Matthew 20 & Psalm 1
September 21, 2008 by The Rev. Crystal Karr
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. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When 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.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
In today’s scripture, we have a landowner who hires workers throughout the day. But when it comes to the end of the day all of the workers are paid the exact same wage—some of them only worked for ONE hour! That hardly seems fair. And when the workers who’ve worked long and hard—through the hottest part of the day—call the landowner on it, they get chewed out. And this is what the kingdom of God is all about?
In parables like the workers in the vineyard and the prodigal son, many of us usually relate to the one (or ones) who have been working all along and yet seem to receive no reward for it. As a woman and a mother, I know this feeling all too well. There are many things that I am simply expected to do—clean the house, laundry, cook the dinners for my family and yet no one ever makes a big deal about it. However, if my husband, Joel, does just one of these things he is praised for being generous and a terrific husband. I’m sure I’m not the only woman to have experienced this or something like this. I imagine that most of us, men and women have had these kinds of experiences where we have been working diligently—doing what is expected of us—yet we receive no rewards, no kudos, no thank-you’s, and then along comes someone else who receives the highest praises for doing just one piece of the work we’ve done. It’s frustrating and it is unfair. No one likes to be taken advantage of; no one likes it when they are simply expected to do something rather than having a choice or receiving at least a hearty thank you.
Expectation and obligation seem to zap the joy from our lives. How do we bring the joy back when it feels like we are simply fulfilling obligations? Yes, the workers who had worked long and hard hours in the heat of the day were miffed—perhaps after seeing the others receive far more than their share of their daily wage they began to imagine the increase they were going to receive and then were greatly disappointed. Rather than understanding and remembering that it was the end of the day, that they had received what they had been working for—they were caught up in what the others were getting. There was no stopping to rejoice in the extra blessing that the others had received. There was no stopping to rejoice that their work was done and the time for celebration had begun.
This week while watching the video for the Psalms’ Bible Study, the scholar pointed out that in Psalm 1—it reads, “their delight is in the law of the Lord.” She went on to talk about the differences between our understanding of the Law of God and the Jewish understanding of God’s Law. I’m guessing that most of us would cringe thinking about “the law” or “the rules.” Those of us who grew up or are growing up in the United States tend to get upset if witness anything that doesn’t seem fair or democratic. After all, our country rebelled against the Motherland of England because we were being taxed without representation and that simply wasn’t fair! It seems that a rebellious streak is part of our social DNA. I know that this is true for me. I was a rather rebellious child, some would say that I still am. If my mother told me not to do something, I would immediately try to figure out how to do it. All she would have to have done to get me to eat broccoli or spinach would have been to tell me that I couldn’t eat any—if she would have known about reverse psychology she probably could have turned me into a well-behaved child.
I had never considered that I should “take delight in the law.” That is a foreign concept to me. However, what if we were to take delight in the law? If we were to take delight in following God’s path—understanding that God is not the ultimate party pooper, instead understanding that God offers a way for us to find the most joy and meaning in our lives. Really, when you think about it, do you really want to steep yourself in envy, kill another human being, make statues to worship, dishonor your parents, work 7 days a week, spend your time wishing you had what your neighbors had rather than enjoying the stuff you do have? Why should the law feel like a burden when it simply offers a guide to keep us from doing things that hurt ourselves and others? God’s law simply keeps us out of trouble and free to live an abundant life. Man’s law, government’s laws, may not always be just or helpful but God’s laws are a different story—they simply boil down to loving God, loving our neighbors, and loving ourselves.
Envy and obligation are an ugly beasts. They prevents us from enjoying our lives, our friends and family, and the stuff we have. Envy, like obligation sucks the joy out of our lives. The only cure I know for envy ands for obligation is gratitude. If we are grateful for the people and things that are in our lives—envy and obligation has less of a chance to roost in our heads and hearts. Thanking God for the gifts we have received helps us to appreciate what we have.
This is a story about God’s grace, God’s generosity and I am certainly glad that God isn’t keeping score on how long I’ve been a Christian, how many times I’ve made it to church—or not, and that I don’t have to work in an attempt to earn salvation—we’ll all receive that—there is enough salvation to go around. The story isn’t so hard to understand or to take joy in when we think of salvation as the daily wage. Most, if not all of us, realize that we couldn’t make it on our own—we would all be in big trouble if we were ever received what we actually deserved, to have our just desserts.
Perhaps, if I remembered with appreciation and gratitude the gifts that God has already generously given to me, then my first response to the story of the workers in the vineyard wouldn’t be “that’s not fair!” Perhaps then I would see that just as God has given me a promise of salvation, a hope that my life clings to not based on the works I’ve done, it’s been granted and promised even though I have not and could not ever earn it, the workers who came late to the vineyard were given a free gift to take care of them and their families—they were given what they needed rather than what they “deserved.” Perhaps then I could simply rejoice that we have all been offered and promised something we could never earn, a gift that we should not take for granted, a gift for which we rejoice and praise God whenever anyone accepts it. Amen.