Sermon for September 21, 2014

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Matthew 20:1-16

September 21, 2014

    Our Old Testament reading this morning is often seen as the foundational text for marriage, and it is.  But there is also something else important tucked into that text.  In Genesis 2:15, we read that the man was placed in the garden to till it and to keep it.  I know this isn’t what everyone wants to hear, but we were created for work!  For those of you still working, you can give thanks tomorrow morning when the alarm rustles you out of bed that you are fulfilling part of your purpose as one of God’s creatures.  God, the Creator, made us in his image and when we work, we become co-creators.   Think about that! Today, in our text, I am looking at the parable of the workers.  We have some definite thoughts about work and fairness, which makes this parable hard for us to understand and/or accept, but let’s see what we might learn. Read Matthew 20:1-16.

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This is a haunting passage that bothers me as I’m sure it bothers many of you.  We believe we should be rewarded for our hard work. It’s instilled in us from an early age that if we do well and work hard, we’ll be rewarded.  Such beliefs provide an incentive to work; it’s the foundation of a capitalistic economy.    You work hard and you get ahead.  Think about how you would feel if you had worked hard and received the same wages as a slacker?  At the very least, we’ve be jealous; most likely, we’d be angry.  That’s what happens in this parable.  However, this is God’s economy and things are different. I hope there are reasons beyond the paycheck for why we work.  Maybe we labor because we want to make a difference in our world, whether it is tilling the garden or performing heart surgery.  Certainly, making a difference in our world is why many go into teaching, medicine, social work, ministry and other such fields.  But even in such fields, we want to be treated fairly, which makes this parable from scripture hard to accept; it runs against the grain of how we think things should be. As Americans living in the 21st Century, we have a hard time imagining the scenario Jesus creates in this parable.  It’s a scene that we’d expect to find in The Grapes of Wrath or described in a Woody Guthrie ballad.  Of course, in many parts of the world, such scenes are played out daily.  You’ve got a group of workers—maybe better described as laborers—waiting around in the market place. They have no resources; they are totally dependent on those who own the fields and who, during the harvest, need a few extra hands. When the landowner or their foreman drives up in a pickup, looking for laborers, they stand up straight and try to look strong, hoping they’ll be chosen to work and thereby have the money to feed their families… The foreman looks around and points to a few men who jump in the back of the truck and off they go to the fields. Here, in this passage, it must be at the height of harvest… The fruit ripens quickly and needs to be picked before it rots on the vines, so the landowner comes again and again into the town square, each time picking up new workers. By five o’clock, it’s only a few hours before dark (remember, Jesus lived a little closer than we do to the equator and his summer days were not as long as ours).  As the hot sun cools and becomes a large red ball sinking quickly toward the western horizon, it’s time to pay the workers. They line up; those who have only worked an hour are in the front, those who have worked the whole day are in the back. This seems odd; you think you’d pay those who began earlier first.  But that’s not the case: Jesus is telling a story and he wants to make a point. The foreman begins by paying the short-timers.  They receive a denarius, or the equivalent of a day’s labor. Seeing this, the men whose skin are red from having worked all day in the sun and whose clothes are stained from the fruit, think they’re going to make out well. “He’s paying the short-timers a day’s wage, certainly we’ll receive two or more denarius,” or so they think. When those who had worked all day, twelve hours in the sun, get to the foreman, they too are paid the same. They begin to grumble and complain. They don’t think it’s fair, and neither would we. But the landowner, the one who had hired them, addresses them as “friends,” and reminds them that they received the wages for which they’d agreed to work. By paying those hired on at the end a day’s wages, this gracious landowner ensures that all the workers and their families will have bread for dinner.  If they’d only been paid for an hour’s work in a society where food was expensive, they and their families would have gone to bed hungry.   The landowner is compassionate. This is not a parable about us in today’s workforce; it’s a parable of the kingdom. Everyone is paid the same.  With this in mind, we should acknowledge that there is a benefit in working all day in the field.  No, we’re not paid more, but we do have security and the peace of mind that, like the guys in the story, we’ll have something for dinner, that our eternity is secure.  It would be disheartening to have to wait till the 11th hour to obtain work, for you don’t get to enjoy your time waiting, instead you spend it worrying. Those who labored all day need to remember that there are worse things than hard work; having no work is one of them… In his two volume commentary on Matthew, Dale Bruner provides several suggestions to help our understanding of this parable. First of all, the parable is bookended with that little saying Jesus often repeats, “The last will be first and the first last.” It comes at the end of the 19th Chapter and again at the end of this parable. The parable demonstrates this, reminding us that Judgment Day will be a day of surprises.[1] Secondly, the parable is also Jesus’ way of responding again to Peter’s question back in 19:27 (“Lord, we’ve left all for you, what will we get?”). Although Jesus promises the disciples rewards at the end of the 19th chapter, he now emphasizes that they must not think of their sacrifices as so great that they look down on others who are also a part of the kingdom, but have not made the same kind of sacrifices. Likewise, it’s a warning to Jewish Christians who, as we know from early church history, looked down upon our ancestors, Christians who had been Gentiles. Furthermore, it is a warning for us not to look down on others who have not or cannot make the same sacrifices as we have.[2] Within God’s economy, we’re to do the work which we’ve been called, and to do it without grumbling. Finally and most importantly, “the parable teaches us the amazing grace of a Lord who lifts the lasts—the seemingly less effective, less fruitful little people and spiritual latecomers—into places of honor.” These workers are honored not because they have done enough good works, but because they have a good Lord.[3] We depend on God’s graciousness, not on our work, so whether we labor all day or receive our honor at the end like the thief on the cross,[4] we’re to be thankful for we couldn’t do it on our own! God calls us and instead of worrying about our pay, we need to be concerned with whether or not we are doing the master’s work. Nor should we hope we’d be the one hired on at the 11th hour, so we might end the day without a sore back.  Instead, we should ask ourselves this question: “Why would God even give me a chance?” We could be left in the marketplace, kicking cans and going home at the end of the day with empty pockets. In a way, we’ve all been hired on at the 11th hour…  We all owe a debt to those who’ve gone before us.  Think about that Great Cloud of Witnesses that, according to the Book of Hebrews, surrounds us and encourages us on our journey through life.[5]  There are the Hebrew children who suffered in slavery and exile, the early Christians who struggled and were persecuted as they strove to get the message out, the brave Reformers who insisted that the Bible was the sole authority within the church, the early pioneers of their faith who came here to Georgia in the early 17th Century including names like Whitefield and Wesley, and those who first moved to this island and began a church in the fire barn, which would eventually become Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church.  And then they were joined with others as they scrimped and saved and built these buildings.  We’ve been helped by others along the way and I am pretty sure those who have gone to their eternal home aren’t looking down and asking why we’re having it easy when they worked so hard…  Nor should we look down on others that are new to the kingdom, for God’s Spirit works mysteriously in all of us. Don’t waste much time worrying about what others are paid; instead, let’s be thankful for God has done for us!  Don’t worry about what others are paid; instead, throw yourself into the harvest for there is work to be done.  This week, take time to focus on what God has done for you and give our eternal landowner thanks for hiring you into the vineyard.  And, if you’ve not yet hired on, God’s calling and we’d love to have you join us as we labor in God’s field.  Just speak to me or to one of the Elders!  Finally, as we work, let’s do so with smiles on our faces, doing our best and being satisfied when the shift’s over.  Amen.  

©2014



[1] F. Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 317.
[2] Bruner, 317-318. Bruner has four summaries from the passage, but I combined his second and fourth together to create three.
[3] Bruner, 319.
[4] Luke 23:42-43
[5] Hebrews 12:1.


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