Preliminary sermon thoughts on Matthew 20:1-16

This is not a sermon; it’s just my initial musings on the text for Sunday.

1 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers 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 market-place; 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 labourers 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.’

 This is one of Jesus’ ‘The kingdom of heaven is like’ parables. And we need to start by reminding ourselves, as we always do when we’re dealing with Matthew’s gospel, that when Jesus talks about ‘the kingdom of heaven’, he is not talking about what we mean today by either a ‘kingdom’ or ‘heaven’.

Starting with ‘heaven’, this is Matthew’s way of saying ‘kingdom of God’, which is the term used by the other gospels. Traditionally scholars have said that Matthew was observing Jewish sensibilities here, given that many Jews feel the word ‘God’ is too sacred to be pronounced or written (you will see it written sometimes today as ‘G-d’). However, Matthew doesn’t seem to be shy about using the word ‘God’ in other contexts, so there must be some other reason behind his habitual use of ‘kingdom of heaven’.

Be that as it may, ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not about dying and going to heaven. It is about God’s will being done ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ – about heaven’s rule breaking into this wicked and broken world, replacing injustice and war with justice and peace, bringing healing for hurts and a vision of ‘Shalom’ – wellness, peace, prosperity etc. So when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”, what he means is “When things are done on earth the way God wants them to be done, this is what it will be like…”

And then there’s that word ‘kingdom’, or ‘basilea’ in Greek. There aren’t many kingdoms left in the 21st century world, but we still understand ‘kingdom’ to mean ‘a geographical area ruled over by a king’. Legally, Canada is a monarchy – albeit a ‘constitutional one’, which means that the powers of the sovereign are not unlimited but are strictly defined by the constitution of Canada – and we understand that to mean a geographical area under the authority of the Queen and Parliament of Canada.

But ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is not a geographical area under the direct rule of heaven or God. There is no geographical area or ethnic grouping that corresponds to ‘the kingdom of heaven’. ‘Basilea’ in this context is not static (‘the land within the borders of that country’) – it is dynamic; it means the personal rule or reign of God in the world. It has no borders or boundaries, no ethnic characteristics, no language or national government. It is not identical with the Church, although the Church is meant to be a signpost of the reign of God. Nor is it within our power to create it; every reference to it in the New Testament assumes that it is a gift of God and its extension is an act of God. It does, however, have a particular character, a particular world view, a particular way of life, and we are called to align our own lives and the life of our Christian ekklesia with that character, that worldview, that way of life.

So what is the kingdom of heaven like according to this parable?

1 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard’.

We’re on familiar Old Testament ground here; the idea that ‘Israel is Yahweh’s vineyard’ is a common one in the Old Testament. Usually, however, the emphasis is on the fruit which Yahweh is looking for, fruit which all too often Israel did not bear. Here, however, we’ve got a different emphasis: the Vineyard as a place of grace where the workers receive, not what they have earned, but what they need to survive.

The scene is a familiar one. The town marketplace is the local labour exchange, and every morning at 6 a.m. the unskilled day labourers gather there and wait for someone to hire them for the usual twelve hour working day. The landowners send their stewards or managers down to the market with instructions to hire a certain number of labourers for the jobs that need doing on that particular day. No doubt the workers all know each other and the stewards or managers know them all as well; they know which workers are strong and reliable and which ones tend to slack off and take longer coffee breaks! The wage is set by custom: it’s ‘a denarius’ (translated throughout this passage in the NRSV as ‘the usual daily wage’) – a Roman coin, equivalent to one quarter of a Jewish shekel. Jesus likely used a Jewish equivalent in his original parable; Matthew, writing in Greek, is likely translating here for the benefit of Greek and Roman audiences.

Dick France points out that the day labourer did not even have the minimum security which the slave had in belonging to one master. There was no social welfare program on which an unemployed man could fall back, and no trade unions to protect the workers’ rights. An employer could literally ‘do what he wanted with what belonged to him’ (v.15). In such a setting no work meant no food for the family. (see R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, Eerdmans, 2007).

Two things are unusual at the beginning of this parable. First, it was not usual for the landowner himself to go down to hire the workers; usually his manager or steward would do that. This is an unusual landowner, one who takes a personal interest in the workers rather than just seeing them as tools for getting the job done. Second, although it is not stated in these first two verses, it is strongly implied in the rest of the passage that he has actually hired all the workers who are available in the town marketplace that day. I say this because later on he goes back again to see if there are any more available to join the ones he has already hired. I’m guessing that this would be unusual; I would think that usually a landowner (through his manager) would hire only the best workers, and the least number necessary to get the job done.

3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 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.”

This is where we start to suspect even more strongly that all is not as it usually is. It’s hard to believe that the landowner actually needs all these workers to work in his vineyard. Certainly they need the work, or how will they feed their families for the day? Certainly this is on their minds as the hours pass and they have not yet been hired; the denarius is the bare minimum necessary to survive, and if they only work for half a day it will be short commons on the family supper table that night. So they are no doubt relieved when the landowner comes down and hires them – even down to the ‘eleventh hour’, with only one hour left to work before the usual quitting time.

At this point in time they are not expecting any special financial treatment; “I will pay you whatever is right” (v.4), says the landowner; no doubt the ones who were hired later in the day are expecting a vastly reduced wage.

8When 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.” 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.

According to Jewish law labourers were to be paid on the same day as they had worked, before sundown:

‘You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning’ (Leviticus 19:13).

‘You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy labourers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to Yahweh against you, and you would incur guilt’ (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

So this is what is going on in this part of the passage; the labourers will get their pay at the end of the day and will then be able to buy the food needed for the evening meal at their home. Except that those who were hired later in the day would naturally not expect to receive as much; in their homes, the parents may well have to go without so that the children have something to eat.

Now at last we read about the manager; all day long he has been invisible as the landowner himself has hired the workers, but now he gets involved in the paying of the wages. The labourers are gathered together and the manager starts to pay them according to his master’s instructions, starting with those who were hired last and have only worked an hour. And to their surprise, they receive a full day’s wage – a denarius! No one will go hungry in their house tonight! Imagine, then, the excitement of the workers further up the line! This is an unusually generous employer! If one hour’s work earns a denarius, what will twelve hours earn?

Their hopes, however, are dashed; when it comes their turn, they receive exactly the same, a denarius. Those who worked for twelve hours, for nine, for six, for three and even for one all received the same wage. Surely this is not right?

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?”

Sure enough, there’s a shop steward in the crowd! He points out the injustice: what’s with paying everyone the same? They’ve only worked an hour; we’ve been at it all day! How is that just and right?

In reply, the landowner reminds them of the contract they made at the beginning of the day; they agreed to work all day long for a denarius. That is what they are legally entitled to. What they are not legally entitled to do is to prevent him from being generous with his money. Obviously when a master pays eleventh hour workers the same amount as people who have worked a full twelve hour day, we are not talking about wages here: we’re talking about generosity. The workers are not getting what they deserve; they are getting what they need. If they don’t get a denarius someone in their house will go hungry, and the master knows that. His concern is not with getting the work done or honouring the letter of the law: his concern is with providing for the needs of the poor. And so, as Jesus so often says,

16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Dick France points out: ‘The extraordinary behaviour of this landowner in adding extra workers after he has already recruited all he needs in the early morning therefore probably indicates not that he could not calculate his labour needs in advance, but that he was acting compassionately to alleviate the hardship of the unemployed. It is unlikely that he needed the extra workers, and his excessive payment of them speaks for itself. Commercially, the man is a fool. And God is as uncalculating as that.’

How are we to interpret this story?

This parable reminds us that the kingdom of heaven is about grace from start to finish. The Gospel is that God does not give us what we deserve; he gives us what we need. The truth of the matter is that none of us are particularly satisfactory workers. If our job description is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, we have all fallen far short of this. If God gave us what we have earned, the reward would be scant indeed. But, as the Bible reminds us over and over again, God is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in love. ‘God welcomes sinners and invites them to his table’. Forgiveness of sins, adoption into God’s family, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Father’s constant love are available to all; the arms of Jesus are opened wide on the cross, calling all people to come to him. ‘Today’, he says to the penitent thief – an eleventh hour conversion indeed! – ‘you will be with me in Paradise’.

There are not degrees of salvation; the blessing of eternal life is the same for all. Some are not more saved than others; the latecomers are not at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving the blessings of God’s grace.

And indeed, historically, we Gentiles are the latecomers. The Jewish people entered the vineyard and started to work at 6.00 a.m.; we came on the scene much later. No doubt this was in the mind of the first hearers of Jesus’ parable and the first who heard Matthew’s retelling of it. To the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, they were the ones who had been working hard for God in all the heat of the day, and now Jesus was inviting tax collectors and prostitutes and ‘this crowd who do not know the law’ to join them on an equal footing at the feast in the kingdom of heaven? Outrageous! It was unjust. It reminds us of the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son:

“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30).

By the time Matthew’s gospel was written the Gentiles were pouring into the church. No doubt Jewish Christians, and non-Christian Jews, reflected on these things. “We’ve worked hard all these years to keep the law. This lot haven’t even bothered! How can they be invited in as equal partners with us?” And even today we Christians might feel the same way. Those of us who have been churchgoers all our lives might be tempted to look down our noses at new converts who have only recently come to know Christ and follow him.

Grace is the antidote to all of this. The kingdom of heaven is all about grace. If it were not so, none of us would have any hope whatsoever. So we who have been received with grace and have received it at the hands of God need to treat our fellow-Christians with the same grace.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Preliminary sermon thoughts on Matthew 20:1-16

  1. Andrew H.

    I am enjoying your sermon preparation thoughts!
    One likeness that strikes me is the Manna in the wilderness. Those that gathered little had enough, those who gathered extra had enough, and no more. Those that gathered little were not necessarily lazy; they were perhaps elderly and arthritic, or disabled with no family to help them? And our gracious God saw to it that they all had enough. And probably some that gathered little were indeed lazy – as in the parable, it may be that some of the workers that didn’t show up in the marketplace until late afternoon may have slept in, then gone fishing for a few hours, then wandered by to see if they could catch a few hours of work — and God looked not upon why they hadn’t been there at 6 am, but upon their needs.

    “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s