matthew 20: 1-16)

THE HOLY GOSPEL OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST ACCORDING TO MATTHEW Jesus said, "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And 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?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, '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.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last." MATTHEW 20:1-16

Sermon (by The Rev. Dr. Maryann Amor)

Imagine you are hired at 8am to work in a vineyard, you head out, the heat beating down on you, and you begin to harvest grapes, tend soil. You are grateful that you have found work and know, without any doubt, that at the end of the day you are going to get a good amount of money. But as you stand in the field, toiling and sweating, you watch as the landowner brings in more workers. Some come at 9am, some come at noon, some at 3pm, and some, surprisingly, come at 5pm, one hour before your work day ends. Finally, after being in the vineyard for 10 hours, you get ready for payment time. But the landowner does something unexpected…he calls forward the people who worked for one hour and pays them for 10 hours’ work, he does the same for everyone else, paying everyone a full days’ wage. Having toiled for 10 hours, you are livid, ready to give the landowner a piece of your mind. You deserve more than those who worked one hour. Everyone should not get 10 hours. This is completely unfair.

This parable was presented on a prayer app that I use and when I heard it and was then prompted to reflect on it, my mind went exactly to where I just described. I thought back to the days when I used to clean toilets to pay for school…if I cleaned 20 toilets and someone else cleaned only 1 toilet, but we both got the same payment…I don’t think I would have enough words to express my anger. Why did I bother cleaning 20, if I could have cleaned 1 for the same money? I could have saved my time and energy. It is so not right, so not fair.

I think probably all of us find it easy to place ourselves in this parable, to become the workers who suffer all day, then watch as those who work significantly less, get paid a full day’s wage. We can imagine what it would feel like, and it would not feel good…the anger would boil, the unfairness of the entire situation would be so clear.

But this is the problem…we can so easily associate with the supposed unfairness that we end up missing what this parable is actually trying to show us. If we hold back how we might feel if we were one of the full day labourers and instead look at the parable as a whole, we would notice that this parable is not really about the labourers, but about the landowner, it is about God.

Jesus’ parable is part of his larger description of the kingdom of heaven. He is painting a picture of what the kingdom is like and uses parables to provide illustrations for his audience. In this parable, God is the landowner and he treats the labourers with something we rarely see in our world…an abundant, unrestricted generosity. This parable is casting God as one who gives regardless of how long one has been in the vineyard, regardless of how long one has followed the path of faith. Thus, in the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s goodness and generosity know absolutely no bounds, know no limitations…everyone will equally receive.

In Jesus’ world this parable would have been directed at those who thought it was unfair that Jesus was inviting people on the fringes to join him, showing love to the tax collectors, prostitutes, the outcast. Similarly, Matthew’s community, which was primarily Jewish, was now starting to include Gentiles. Many of the original members would have been upset that those who did not hold to the faith of Israel were now being welcomed in. This parable is speaking to people who were annoyed, complaining that all were welcome, that everyone was being treated equally, paid the same amount, but not everyone had been followers consistently…not everyone lived good lives. This parable is speaking to people who feel that they have a right to decide who gets God’s goodness and love, complaining if they thought it was going to those they did not approve of.

So, this parable calls them and it calls us to do our best to avoid getting angry or upset, do our best not to become those labourers who worked 10 hours, who cleaned the 20 toilets, thinking we have any say in how the landowner, in how God, distributes God’s love. Instead, this parable calls us to shift our perspective and to place it on the landowner…to rejoice in his goodness, rejoice in God’s goodness. Because how truly wonderful it is that our God, unlike human beings, doesn’t base love or grace or generosity on anything we have done…doesn’t determine what we receive based on how long we have worked, how long we have followed the path of faith.

And this is what I hope we can take away from this parable, because this vision of the Kingdom of Heaven is such an immense piece of good news. Every person of faith has moments in life when we don’t feel connected to God, when our faith waivers and we struggle to believe anything. But today’s parable is telling us that God’s love and blessing is poured out on us whether we follow God for a lifetime, work in the vineyard all day, clean those 20 toilets…or we follow God for only few hours, a few seconds, or a single moment. God has no requirements…God’s love is free flowing and a true gift.

Today’s parable can stir up in us a range of thoughts and emotions. We can easily become focused on those labourers who worked all day and got the same amount of money as those who worked an hour. But when we look instead at the landowner and his generosity we get an amazing insight into God and God’s love in the Kingdom of Heaven. As Jesus describes, the landowner’s generosity mirrors God’s generosity…God blesses everyone, equally, without any requirement. So, when something happens and you feel your faith challenged, when you feel you want to step out of the vineyard, know that God is generous, God loves you, and God puts no limitations on God’s blessing. And in this unrestricted generosity, let us all rejoice. Amen.

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