Called to Pay More and Get Less – reflecting on the Workers in the Vineyard Parable – Matthew 20:1-16

Listen to the sermon here

On this the fourth Sunday of the Season of Creation, we are encouraged to celebrate rivers. Today, when hundreds of thousands of Porto Ricans living along the Guajataca River are being evacuated because the force of the river may cause a dam to burst, it is difficult to contemplate gentle pastoral images of rivers gently flowing past. It is difficult to imagine the peaceful waters and let’s face it most of us come to church on a Sunday morning hoping for some sanctuary from the realities that bombard us in the media. I don’t know about you, but between the rantings of the cyber-bully who currently occupies the most powerful office in the world, and the news of the suffering caused by hurricanes and earthquakes, I would really like to be able to luxuriate for a while in the gentle images of a peaceful river. I would love to take you all on a walk down by the river-side so that we could contemplate together the image of God as a river, gently caressing us, supporting us through life.  If only Jesus would refrain from teaching in parables designed to disturb us.

Jesus parable about the workers in the vineyard bursts the dam of our complacency and sends us scrambling towards the shore in the vain hope that we can escape the knowledge, that while we bask aboard our luxurious pleasure-crafts, while all around us our neighbours are drowning. Sure, we could just allegorize Jesus parable and interpret it as a nice little story in which the Landowner becomes God, the workers at dawn are good Christians like you and I, while the workers who show up much later are those who convert on their deathbeds, and even though it may seem unfair, God the Landowner treats everyone the same and everyone is rewarded in some far and distant here-after because God is full of Grace. I’ve heard countless sermons that interpret Jesus’ parable as a nice little story. But the words of my preaching professor ring loudly in this preacher’s mind: “Beware of parables that become nice little stories. Parables are verbal hand-grenades and should be handled with care.”  So, I hope you will forgive me if the raging waters of a river flowing violently were rivers are not supposed to be, rushes over my interpretation of Jesus parable about the kind of justice that demands so much from landowners like you and me because today as so many of our neighbours and friends are drowning, I cannot and will not allegorize this parable.

You see, when Jesus’ audience heard him tell this parable, they would have immediately understood who the landowners and who the workers were. Jesus audience lived under the occupation of the Romans. Jewish Landowners in occupied Palestine would have had very few choices. Landowners could oppose the Romans and lose their land and then have to resort to becoming day labourers themselves, or they could collaborate with their Roman oppressors and participate in the abuse of their neighbours. As an occupied people, the Jews were waiting for someone to come along and save them from Caesar’s oppressive rule. They longed for a Messiah who would change their world and end their oppression. The crowds that flocked to listen to Jesus’ are looking for some sort of revelation about when and how the oppressive Roman occupations that set neighbour against neighbour was going to end. Rather than point to some far off distant salvation at the hands of an intervening God, Jesus points directly at the very crowds longing for salvation and insists that only when land-owners stop oppressing their neighbours will the long dreamed of kindom of God become a reality.

Imagine for a moment that you are in the crowd. You have worked hard all your life. You have saved and invested wisely. You have a home on land you either rent or own. You and I, we are the land-owners. And each one of us, we want to pay the labourers, in whatever vineyard we are involved in, we want to pay less. Sure, an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work is all well and good when it applies to us. But who among us is willing to pay more for our meals so that day labourers can receive salary that will feed and house their families?

Let’s face it we are more than willing to shop at Walmart without caring too much about how Walmart treats its employees provided Walmart offers us a bargain. We want to pay less and we know that if we pay less, Walmart will pay less. We are all too willing to shop in dollar stores even though we know that the bargains we scoop up were in all likelihood manufactured by people working as slaves. We want to pay less for our groceries and are smart enough to know that those Mexicans working on the Marsh will be the ones to pay the price for our cheap vegetables. You know that I love my devices, my iPad is precious to me, even though I know the price paid by the labourers in China so that I could we could have our fun. We want to pay less and we also want to get more. We want our investments, and our retirement savings funds, to earn us bigger and bigger dividends. We want our property values to increase, even tough we know that those increases will make it impossible for the vast majority of our young neighbours to ever be able to become landowners. We want our governments to do more with less because we want to pay less taxes. Continue reading

The Labourers in the Vineyard – preaching on Matthew 20:1-16

short stories by jesusThe Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Pentecost 15A, Proper 20A, Ordinary 25A) offers preachers a splendid opportunity to address economic disparity; an issue which Jesus of Nazareth was passionate about. Back in 2011, I had the privilege of spending a week at Chautauqua when Amy-Jill Levine was the theologian in residence. Each afternoon Amy-Jill addressed the parables of Jesus from her perspective as a New Testament scholar who is also a practicing Jew. The material Amy-Jill covered has found its way into her latest book. Released just this month. “short stories by jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi” is an extraordinary resource, which I am in the process of gobbling up with the kind of relish that fills me with all sorts of ideas for the work that needs to be done by those of us who profess to follow the teachings of the Rabbi Jesus. For those of you planning to preach on Jesus’ parable  about the workers in the vineyard, I recommend purchasing Amy-Jill’s new book (it is available electronically so there’s still time) and carefully reading Chapter 7: “The Laborers in the Vineyard”! Below you will find a link to my notes for an interactive sermon I delivered based upon Amy-Jill’s Chautauqua lecture, “Management and Non-Union Workers”. 

Workers in the Vineyard – sermon notes 

For those of you interested in the radical teachings of Jesus, stories about jesus is a must-read! John Shelby Spong insists that Levine’s new book provides “a series of stunning new insights into our religious heritage!” I couldn’t agree more!