"The God We Got"

September 21, 2014

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, pastor

West Walworth: Zion & East Rochester United Methodist Churches

 

Matthew 20:1-16

 

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled 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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘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 this 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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

 

Prayer.

 

Our Gospel for today, commonly known as the

“Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.”

It is one of my favorites.

I love surprise endings.

I love when Jesus turns the world upside down on someone

- unless, of course, Jesus turns the world upside down on me -

and he walks away with

what I imagine was a smug look on his face.

I have 8 different sermons on this passage in my files,

so the path for me is comfortable and well worn.

Less I take this parable for granted

and rehash old texts

I went looking this past week for a fresh perspective.

 

Let me set up today’s lesson with a few points.

First:

In this parable unique to Matthew,

the passage immediately preceding today’s lesson

we find Peter reacting to Jesus’ encounter

with the Rich Young Man.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Matthew 19:24)

Peter defiantly asks,

“Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Matthew 19:27)

Consider the sacrifice we’ve made for you, Jesus!

What else are you looking for?

Peter inasmuch whines, “what else do you want from us?”

Which is quickly followed by, “what are you going to do for us in return?”

This isn’t the first occasion of Peter whining, complaining, and speaking out of turn.

Neither is whining, complaining, and speaking out of turn

a uniquely first century phenomena:

it continues to be practiced and refined today.

 

Secondly:

Following our parable for today,

Jesus foretells of his death and resurrection for a third time.

Then, the mother of the sons of Zebedee,

that would be the mother of James and John comes to Jesus,

kneels, blushes, and asks,

“Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:21)

Holy cow, lady!

A mother begging for special treatment for her sons?

Give me a break!

Privilege and entitlements

went over with the public

in the first century

like they do today:

Get in line like everyone else, ma’am.

 

So here we have it:

the bookends to Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

is Peter reminding Jesus he has sacrificed everything and would like a little love in return

and, on the other side,

the mother of Zebedee’s son seeking out special privileges for her kids.

Everyone is out for what they can get.

Everyone is looking out for number one.

 

Our parable, nestled lovingly between these two rats nests,

appears to be about privilege and entitlements, too.

The strongest, most able works all day,

whines and complains that they receive the same wage

as the weakest, least able, disabled workers

who were hired at the end of the day and only worked for an hour.

All of us love entitlements and privilege

… as long as we are the beneficiaries of the entitlements and privilege.

But, oh, how we love to complain if others benefit from a hand out.

No one like seeing someone getting something for nothing,

unless the someone getting something

is them.

 

We are a selfish lot.

 

Think about it;

people go nuts over door prizes.

The gifts don’t have to be of much value,

but oh, my goodness,

the envy drives behavior to want to win something better than the other guy.

We complain about the poor,

people on public assistance,

or folks milking the disability system.

Everyone is looking for a handout, we like to gripe.

We complain about the pork in politics.

We all hate the pet projects that finance government programs in other representatives districts,

but thank God we have a congressman who brings home the bacon for us.

Look at the money wasted on special education, others rail,

unless you’re a parent of a child receiving services.

The moaning and complaining isn’t new;

it’s been going on since the dawn of time.

 

God must be pretty used to our moaning and complaining.

He’s been getting lip back from us and our ancestors forever.

As we heard from Exodus 16: 2-15

the people of Israel grumbled and complained against God and against Moses,

accusing them of leading them from slavery in Egypt on so God could kill them in the wilderness.

Despite the Red Sea parting

liberating the people of Israel and destroying their pursuers,

… despite being led by God by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to the Holy Mountain

where they would worship Him

and journey towards the land God had promised to give them,

… despite the fact God had proved his goodness to them,

his love for them,

they fretted, worried, grumbled, complained, and doubted.

 

The moaning and complaining isn’t different;

it has always revealed our natural covetousness,

our deeper misunderstanding of God,

and our lack of awareness of God’s place for us in the world.

 

The common recipe for uncovering a parable’s deeper truth

Is to identify with Jesus’ subject

and try to be like “that guy.”

Just as she was enlightened,

so, too, should we become, modeling our behavior after her.

Yet, if this was the case for our parable of the laborers in the vineyard for today

the take home message would be to bellyache all the more.

God never met a complaint he didn’t like!

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

But Jesus responds, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong…

take what belongs to you and go.

… or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:13-16)

The Greek idiom literally translates “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

An “evil eye” suggest a deeper problem than meets the eye.

Recall, Jesus taught in Matthew 6:22-23 that if your eye is healthy, the whole body will be full of light;

but if the eye is unhealthy, ie. an “evil eye”,

the whole body will be full of darkness.

 

Ah!

There we have it.

Jesus plays his hand.

This isn’t a parable about the laborers in the vineyard

and their darkness.

This is a parable about the generosity of the landowner

and his light!

We’ve been misled by the title given this parable.

So, here is the challenge for you this morning,

if we were to think of another title for this parable

what would it be?

… The Parable of the Landowner’s Generosity … perhaps?

 

If this was a parable about the laborers

we would have been told about growth in the vineyard

or the activities of the workers.

So the story isn’t about them.

The story is about God.

It highlights the generosity of God as the ultimate landowner,

sufficient goodness

and true-to-your-word honest integrity

of a loving, understanding God.

God always uses all of the created order for good,

even if we fail to see it.

In Jesus’ earlier words,

“God’s perfection is exemplified in God’s rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:48)

 

So, where does this leave us?

 

Stop complaining!

Don’t complain about what others receive,

and don’t complain about what you think you deserve.

Stop looking at the world as if you’re looking with an evil eye!

As another colleague put it,

“Stop looking for a fair God, and be thankful for the God we got.”

Every promise is kept.

Every need is met.

Like the story of God liberating the children of Israel from slavery

and

like the story of the cross of Jesus and how it liberates us from sin and death,

our parable for this morning isn’t about world wisdom.

It is a story about divine grace,

of God’s unlimited love and concern for every last one of us.

It isn’t about what we deserve

but rather it is about what we all need,

and how God generously provides

sometimes even when we don’t deserve it.

 

The God we got provides bread sufficient for all to eat.

The God we got provides shelter sufficient for every storm we face.

The God we got provides us love abundant

that wipes away every sin

and welcome us into eternal life.

Indeed, let us be thankful for the God we got.

Amen.

 

 

With thanks to

  1. Emerson Powery, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2157
  2. Richard J. Fairchild, as found at http://www.rockies.net/~spirit/sermons/a-or25sx.php