Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 24, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16 Commentary

Sometimes the good sermon is the one that gets under people’s skins and bothers them.  Sometimes we preachers even want this, which is why it can be disappointing in its own way some weeks to have people at the church door say “I really enjoyed that sermon, pastor!”  You want to reply “I was hoping it would bother you!”

In Matthew 20, Jesus is trying to bug us a little.  It is one of those times in the Bible when if Jesus can get us a little upset, it creates a teachable moment.  This story is calculated to offend.

Like most parables, the basic story is very simple and very mundane.  A vintner is desperate to get his crop of grapes harvested.  Maybe the weather is threatening to turn bad the next day, or maybe the grapes are so bursting with juice that if they aren’t picked today, they will be rotten very quickly.  Whatever the situation, the work needs to be done in a day.  So at the crack of dawn he finds some eager folks lined up.  So he hires them, promising a denarius for their trouble.

These people work literally from sun-up to sundown, a solid twelve hours of labor including right through the heat of the day.  Apparently, however, despite the diligent work of these folks, the picking is not proceeding fast enough to satisfy the farmer.  So all day long at 9am, noon, 3pm, and even as late as 5pm (a scant hour before quitting time) the farmer keeps hiring more folks, handing them empty bushel baskets and telling them to fill ’em up with grapes.

Jesus purposely lingers a bit over those last folks hired.  These were not the eager beavers who had been standing at the farmer’s front gate at dawn.  For whatever the reason they had slept in.  Maybe these were the ne’er-do-wells of the community–the kind of people who were unemployed but seemed to lack the gumption to do a whole lot about it.  All day they had sat around on the fringes of the town square, sipping cheap beer maybe and just watching passively as over and over the farmer came looking for new workers.  But they had not leapt to their feet each time he came to the square calling for more pickers.

Finally it got to the point where there were no other folks left in the square and so long about the time these lollygaggers were getting ready to head on home to sit on the sofa and channel surf the evening away while munching on the frozen pizza they had bought with their unemployment checks at the A&P, the farmer comes back one last time.

“Why have you guys been lazing around this town square all day doing nothing?” the farmer asks.

“We dunno,” they ask, “guess it’s cuz no one hired us.”

Well, there was a reason for that, too, of course, but when the farmer tells them to get to work at last, they readily agree.  Shucks, for an hour they could put up with most anything. “A little hard work never hurt anybody” the old adage says, and a little hard work was precisely what these fellows would be doing.

Jesus is setting us up.

We are already looking at these blokes through squinty eyes.  Examples of the Protestant work ethic they aren’t!  But then Jesus pulls a narrative fast one: he makes sure that these one-hour pickers get paid first.  Had they been paid last after the crack-of-dawn folks had already left with their hard-earned denarius tucked into their wallets, there would not have been much punch to this parable.  But instead Jesus’ fictional vintner makes a point of ensuring that the people who worked the longest witnessed the fact that these lazy bums got paid one whole denarius each as well.

Actually, however, that was not the moment that brought about the anger.  Being fair-minded men with a firm sense of right and wrong and of what they had coming to them, they assumed that maybe as it turned out the going rate for this vineyard was one denarius per hour.  And oh what a happy evening it would be in their households if they could come home with twelve denarii in their pocket!  How wonderful it would be to swing by the store on the way home and at long last be able to afford a special candy bar for each of the kids, maybe even some flowers for the dinner table and one of those better brands of wine to go with dinner for once.

Except that of course it didn’t happen that way at all. Everyone got the same pay.  Most people have a certain look that involuntarily sweeps across the face the moment they feel cheated.  It is a kind of pursed lips, sideways glance, head-shaking expression utterly transparent to the anger that is rising in the throat.  That’s how I picture these 12-hour workers the moment the master’s payroll man plopped a single denarius into their sweaty palms.  They stared at the coin in disbelief and then looked askance.  One of them finally whispers, “Can you even believe this!?”

The master overhears and so reminds them that he had cheated no one.  This was the contract they agreed to at dawn that day.  “And as for the rest,” he goes on, “what’s that to you?  You’re not out anything.  I can do what I want with my own money.  So don’t cut your eyes at me and scorn my generosity!”

And that’s grace, Jesus says.  It turns everything on its head.

But we don’t like it.  And that is the rub of this parable and it creates a great preaching opportunity.

Without meaning to do it, we peg a lot of our spiritual worth, our spiritual self-assessment, to how much work we do for the church. In the heat of the day, in the dark of the night, on Tuesday mornings when we don’t feel like driving to church yet again, and on Sunday evenings when most other folks don’t even show up for worship, we’re here.  And before we realize it, we slowly begin to assume that maybe we need less grace than some other folks.  We’re getting to heaven on the installment plan as much as by grace.  Maybe God does grade on the curve after all, and if so, by jimminy, we are determined to be well out ahead of that curve.

But as a matter of fact, if we have work to do and the talents to do it, this needs to become not a point of comparison with anyone else but a lifelong exercise in gracious gratitude to the God who enables our work in the first place.  Grace called us to work in the kingdom, grace lets us perform ministry, grace compensates for our shortcomings in that work, and grace, not our own hard-won merits, is what crowns the work at the end of the day.

But, of course, there is a last point to be made and no one ever made it more poignantly than Barbara Brown Taylor in her memorable sermon on this passage.  Taylor asked the key question: When we read this parable, why do we tend so immediately to identify with the folks hired at the crack of dawn?

Why do we so readily assume that when God’s kingdom fully comes, we will be the ones tempted to feel upset in that we will also be shown to have been the hardest workers of them all?

Who told you or me that we’ve been working for 12 hours?  How do we know that just maybe our work totals the measly one hour after all?

Barbara Brown Taylor imagines that in the parable, when the farmer improbably hands the one-hour pickers a whole day’s wage, there must have been hoots of laughter and some “Ain’t we the lucky ones!” good-natured back-slapping going on.

But on that great and final day when Christ shall come again and bring us to himself, we should pray not only that we will indeed discover that the grace of Jesus is more than enough to get us into the kingdom.  We should also pray that when we discover that eternally joyful fact, the great laughter and joyful back-slapping will be our very own.

Textual Points

This parable is so memorable that we are tempted to forget it has a wider context in Matthew’s gospel.  It comes as part of a larger package of stories and incidents that drive home the idea of “the first shall be last.”  First Jesus took little children to himself in Matthew 19:13-15 to point out that their lowly, humble status somehow has something to do with receiving the kingdom the right way.  Then the Rich Young Man shows up as a foil to a child-like nature.  Jesus sadly has to undercut this young man’s ideas on self-help salvation to make the point that salvation is all about God and so all about grace.  Now this parable in Matthew 20:1-16 drives home that same point and is followed by yet another prediction by Jesus that it would finally take nothing short of his own death to make just that free and saving grace available.  But the whole section climaxes in Matthew 20:20-28 when the disciples reveal how clueless they still are on this fundamental dynamic of the gospel as the mother of James and John tries to reserve seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom for her two boys, leading the other disciples to get ticked off, thus leading Jesus—one more time—to try to get through their thick skulls that the world’s way of reckoning value must not be their way.  But was anyone really listening?

Illustration Idea

In her sermon on Matthew 20, Barbara Brown Taylor says that this parable is a little like the cod liver oil that mothers used to give their kids to cure what ailed them: you know it’s good for you, you trust the one who is giving it to you, but that doesn’t make it very easy to swallow even so!  Most of us are born into this world with a huge sense of infantile entitlement followed by, at a very early age already, a seemingly intuitive sense of fairness and unfairness.

It’s like Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, in the classic “Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” You may recall that at one point Sally is writing a letter to Santa Claus and in the process generates an enormous list of toys she wants.  Then at the conclusion of her North Pole-bound missive she writes, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.”  When Charlie Brown sees this and despairs over his own sister’s greed, Sally indignantly responds, “All I want is my fair share.  All I want is what I have coming to me.”  You can see the short clip of  Sally here.

Apparently that’s all that most of us want, including long after we become much older than Sally Brown.  We want our fair share.  We’ve got rights and the number one right we have in life is the right to have our rights met.  So we chafe, we champ at the bit, we stomp our feet and wag our heads when we spy apparent unfairness in life.  We go to a high school reunion and see former classmates who never went on to college.  We’ve got four, maybe eight years more education than they have and so get driven clean up a wall when we discover they made millions in a car wash business even as we slave away teaching humanities at a Christian college, barely making ends meet at times.  Driving home after the reunion, we mutter to our spouse, “Life’s not fair.”

When we are children, we count how many M&Ms Bobby got from grandma to make sure it’s the same amount as we got.  When we are grownups we do the same thing, albeit counting up other kinds of things than pieces of candy.  We are very sure that in life, hard work should be rewarded, education should pay off, yahoos and bumpkins should not be better off than thoughtful people.


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