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By David Howell

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 Preaching Matthew 20:1-16


We know that Jesus has a tendency to stir things up, especially with his parables that often include an element of surprise and shock. This pericope comprising the parable of the landowner and day laborers is perhaps one of his more unsettling teachings, as it calls into question deeply held notions of what is fair and equitable. To make matters worse, God comes across as the source of such unfairness.
The first surprise comes when it is time for the wages to be paid out. Customarily those who were hired first would be paid first, but the manager starts the payments with those last hired. When those who had worked only one hour, about 1/12th of the day, are each given a denarius (an entire day’s wages) you can imagine the rest of the laborers getting excited, quickly calculating what they might receive at such rates.    
But as the manager continues handing out the wages, each group of laborers receives the same wages. Finally, when the manager hands a single denarius to each of those who had worked diligently for twelve hours, frustration and anger boil over. One of the outraged laborers gets up the nerve to register his complaint to the landowner: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the whole day and the scorching heat” (v. 12). We might easily agree. It’s simply not fair! It goes against every principle of justice and fair play that we live by.   
Many commentators are quick to point out that Jesus is not suggesting economic principles for managing a business. That may be true, but before we overly spiritualize this parable, we may want to consider how this parable could address unjust economic systems of oppression in our world today.  At a time when economists, social scientists, and public leaders are increasingly speaking out about the detrimental effects of income inequality, it may be good to raise the question of what is fair and just in our own economic practices. Is it fair that the average salary of a CEO is 204 times the pay of an average worker, or when women in this country continue to receive 23 percent less salary than men on average, or when workers don’t even receive a living wage? There are plenty of present-day economic injustices that could be fruitful ground for a preacher to explore in a sermon challenging such structures.
Certainly, in this parable Jesus is providing us a window into the character of God as One who is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. He is painting a picture of the way God’s reign works. God’s gifts of love and mercy are not something calculated and bestowed according to what is fair or deserved. Rather God’s unconditional love is poured out abundantly, bestowing dignity and value upon those who enjoy the privilege of steady employment and those who have been marginalized and may never have reaped the benefits of steady work.
The great challenge in preaching this parable is that we have no framework for getting our heads and hearts around the divine economy of grace. In theory, we confess and believe that we are saved by grace through faith and not by any merit or works of our own. But in our day-to-day lives, our instinctive response is shaped and formed by our culture to be the very opposite, believing that we earn what we deserve. From the time we are toddlers onward, we are taught how to live and succeed in the ways of the world, rather than upon God’s grace. The early bird gets the worm. No pain, no gain. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Demand your rights. Get what you pay for. People should get what they deserve; nothing more, nothing less.
One way to open up this parable is to ask ourselves and listeners alike: with whom do we identify in this story? Where do our sympathies lie?  
For many of us, I suspect we sympathize with those who worked all day long for the same pay as those who worked only hour. “You have made them equal to us,” they cried.  There is the real rub for us. Even Peter and the disciples, themselves considered to be on the margins of society and of low social rank, get caught up in this game of what we have earned, what we deserve, and what more we can get. Immediately before Jesus tells this parable, Peter reminds Jesus: “we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”(Mt 19:27)  It is so easy to get caught up in systems of status and merit. Like the disgruntled laborers and disciples, we all have our versions of what a “fair” pay scale should be, but God’s ways aren’t our ways. That God’s gift of grace is freely given for all and that each person is equally valued and equally graced by God’s mercy may just be the single hardest lesson for us to understand and accept. We are all day laborers who show up in need of work and a daily wage.
If the purpose of this parable is indeed to help us understand God’s ways, then we should not get too caught up in the surprising twist when wages are dispersed that we overlook the important first half of the parable. If the landowner serves as a symbol for God, then we know that God is constantly on the lookout for getting more people involved in working in the vineyard, taking part in God’s work in the world. In the reign of God, there is no one who should be standing at the sidelines at the 11th hour, viewed as unwanted or undeserving to take part in the work. God recruits all kinds of folks. The question for all of us whose sympathies lie with the all-day laborers is this: Who are the least and the lost among us standing around and looking for an invitation to take part in God’s mission in the world?
Jesus’ parable provides a stark contrast between the values and practices of the kingdom of heaven and the values and standard practices of the kingdom of this world. If we as hearers and proclaimers of the word aren’t riled by this parable, then perhaps we are missing the point.

The Rev. Laura J. Thelander, Ph.D.


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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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