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Words of Grace

Matthew 20:1-16 (CEB)

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard.

“Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ And they went.
“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’
“‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.
“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’
“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”

A word of God, for the people of God…Thanks be to God.

September 24, 2017
Matthew 20:1-16
“Words of Grace”

During the month of September, we have been focusing on the theme of words…what our words mean, how we use our words in communicating and the power of our words. We have spent time seeking the guidance of Jesus when we need to have hard or difficult conversations with one another. We heard what Jesus has to say about the words ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness;’ and today we will think about the word ‘grace.’

(Matthew 20:1-16)

One of my first summer jobs years ago while in high school was detassling corn. It was hard, hot work. We would meet at a central location at 6:00 o’clock in the morning and be transported on an old school bus to some cornfield in what felt like the middle of nowhere. We each had our assigned rows and we walked down the row pulling off the top part of the cornstalk and dropping it to the ground. What made it so hard was reaching for the top of the cornstalk and the fact that temperatures in the cornfield could reach 100 degrees by late morning; because with the corn planted so close together there was not a lot of air moving through the field.

We were paid a daily wage at the end of each day because a lot of kids never came back the next day. But the daily wage was pretty good, so those who made it through those summer weeks could make some good money. When the busses returned to the central location, the supervisor was there handing out our daily paychecks.

I remember in the last days of the detassling season when the field owners needed to get the work done, the bus would bring teenagers to the fields throughout the day. Those of us who were able to keep working all day stayed in the fields, detassling. One late afternoon as we returned to receive our money, some of us who had worked all day were talking to the half-day or less than half-day workers, curious as to what they received for the few hours they worked. When they told us the amount of their earnings, it was the same as ours! And of course there was a unison cry of, “It’s not fair!”

We grumbled among ourselves and then some of the older kids went to report the “mistake” to the supervisor, expecting that we would be getting more money. The supervisor told us that we would not be receiving any more and that the owner was so thankful to have finished the fields with the help of more workers throughout the day that he decided to pay everyone the same.

We went home on that last hot summer day not understanding the owner’s logic and of course the thought of God’s grace was an alien concept to a bunch of hot, tired, grumbling teenagers. Our energy went not to gratitude for the fact that all of us had been paid for our summer work, but to the inequity we saw. Envy robbed us of what we had received.

Life is not fair…thank God! Life is not fair because it is rooted in the generosity of God’s grace.

When we hear this parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, it quickly becomes clear that this is going to be a tough plan for employee compensation at our place of work. It would not take long for people to catch on. We get unsettled and annoyed when we think our colleagues and coworkers are less productive or not working as much as we are. So, imagine how we might feel if we found out that they were making the same money we were for working fewer hours.

Then we hear the parable end saying, “’Are you resentful because I’m generous?’ So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.” And that’s when we start to realize that this is not a story about employee compensation or the political wrangling over minimum wage standards…this is a story about nothing less than the grace and generosity of God.

This parable sidesteps a worldview of scarcity and presents a value system of abundance that centers on God’s provision of grace. In this story, you and I are asked to stand in the kingdom of God…to listen with kingdom ears…to listen for kingdom values…to align our hearts from the perspective of the kingdom. And that stretches us and is hard to get our heads around…yet it is our calling as Christian people of faith.

At first hearing this story it has a big bite of unfairness to it. It challenges our sense of equity and justice; and it seems like we’re dealing with a God who doesn’t play by the rules of basic fairness. Yet, there’s a big difference between looking at life in terms of what we think is fair and looking at life through the lens of God’s generosity.

No one in the story has been denied, no one cheated, no one given less than what was agreed upon. The offense lies in the generosity of grace. The offense of grace is not in the treatment we receive but in the observation that others are getting more than they deserve.

This story is drawn from common, normal life in the first century. When grapes in the vineyard are at their prime, the vineyard owner needs extra workers to harvest them quickly. The employment agency for the day laborer of the biblical world was the market square, where those seeking work would gather before dawn, hoping to be picked for a job.

The wonder of our story is the landowner’s frequent trips into town to get more workers. If you were keeping track, by the end of the day we have five shifts of different workers in the vineyard who have been there for 12 hours, for nine hours, for six hours, three hours, and only one hour. Now, the workday comes to a close and the workers come in to collect their pay. So far everything is normal. The appearance of unfairness is revealed when the amount of wages is distributed and in what order. The vineyard owner has his manger begin paying the workers that were hired last first, and on down the line until those that were hired first are paid last.

When the workers hired at dawn saw the five o’clock employees receive their wage for one hour’s work, they naturally thought they would be receiving much more for sweating in the vineyard all day long. To everyone’s amazement, though, each employee receives the same daily wage.

This is where things get ugly. Grumbling among the workers begins and accusations of unfairness and injustice begin to be hurled at the vineyard owner. The laborers who have worked all day complain to the landowner that not only does he pay them last but he pays them the same as all the rest! We deserve better, they cry!

And, if we’re honest, their reaction is what most of us would have felt also. Envy has a hold on them. Envy has hardened their hearts, blinded their eyes, and dulled their senses.

The late Ernie Campbell, who was a pastor and seminary professor, once said, the vineyard owner made two mistakes. First, he paid all the workers together; in the presence of one another, when he should have paid the early workers first and sent them on their way. Second, Campbell says, the vineyard owner didn’t use envelopes. He just put the paychecks right out there on the table for everyone to see. That’s when the comparing and accusations of unfairness started.

Yet, grace is not about fairness; grace is unfair, which is one of the hardest things about it. We spend time grumbling about what someone else was given, when the miracle is that we have been invited to work in the vineyard and given what we need for the moment or for the day.

Grace is always a mixed bag. When you receive grace, I grumble. When I receive it, I assume that I have earned it. Either way, grace is hard to understand. Perhaps the vineyard owner recognized the basic human needs of all those looking for work that day and offered an opportunity for them all to have money for food and shelter to support themselves and their families for one more day.

For most of us, even if we remember some of what we learned in high school economics class, the present economy is hard to understand…then we have the economy of God’s grace, which is also hard to understand.

But the difference is…and this is a big difference…the difference is, while the economy of the world in our present day and current circumstances may seem to be built and based on greed and irresponsibility, the economy of God’s grace is the same yesterday, today and will be tomorrow. The economy of God’s grace is built and based on God’s generous, unconditional love.

God is generous in showing grace and we have been entrusted to share God’s overflowing generosity and grace with one another. While economic systems fail and life gets hard, grace has the ability to go on forever.

You see, that is the hope and the promise. This grace that is God never ends. This grace that mends and heals…This grace that forgives and reconciles us to God and to one another never ends and is new every morning. This is the grace out of which you and I and all people have been created. This grace is our beginning, our ending and our eternal home.

Some of us have known that most of our lives. Others of us have been late in coming to know this experience of God’s grace. But it doesn’t matter. For reasons we may never know or understand, God’s grace is indiscriminate and unconditional.

Our story from Scripture is about a God who refuses to leave us alone, refuses to leave things the way they are; a God who won’t quit going back and forth into town…won’t quit inviting. A God who calls us, pursues us, seeks us, and finds us…sometimes early, sometimes late.

Jesus did not tell the kind of stories like the laborers in the vineyard to teach us how to live. He told them, I believe, to tell us about who God is, who God loves, and how God defines this word ‘grace.’

This is the Good News of God this day.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.