As you know, I don't really like to bring the latest news into the pulpit. Part of that is because I believe that the preacher should not be reactive to the turmoil of the world. Too often social commentary sounds like politics; and I am not a politician, nor am I qualified to speak meaningfully about such things.
Jesus did not speak about the Roman Empire in grand, sweeping critique—he spoke about basic human interactions. He saw the behavior of an entire society in the Pharisees' hypocrisy, in plight of widows, and outcastes. I suppose that is also part of why I don't tackle the news of the day. It is too easy to over-generalize, and then hold everyone hostage to my own prejudices—leaving you to either agree or disagree with me—which in turn places us all in a very awkward position to receive the Holy Communion together.
Imagine for a moment going to someone's house for dinner, and before the meal is served, you have to have to listen to your host say things you disagree with. Eating the meal almost seems like saying you agree with them.
If I were to speak generally about our society—in a way that is as non-political as I would like—I would say that we consistently struggle with inequality—which is nothing new, of course. In many parts of our world inequality is as accepted as the air we breathe, but in this country—in the United States—inequality seems much more appalling because we believe that we are all created equal by God. That fundamentally, we are all equal. And I think as democracy has spread to much of the world, it has continued to reveal inequality.
I was having a conversation recently with a man who was working on our house. He took out his hammer and drew imaginary lines on the floor to indicate where people lived in Winchester. He was trying to say that there were people who thought too highly of themselves and they lived over here. And there are people who are just regular people—and he was surely speaking of himself—who lived over here.
There was tone to his voice that indicated sadness at general inequality, but of course, when you feel yourself to be on the lesser side, there is an edge to it. I was uncomfortable by the conversation, because, despite the ways that the Episcopal Church has, in many ways come a long way from its past snobbery, when I say "Episcopal priest" I am sometimes considered to be in the category of "the people who live over here." And that bothers me, quite honestly.
But my sense of our current struggle is the disparity in our access to power—whether that be jobs and money, or politics, or a sense of place in our country. And with that perceived lack of power come reactions of anger and depression. We see it all over the world, especially in the Middle East over the last several months. People who feel like they don't have a say may become so angry that they and become indiscriminately violent toward strangers.
We hear from the media that our own political system has become so ineffective and rancorous that the government no longer works. Yet, money keeps getting thrown at whomever people feel should win the fight—which only encourages more fighting.
The inequality of access to money and goods is very much on people's minds. The new numbers on poverty just came out a week or so ago. There are a lot of people who are out of work, who want to work. A lot of people in our area are hungry, and needing help—but may be too proud to ask for it. It is not so much that we are blind to the need as the need is not always conspicuous—but it's there.
If there is work, and money, and commerce, questions of fairness will always arise. And there will be anger whenever it seems that someone isn't getting a fair shake. Jesus knew this. And at first glance it seems like the parable in today's Gospel lesson is about inequality in the ways people are paid. It very much seems like Jesus is saying inequality is okay.
He talks about the man who owns a vineyard, and needs workers. The man hires workers throughout the day, telling them that he will pay them the usual daily wage. And when we hear this parable we start the time clock on the first workers. Daily means all day. It is simply not possible that workers hired later in the day would receive a daily wage. For pay to be fair, you have to take the daily wage, divide it by eight, count the hours they work, and there's your paycheck. Take out a little for Uncle Sam, and there you go. That's what's "right"!
At the end of the day, it's time to pay the men. So the landowner tells his manager to line the men up in the opposite order they started. And they all get paid the same amount. The johnny-come-latelies are paid first, all the way down to the men who clocked in at 7am. And that's when you know something is up, because that is not how you would pay them if you wanted to be nice. If you wanted to avoid conflict, you would pay the men who worked the longest first. They would get in their trucks, and off they'd go. If they thought about it, they would believe that the other men would be getting paid less and less. But so what? They've got their money. They've clocked out.
But see Jesus makes us watch as those men have to watch the others get paid first, and get paid the full day's wage, so that by the time we come to the men who—you might say—earned every penny, we see that they are steaming mad.
The climax of the story is this interaction between the long-working men and the landowner. We learn that the landowner had decided that everyone gets paid the same amount because he wants to be generous. The time clock means nothing.
It doesn't seem right at all. It just doesn't. And like many of Jesus' parables, even though it is a story, it still so vivid that we're tempted to believe that it really happened—like the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan. If it did really happen, I seriously doubt that those men would ever work for that landowner again.
But as a parable, as a teaching story, something to tease the mind into active thought, this one teases rather more than I like. Almost every time Jesus is recorded as giving a parable he starts it by saying, "The kingdom of God is like…" or "The kingdom of heaven is like…" By implication, Jesus is saying "this is not how it is now…this is how it will be…or how it should be…" And most of the time I can go along with him. Yes, prodigal sons should be welcomed home. Strangers who are beaten up and left for dead should get care and concern. Have you noticed how many of the parables are about equality and fairness—and who gets what? Most of them, it seems.
What do we do with this one? Do you like it? Matthew liked it. Mark, Luke and John didn't. You will only find this parable in Matthew. I have heard it said that this was one of those stories that was just part of the culture of first century Palestine, almost like a nursery rhyme—like Johnny Appleseed, or some other thing, but I don't think that's it.
See, in the previous chapter in Matthew, Jesus has a conversation with the rich young man who wanted to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus tells him to go and sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come and follow him. The rich young man is thinking "eternal life to come"—"one day..some day when I die" and Jesus is thinking "eternal life begins now, young man, if you follow me."
And you remember what happens, right? The man walks away sorrowful, because he had many possessions. He wasn't ready to sacrifice this life for the life to come—the life that would begin now and continue beyond his death.
The disciples overhear all this, and they begin to wonder. "The rich young man isn't giving up his stuff, but here we've given up everything—just like Jesus said—we gave up everything in this life. What happens to us?" Again…it's the equality/inequality question, isn't it?
And Jesus responds, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, you will sit on twelve thrones judging the people of God..and anyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life." And then he launches right in to this parable, if you read it from the Bible, "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…"
If you just read it from the bulletin insert, it starts, "The kingdom of heaven is like…" But the lectionary writers have done us a disservice here. This parable is linked to the conversation that came before it.
That for is the clamp that binds this parable to the question of what the followers of Jesus receive. And we need this parable, because otherwise we would believe that—just like the workplace—those who work in the kingdom of God longer get paid more. But the kingdom of God isn't about money.
Payment is life. Payment is being able to stand face to face with God and look into each other's eyes and have peace. Peace in knowing that you are loved. Peace in knowing that you are forgiven and absolved from your sins. Everlasting life is everlasting relationship with the one who created, redeemed, and sustains you.
And you either get all of it, or none of it. It's the daily wage. God can't give more of it to some people and less of it to others, because you can't divide it. It is just "what's right"—for God's children. (Pause.)
If you try to lift this parable out of its context and make it a teaching about how God wants everyone to get paid the same about of money, then it's not going to work. I am sure that Jesus never meant this to be a teaching about the workplace. (Pause.)
Almost every Sunday, we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, and every Sunday we have a reception in the parish hall. At coffee hour, you grab a plate and you eat what you want. You grab a cup, and you get some coffee, or some juice. How much you get doesn't really matter. Some of us make up a plate, some of us just take one thing, some of us don't have any of it.
No one really thinks about how much—it's a reception. There is no meaning attached to it. But now, when you come up to the Altar, you are coming to receive the food that is not just food, and the drink that is not just drink. And the portions are the same: one piece of bread, and one sip of wine.
What did you do for the kingdom of God this past week? Have you fed the hungry? Have you tended to this sick? Have you tried to bring hope and healing and care and support? You get one piece of bread, and one sip of wine. What if you started on Wednesday? Well, I've got good news for you. You get one piece of bread, and one sip of wine. What if you started on Friday? One piece of bread; one sip of wine.
What if you did nothing at all? What if it never occurred to you that you had the power to do those things? That God had poured his Holy Spirit upon you and made you capable of doing and being and giving more than you first thought… And now you want to get out there and go to work for the one who owns the vineyard… Well, I have good news for you! You get one piece of bread, and one sip of wine. And that's the Kingdom of God.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.