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." --Matthew 20:1-16 (NRSV)
On Thursday night, at Third’s council meeting, we dwelled in this story for a while. One of the first questions I asked was how they had heard this parable interpreted. Or what meaning they understood it to have?
As I began my study of this text, I was once again reminded that this parable has been interpreted a myriad of ways throughout the past 2,000 years. I came across at least 8 different interpretations and several that were spin-offs of these eight.
So, I’m curious. And I’m going to ask the same question I asked the council on Thursday night to you. Here and now. How have you heard this parable interpreted? What do you understand it to mean?
Yesterday, in our Saturday morning study, we talked about how who interprets Scripture has changed over the centuries. The interpretation of Scripture began as an oral tradition. Within communities. But, during certain times over the past 2,000 years, as people became more illiterate, the job of interpreting scripture was turned over to the “experts.” Do you consider yourself an “expert?” I wonder, for many of us - myself included for a very long time - how many of us, because we don’t think we are experts, then rarely pick up our Bible to read it, much less understand it. Maybe that’s true for you. Maybe not.
Today, you and I - together - are going to exegete this text. To exegete means to draw out. You are I are going to try to draw out the meaning of this text. For us, for this community. We’re going to let go of any other interpretations we’ve read. We’re going to draw out the meaning of this text for this community. Right now. Together. In this place.
But, first, to dispel some of your fear, we’re going to have a little fun. I need eight volunteers.
Who wants to be our first storyteller? This person will start the story by saying one sentence that begins with the words, “Once upon a time…”. They must use the word that they received in their sentence. The next person in line will continue the story by adding one sentence that must contain the world they drew. This will continue until everyone has added to the story. The last person should end with the words, “The end.” Ready?
This story was certainly different from what we could have expected, wouldn’t you agree? There were twists and turns and things maybe felt a little unpredictable. As we study and learn parables, we realize that God’s kingdom often flips things around, catching us off guard. Jesus’ parables were meant to have twists that surprised the listeners, including us. Twists that highlighted the fact that God’s ways are often different from our own. Different from what we might expect. They’re also a little unpredictable. For example, the early workers in today’s story thought they knew what would happen, but they ended up surprised. And a little grumpy.
So, let’s work our way carefully through this text. What are some of the things you notice? Is there anything you wonder about this story?
As we get near the end of the story, we hear from the workers who were first to arrive. It seems that they felt that the landowner was not being fair.
- Do you agree? Or disagree? Why or why not?
- Think about a time when something happened that felt fair. How did you feel?
- Now think about a time when someone was surprisingly generous, especially when they didn’t have to be. What did that feel like?
- Do you think we focus more on generosity or fairness in our society?
- What is Jesus trying to teach us about the kingdom of God in this story?
We live in a world that teaches us scarcity. That there is not enough, for us, for everyone. This teaches us a mindset of scarcity that leads us to believe that we have to get what we can for ourselves and for our families. That we never have enough. Or that we cannot produce or do enough. That we are just not enough. It is a vicious cycle that just grinds us into the ground and leads to jealousy, resentment, to coveting that which our neighbor has or is.
Friends, you and I are enough. You and I have enough.
Every Sunday we pray to God to “Give us this day our daily bread.” God promises to give us what we need each day. Just as God ensured that each one of these workers had a day’s wage. Not a year’s worth. Or a month’s worth. Or even a week’s worth. But a day’s worth. Because, that is what God promises to provide us. Because God is generous. Because, God promises to care for us. Because God has provided enough for us and for all people. Because God loves us.
In turn, God invites us to be generous. To let go. To share with others. And to trust that we will have what we need. Always.
May God grant that we learn to trust in God's generosity and, in turn learn to be generous as well. Amen.
Preached Sunday, March 5, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Readings: Matthew 20:1-16; Psalm 16:5-8