16th Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2017
Matthew 20: 1-16
Every time I hear this parable, I am reminded of the workers I met in one of the small villages in the coffee growing area of Guatemala. They live about an hour and a half away from the largest western city. The bus comes for them at 4:30 in the morning, driving them into Xela to stand on street corners waiting for work. They hope for someone to pick them up for a day’s labor. They are lucky if they get a chance to work, and lucky, too, if the guy who picks them up actually pays them what was promised. I ate with Leandro’s family every day for a week, and I heard the bus come to pick up his Dad each morning, and then bring him home around 6:00 at night. It cost 7 Quetzales to ride the bus round trip, and a day’s wage was around 14 Quetzales. It was hard to make a living. Leandro’s Mom cooked for us in an open shed in the backyard, over an open fire. The money the language school paid for them to feed us was a large part of their income.
These vineyard workers always look to me like Leandro’s Dad and his friends, standing on the corner, waiting for someone to put them to work and pay them for a day. I can just imagine the commotion it would cause when those workers who’d been sweating in the sun all day find that the people who were hired just before quitting time got the same amount of money. It would feel unfair that someone else got the same money without the same amount of work. The landlord highlights the unfairness of it by starting the payment by giving a full day’s wage to the ones who worked the least. But it only seems unfair when you compare the number of hours worked, not when you consider whether or not the first workers got what they were promised. It wouldn’t seem unfair either, to workers who had been waiting all day for work and only got hired at the last minute. For them to be able to bring home a full day’s wage would seem like a blessing, since the margin between making enough to feed your family and not is so slim.
I don’t know about you, but I have never had to stand on a street corner and wait for someone to hire me. It’s an intellectual exercise for me to understand the frustration of manual laborers who are often exploited and underpaid anyway, feeling cheated because they felt they weren’t treated fairly. But I can certainly understand being told that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. It’s a snub to work hard and then be told that the person who slacked off is going to be treated better than you.
Our society is always measuring our worth by outward things – if you own your home, what kind of car you drive, if your kids are smart and accomplished, if you have an education and a job worthy of it. We are encouraged to keep up those outward appearances, those little bits of dignity that make us feel special and set apart from the rest of society. We want our good reputations and our good deeds recognized. The saying goes: If you are privileged, equality looks like oppression.
This story of the workers is good news to you if you are among the marginalized, rejected from church because of your bad behavior, or coming late sitting in the pew beside someone who’s been a believer all their life. It may sound like a put down if you have worked hard to be faithful all your life. In the story of Jonah, we hear his frustration that God is a loving and forgiving God. God immediately changes his mind about destroying the people of Nineveh, when they turn and repent. We can laugh at Jonah’s frustration, but we are often right there with him, amazed at God’s mercy. God looks beyond our behavior. God sees us all with eyes of compassion and invitation. Matthew is always redefining the idea of righteousness from being about doing the right things to listening to God and acting out of the love with which we are embraced. It’s not so much that our actions gain us traction with God, as that our humility before God’s unfailing love and forgiveness turn us in a different direction and make us willing to be as loving as God has been to us.
So that’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: We are equally accepted and embraced. It will be more of a big deal for those who have been excluded and shamed and marginalized here on earth than it will be for me, who has had a pretty easy and comfortable life. If that frustrates me and makes me feel as if I am being slighted or overlooked by not getting a better deal, then I need to look long and hard in God’s mirror to see all the ways that my comfort and good looks have kept me from trusting God first and not depending on my own works to get in God’s favor. We all have a chance to get past our pride and our society’s measures of success to see how God’s unconditional love is the source of our relationship with God through Jesus. It is not because of our wonderfulness. It is a chance to calm down, to see with unvarnished reality that we are completely in God’s debt for the love that makes our life possible when are stripped of the trappings of middle-class comfort by disease or disaster or death. God is always there for us, to hold us, to walk with us, to welcome us, even though we don’t deserve any of it. And God is always inviting, going out hour after hour, to find people to welcome into the kingdom. We can choose joy in the life we have and love in the deeds we do, because we are loved, because we are cherished, and because we want the world to know how good it feels to be seen beyond your deeds into your deepest needs, and to be appreciated just for who you are. Amen.