Matthew 20:1-15 “The Scandal of Grace”

One of Jesus’ favorite ways of teaching was through parables. Parables were used by other teachers in Judaism. However, Jesus’ parables seem unique. His parables were almost always about situations involving common people: a shepherd looking for a lost sheep; a woman kneading yeast into flour; a peasant awakened by a neighbor asking for bread to offer hospitality to an unexpected guest; a mugging on the notoriously dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho; a beggar dying of hunger as he witnessed a wealthy man feasting every day; a peasant sowing seed. His hearers could identify with the everyday subject matter of most of his parables. Perhaps he chose these common settings to emphasize that the Kingdom of God which he came to proclaim was in their midst and could be experienced through the common events and customary circumstances of their lives if they had “eyes to see and ears to hear.”

Through his ingenious telling of parables, Jesus invited his hearers to enter into the parables as they identified with the characters and situations of these stories.

However, every parable Jesus told had the element of surprise. Each story had a twist—an unexpected outcome—a reversal of expectations. I envision those in his audience (mostly peasants and day-laborers in the small villages and hamlets of Galilee and Judea) scratching their heads or with their eyes and mouths wide open as they suddenly realize the surprising implications of his parables. Jesus rarely explained his parables. In fact, I can think of only one time (the Parable of the Sower) when he does unpack the meaning of a parable, and many scholars believe that this “unpacking” is the work of Mark, not Jesus. Through his ingenious telling of parables, Jesus invited his hearers to enter into the parables as they identified with the characters and situations of these stories. The hearers in a very real sense became participants and could not remain neutral as they allowed the parable to make its impact. Jesus left it up to the members of his audience to discover the meaning of the parable for themselves. Often their reactions and decisions became the endings of the parables. In their own lives, they finished the story.

One particular parable must have been especially irksome to the impoverished Jews of Palestine: the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15). It’s harvest time, and the day-laborers have gathered early in the morning at the center of the village hoping for work. This would have been a common scene in Jesus’ day. These workers are not peasants. Peasants owned their own land and would have been at work in their own fields. These were men who would have been very poor and subject to the vagaries of seasonal work. The landowner (not the landowner’s manager which would have been the normal expectation) comes to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. He and the workers agree on a denarius, the usual daily wage, for compensation. At nine-o’clock, the landowner sees other workers standing “idle” in the marketplace and he offers them work but only agrees to pay them whatever he considers “right.” The landowner repeats this pattern at noon, three o’clock, and five o’clock.

When “quitting time” comes in the evening, he summons his manager to call the laborers to collect their pay, but he gives the manager an unusual instruction: the manager is to give the workers their pay beginning with the last hired. Those who began work at five o’clock receive a denarius (a full day’s wage). Understandably, those who began their workday at the crack of dawn expect to receive more than the agreed upon denarius. But to their chagrin, they also receive a denarius. They grumble 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.” The landowner replies to the spokesman among these disgruntled workers, “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 the 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?” (Verse 16 reads “So the last will be first, and the first will be last,” and almost every New Testament scholar concludes that this is Matthew’s addition to the parable and was not original to Jesus.)

I have heard and read many interpretations of this parable. There is the Evangelical interpretation which posits that Jesus meant that those “saved” on their deathbeds receive the same reward in heaven as those who have labored in God’s vineyard for seventy years. There is the liberal interpretation that Jesus was demonstrating to the poor in his audience how the wealthy stir up resentment among the poor by setting them against each other by unfair practices. But I would like to suggest a different interpretation which I believe reflects some of the realities of village life.

My interpretation focuses on the daily wage of a denarius. This pay was the amount required for a poor family to get by for one day. In a sense, this was the “daily bread” Jesus told his followers to pray for in the Lord’s Prayer. It was the most the day-workers could expect. Some of those (perhaps a lot of those) listening to Jesus would have been in the vulnerable shoes (if they even had shoes) of these unfortunate men hoping for enough work to feed their families and survive another day. But how would these men feel if they had worked from sunup to sundown and then been forced to witness those who worked only one hour receive the same pay they would receive? Jesus’ parable makes it clear that this seeming unfairness witnessed by those who worked all day (they were paid last) was paramount in understanding the story.

Nothing galls people more than to see their equals get more than what they feel is a fair share. […] The powers that be understand this dynamic.

So, imagine you were one of these workers who felt they were treated unfairly. I doubt if it would be difficult for any of us to take that leap of imagination in a society as obsessed with entitlement as we are. You would probably make the same complaint as the workers (I know I would). It was this kind of resentment and hostility that would have been present in the villages and hamlets of Palestine. Nothing galls people more than to see their equals get more than what they feel is a fair share. Studies show that the poor are more resentful toward those who are just “above” them in wealth and opportunity than they are toward the wealthy and mighty who may be responsible for their poverty. The powers that be understand this dynamic. One of the underlying reasons for racism in this country is the resentment of poor Whites toward Blacks who may be able to get ahead in our society. Politicians have used this resentment for decades as they deflect the blame to minorities instead of being honest about an economic system that intentionally results in a growing and unjust gap between the poor and the rich.

So, what might Jesus’ parable say to his listeners 2000 years ago? Perhaps he was saying something like this: We all know life is difficult. The most many can hope for is to get by for the present day. Once you enter the Kingdom of God, your overall focus is compassion. If you truly love your fellow villagers, can you begrudge their receiving what is needed for the day to provide for their children? You may not be able to do much about the injustice of the system or the greedy landowners. But as a participant in the Kingdom of God, you can rejoice over your brothers and sisters who receive what they require for their “daily bread” which ultimately is a gift—not an earning—from Abba. Remember manna from the old days when each person received the same amount. Those who tried to grab more than their share found the excess they had gathered spoiled when they returned to their tents. Those who didn’t get enough because of the greed of others found that when they returned to their tents, the handful left for them had multiplied to feed their family for the day. Don’t let resentment fester in your village and alienate you from other children of God. Recognize your solidarity—your common need—your shared vulnerability and transcend the tendency to resent and begrudge. Rejoice that all of you have your “daily bread” which, after all, is manna from heaven. Perhaps this landowner, who contrary to custom, goes out to hire as many as he can dimly reflects the indiscriminate love of God who has never parceled out grace according to what one “deserves.”

If you truly love your fellow villagers, can you begrudge their receiving what is needed for the day to provide for their children?

Scholars today believe Jesus went from village to village establishing “demonstration plots” for the Kingdom of God. In those small villages and hamlets, people who became his followers lived Kingdom values each day as they related to their neighbors. I believe that the incredibly swift spread of the Jesus movement occurred after the resurrection in part because these Kingdom communities had already been established through Jesus’ ministry. The Kingdom of God was already being lived in concrete and life-affirming ways before the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord.

Jesus recognized that rebellion and violence could never be the solution to the predicament of the poor in his day. He was not blind to the cruel obstacles which the poor had to face each and every day. But he believed that those transformed by his Kingdom message of grace, compassion, and forgiveness could create a community which looked out for each other and even for those who chose to live apart from this radical alternative to greed, resentment, and looking out for number one.

Here’s my question for us today: does this manna principle of equality and grace have any relevance for our materialistic, greedy, entitlement-obsessed culture? I suggest it does.

[Please do not interpret this sermon to suggest that those who are economically and politically oppressed today should accept their plight and do nothing to secure their legitimate rights and needs. Unlike those of Jesus day, we live in a democracy (at least, for the present moment). Those subject to the rule of Rome in the first century had no choice over who was emperor or how the Mediterranean economy functioned. They could not vote and were not free to voice their opposition to tyranny.

We have rights and opportunities most of those in history have never enjoyed. Gandhi and King, basing their tactics for change on the Sermon on the Mount, showed us the power of nonviolent resistance. We have the power to change our world. But because of the continuing power and influence of evil systems in politics and economics, all endeavors for justice and freedom are uphill struggles. During such times, the manna principle along with compassionate sharing can make a redemptive and healing difference in an unjust world. Those of us who have more than the manna principle allows can use some of the economic wealth and political influence we enjoy to share the bounty God has provided for all. We have been so obsessed with getting more, protecting what we do have, and defending our entitlements that we overlook our brothers and sisters who are not allowed to share in that bounty. As Gandhi said, the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed. The fate of the poor and disenfranchised (along with our own spiritual salvation) is dependent on our recognition of the grace of manna—of a denarius—of enough.]

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