The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost -- Proper 20A (9/21/2008)

There's a Wideness in God's Mercy(whether we like it or not...)

Lessons: Jonah 3:10-4:11 Psalm 145:1-8 Philippians 1:21-30 St. Matthew 20:1-16 Semicontinuous Reading and Psalm: Exodus 16:2-15 Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual lovingkindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

20.1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6 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?' 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.' 8 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.' 9 When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.' 13 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? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

St. Matthew 20:1-16, New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

I find this to be a particularly irritating parable.

As a recipient of God's grace (and, in this most holy of political seasons, as a self-acknowledged bleeding-heart-liberal), I know that I am supposed to identify with, or at least have some measure of compassion for, the late-comers in this story. Those unfortunate workers who sat around all day long wondering if they would have work that day; wondering where they would find the resources to feed their family if they were passed over by the landowners who were looking for laborers. I know that I should be relieved at their good fortune. I know that I should be impressed with the landowner, whose goodness makes it possible that the families of those who started to work at 9:00 or 12:00 or 3:00 or 5:00 would be O.K. - at least for one more day.

In all truth, I find myself thinking, instead, of those workers who realized ahead of time how important it was to have work that day. Those workers who got up early, certainly before sunrise, and made it down to the marketplace to get in line. Those workers who followed the landowner out to the vineyard, and worked hard all morning. Those workers who bore the brunt of the day, sweating it out under the beating, hot sun. I am impressed by their commitment, their tenacity, their determination... They show a will to survive that seems to demand recognition. By all rights, they should have received a greater reward than the ones who started to work at 5:00 pm, and finished up by dark.

But Jesus is not describing the American workplace in this parable; he is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. He is not exploring the nuances of capitalist economies; but is articulating God's Economy of Grace. He is calling you and me to look at our world through a different set of eyes: eyes that help us to see how grace and mercy are the key principles in this story where everyone who is willing to work is able to, and every worker receives enough to make it through to the next day. At the heart of this landowner's intent is the determination to be good to all who are involved in the vineyard's work, even if those who worked the hardest and the longest are offended by that intent.

This landowner's grace seems to be foolish, if the bottom line is to do what is most efficient; most productive; most profitable. But during a week when Wall Street is reeling and the economic future of our own country (and its present system of financial markets) seems so uncertain, the stable, reliable grace of God looks like a much better bet for our ultimate security.

I like the illusion of being able to earn my own way. I like to imagine that my family is comfortable because my wife and I are so capable. That kind of thinking is part of what makes our economy strong here in the United States. But that is the way of this world. Such is not the way of God. In the Kingdom of Heaven there are not various levels of rewards, doled out based on our individual efforts. In the Kingdom of Heaven, we aren't provided a position that is commensurate with the quality of our own accomplishments. Instead, everything is, as it should be, grounded in and dependant upon the amazing grace of our God. And that is a reality we can trust with far more certainty than anything we can accomplish on our own.

Frederick Faber wrote of this reality, in his hymn: There's a Wideness in God's Mercy.

There's a wideness in God's mercy, like the wideness of the sea; There's a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.

For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind; And the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind.

But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own; And we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.

Was there ever a kinder shepherd; half so gentle, half so sweet, As the Savior who would have us come and gather at his feet?

There's a Wideness in God's Mercy, verses 1, 5, 11 and 12, by Frederick W. Faber; composed in the mid-19th Century.

I still find this parable to be quite irritating. But I am grateful for its message, which reminds me of the depths of God's grace and mercy, and the strength of God's determination to share them with me. For that I say: "Thanks be to God."


David J. Risendal

Exploring This Week's Text:

  1. What is irritating about this parable?
  2. Were those first hired right to protest the landowner's actions?
  3. What is revealed about the landowner's priorities?

Connecting with This Week's Text:

  1. Do I most identify with the workers who were at it all day, or the workers who started late in the afternoon?
  2. Do I prefer to think of God as a God of justice or as a God of mercy?
  3. In what situation(s) is God calling me to be more merciful than I might be inclined to be?