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Kathy Escandell

September 1, 2013
Matthew 20:1-16

09-01-2013 Sermon This Sunday brings us to the end of our summer sermon series. Over the past 13 weeks, using suggestions from the congregation, we have explored together some practices of discipleship, some difficult theological questions and some social issues. Each of our summer topics has offered new insights into the Kingdom of Heaven; each has opened new opportunities to participate in the work of that Kingdom.

Today, on this Labor Day weekend, we look at the issue of seeking justice for workers. The briefest reading of history shows us that this is an age-old issue. The merest glance at contemporary news shows us that it remains a pressing need. Just a few days ago, fast-food workers and their supporters in fifty cities across the U.S. participated in demonstrations for a living wage.  Their plight, the recent deadly factory collapse in Bangladesh, and countless other examples remind us that in too many places for too many years, working men, women and children have been treated as expendable resources at the disposal of the wealthy and powerful, rather than as precious individuals loved by God and valued by their fellow humans. This morning we have heard a story of mistreatment right in our neighborhood, and we want to respond with action that is simultaneously faithful to our Savior and effective for our community.

How can we identify that response? Well, it’s always a good idea to begin with Scripture, so we turn now to the 20th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus tells a parable which touches on our subject.

Matthew 20: 1-16

The Laborers in the Vineyard

20‘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 market-place; 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.’*

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like …” I think many of us, no matter how many times we read the Gospels, hear these opening words and think Jesus is going to tell us about a place – a kingdom is, in our experience, a location, a geographical or economic or social reality, a mappable destination. But, while this parable is set in a particular locale – a vineyard in Israel – Jesus locates the Kingdom not in the landscape, but in a person – “a landowner who went out early in the morning”.

What about this landowner makes him an illustration of the Kingdom? Often we focus on his distinctive payment plan – even those who work just the last hour of the day receive payment for the entire day – and we see God’s grace in the landowner’s generosity.

But that’s skipping ahead in the story, for before the landowner shocks us with his wage choices, he surprises us with his hiring practices. Time and again – five times over the course of the day – he returns to the square, gathering up laborers until he has sent everyone he can find to the vineyard to participate in the day’s work. His refrain is “You also go into the vineyard.” You also and you also and you and you and you – until he has hired them all. The superlative crew who hurried to the hiring place in the pre-dawn. The motivated laborers who catch his eye when he returns mid-morning. All the way through to the last group – those most laggard, least desirable men who have been standing around all day, doing nothing and going nowhere.

Before disproportionate compensation comes radical inclusion.

And this, Jesus tells us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

You also go to the vineyard. Each of you has something to offer. With his insistence on including all the workers he can find, the landowner makes the vineyard harvest a shared enterprise with space and tasks for everyone.

The steady arrival of new workers throughout the day should have alerted the first-hired – the ones who will soon grumble over receiving their agreed-upon wages – that this landowner does things differently.  Refuses to accept the standard categories of “in” and “out”; “wanted” and “rejected”. This landowner wants everyone, which is an impractical, even absurd approach to doing business, but Jesus suggests that it’s exactly the way to bring about the Kingdom. For there can be no justice, no equity, no true community until all are gathered in the vineyard. The Kingdom of Heaven has not come near as long as some remain standing idly in the market square, waiting for a summons to participate, knowing their survival depends on such a summons, for without daily wages today they will not see tomorrow. As long as there are discernible categories of those who succeed and those who fail, those who win and those who lose, the world remains fragmented and fallen, and the Kingdom remains elusive.

Over this past week, the nation has remembered and celebrated Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 speech at the March on Washington, and rightly so, for that speech has changed lives and history for the better. In another powerful speech – one delivered in Memphis to striking sanitation workers and their supporters the night before he was assassinated — King said:

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.

 Dangerous unselfishness – what an odd and arresting phrase.  And yet, it seems to perfectly capture the landowner in our parable. He lives in a culture which marginalizes and exploits people, but by hiring all the workers in the marketplace and paying each of them enough to live on, this landowner challenges and subverts the prevailing practices of his culture. A dangerous unselfishness refuses to remain complicit with systems of oppression and exploitation. A dangerous unselfishness sees the realities of others’ lives, and moves against the restrictions and deprivations which imperil them. A dangerous unselfishness does not amass a personal fortune by maximizing profits, but values and rewards each worker.  A dangerous unselfishness pursues shared humanity rather than competing interests. A dangerous unselfishness says again and again, “You also go into the vineyard” until all are gathered, working together for and with the One who brings the Kingdom.

Amen.