By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
When I was about five years old, a blood test revealed I had an iron deficiency that needed to be addressed. But, it wasn’t easy. You see, at that point in time, most medical folks urged meat consumption, exclusively, for iron deficiency and I have never been a big meat eater. In particular, as a child, I didn’t like ground beef… Perhaps because my sister, seven years my elder, would vomit when she ate it. Now, I loved peanut butter and would have loved a spinach salad. But neither of those was suggested by my physician who gave my mom another recommendation. Make spaghetti and add finely ground beef to the spaghetti sauce. Mom tried that and I would sit at the dinner table for an hour running my fingers down the spaghetti noodles to remove the ground beef. Reporting back to my doctor, he recommended some bargaining tactics. I loved milk and drank it all the time. Tell her, said the doctor, that she can’t have a glass of milk until she eats her beef. So, I stopped drinking milk.
Sometimes when we try to get the upper hand, our bargains backfire on us.
This morning’s parable, in the gospel of Matthew, begins with a bargain. A land owner goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. And, the workers and the land owner reach an agreement – they strike a bargain – regarding the wage the workers will receive for their day’s work. The parable states that the amount to which they agreed was a denarius. Now, this was a typical peasant’s wage during Jesus’ day. It would have probably represented a “just barely adequate” wage for a peasant who had a family to support. Nevertheless, this is the agreement – or bargain – which is struck and so, this is the bargain which, one might only assume, will be kept.
But apparently, the workers who have been hired are an inadequate number and so the land owner returns to the marketplace to hire more workers. Now, we might wonder why he didn’t just hire more workers in the first place. Why this odd occurrence of the owner returning to the market again and again? But, to fixate on such questions only serves to distract us with questions that are of no concern in the parabolic world. What is simply is. But, we should notice that the land owner takes a rather curious employment approach with his subsequent workers. They do not strike a bargain. Rather, they are issued an invitation to employment, accompanied by the promise that they will receive what is “right.” Now, that word “right” is a very important word. In Greek (the language of the New Testament), it can also be translated as “just.” This is a powerful word. It is about justice or righteousness which, as I always say, is simply about being in a right or just relationship with God and with other people. It wouldn’t be the same as telling the workers that they’ll receive whatever is fair or marketable. These workers, hired later in the day, are not offered a deal or a bargain. They are simply told that they will receive that which is right. (Although in our minds, we might wonder what “right” will add up to in dollars and cents.)
And so, the end of the workday comes. It is time to be paid. Jewish law dictated payment to be made to workers before the sun went down. And so, the workers line up to pick up their checks, so to speak. Some curious directions are given by the owner to his manager. He is to pay those who were hired last first. Now, we don’t want to rush by that directive because it is important. Immediately before the reciting of this parable, Jesus tells his disciples this curious saying: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Hmm… Talk about cryptic. But here, we see this statement put into action. Those who are first hired are last paid AND those who are last hired are first paid; a rather odd reversal; but definitely something to pique our curiosity. Now, when those who worked such a meager amount of time go forward to receive what is “right,” they receive an entire denarius. Wow! This appears to be a very generous employer. And those at the back of the line must be itching to see what will happen next. But, things hardly go as they hope. For each employee – regardless of hours worked – receives the same compensation. Each receives one denarius… which hardly seems fair, right?
This parable would have been especially offensive to those in the first century Mediterranean world because they believed in something called “limited good.” In other words, there is only so much good stuff to go around. And when such thinking is followed through, it stands to reason that, when I have something, others do not. When I covet more than I am entitled to, I am wishing for your suffering. And, when I take that which beyond my fair share, others must do without.
So what are we to take away from this odd little parable? We have this peculiar employer who has turned the labor market upside down. He is no believer in equal pay for equal work. We have employees who have shown their true colors – demonstrating an arrogance and ambition that shows contempt toward those who showed up late for work. If this is a parable about the kingdom of God – and it is – what is it intended to teach us?
This morning is a big day at Trinity. Today is World Communion Sunday and today we will also baptize the Joseph girls. In the United Methodist Church, we recognize two sacraments – baptism and Holy Communion – because Jesus specifically instructed his disciples to do both. Sacraments, we say, are an outward sign of an inward grace. In other words, a sacrament uses something we can see – bread, wine, water – to remind us of the grace of God at work within us and within our world. God’s grace is not something we can earn. It is a gift; a demonstration of God’s generosity.
For those of you who don’t know, in the United Methodist Church, we baptize infants and children and we allow people to receive communion even if they are not church members. We don’t do that to devalue those sacraments or because we’ve taken some cavalier theological approach. Rather, we do that because we want the sacraments to be a celebration of God’s generosity. Baptism symbolizes the washing away of our sin and our full inclusion in the family of God. I always meet with individuals and families to talk about baptism before we baptize. But, if we were to wait until someone had a full understanding of the enormity of God’s grace, until they were fully and truly sorry for everything they’d ever done wrong, until they were fully able to embrace those who are different and sometimes offensive… Well, none of us would ever make it to baptismal font. Instead, we believe that the very experience of God’s grace, God’s outlandish generosity toward us, is itself a converting experience that changes us over time as we live into the reality of God’s generous grace. Likewise, although we confess our sins before we commune, if we were to wait (again) until we had a full comprehension of God’s forgiveness and felt sincere regret for everything we’d ever done wrong, we might never make it to the table. Instead, we believe that, when we eat the bread and drink the cup remembering what it symbolizes, that kind of generosity cannot help but change us from the inside out.
Many of you are aware that I am a Pennsylvania native. My hometown is about 60 miles from Homestead, PA. The Homestead Steel strike is one of our nation’s most notable historic events. It pitted the Carnegie Steel Company against, what was at the time, our nation’s most powerful trade union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. In 1889, after striking, the AA members won a favorable 3-year contract that left them feeling confident in their bargaining power. But Andrew Carnegie, despite amassing a fortune, was annoyed by the union’s growing influence and determined to cut wages. His plant manager, Henry Frick, came up with a plan to break up the union. When the contract expired, the men were offered a new contract that would increase their hours and decrease their pay. Refusing to abide by the new contract, they were locked out of the mill… but not about to surrender. Homestead was pretty much a company town and the fate of one was the fate of all. So, although the AA union members only represented a small fraction of the workforce at Homestead, they appealed to the other plant employees to join them in striking. They did. In fact, employees at several other mills in western Peensylvania also joined the strike. The workers were unwilling to lose ground and Carnegie and Frick were unwilling to give an inch. 300 Pinkerton guards, many just hired off the streets of Pittsburgh unaware of what they’d signed up for, traveled by barges up the Monongahela to Homestead to confront the workers. But they couldn’t even make it to shore because the entire town – including women and children – were there to greet them with guns, rocks and anything else they could get their hands on. The stalemate between the town of Homestead and the Carnegie empire stretched on for months and, at its end, there were no real winners, but a community ravaged, an empire tarnished, and plenty of lives lost on both sides.[i]
My New Testament professor writes of this morning’s parable: [I]n our little minds, we short-circuit God’s grace, so that we only get what we bargain for. We live by trying to strike merit-pay bargains with God, and the uncertainty of grace is more than we can take. In a kind of self-righteous insecurity we attempt to control God, to coerce God into giving us our due. And in our dealings, we make God over into our image…[and] thwart the richness of God’s grace. This parable tells us good news about a ridiculously generous God…[ii]
Friends, Homestead is a sort of ante-parable to this morning’s Jesus parable. You see, there are two ways to live in this world. One is to live within this world, obsessed with getting the most, getting the upper hand, a continuous measuring of our progress against those around us and a dogged loyalty to equivalency that often leads to bitter envy. The other is to live within the kingdom of God, to live from a place of secure trust in God’s generosity; to understand that the success of others does not rob us of good for God is the source of all good in a kingdom that has no limits.
[i] For more info, check out https://www.history.com/topics/industrial-revolution/homestead-strike
[ii] Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A, After Pentecost 2 by Soards, Dozeman and McCabe; Abingdon Press; 1992; p. 51.
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