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Pentecost 16 September 24, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for September 24, 2017 | Pentecost 16
Jonah 3:10 – 4:11; Psalm 145:1-18; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
It might be the mayor of Tacoma or the city’s Chamber of Commerce. It could be the CEO of Amazon, the nation’s president, or maybe the chair of the Federal Reserve. On any given day, you and I can hear any one of them or all of them together singing the same song: “Grow the economy, grow the economy.” After all, there are no limits to continued growth, are there?
It is a song, however, that would be utterly foreign to Jesus, his disciples, and those who listened to him. For in that ancient world, the world of today’s gospel reading, the notion of economic growth, of expanding wealth or land or production, did not exist. In that world then, our ancestors in the faith believed that everything in life was limited in quantity and had already been distributed by the time they were born. Are there limitations in life? Oh no, says the optimist and naïve American voice. Oh yes, said all those who listened to Jesus.
Thus, the first thing we need to grasp is this: Jesus’ listeners, living in a world of limitations, of jobs already distributed and unchanging from generation to generation, would consider a person asking for a job, seeking employment, as someone intent on depriving the vineyard owner of what was rightfully his. Your purpose is to step into your father’s job, your mother’s work – not going looking for work elsewhere. To ask for a job would be a shameful thing to do. On the other hand, the vineyard owner, knowing what he needs done in his fields, could go out and invite laborers to work for him – and, in the story, he does this a number of times. The owner is offering something incredibly precious to the invited laborer and thus also asking for the laborer’s loyalty – for now the owner has become the patron, the benefactor, of the unemployed who suddenly find they are working.
The second thing we should consider is the subtle but surprising turn the story takes. Those who were hired first for the daily wage are paid last: they need to wait until all the other workers – some who had labored for only a few hours – are paid first and, as you know, paid well. And, boy, are they unhappy when they witness those who worked little receiving the same wage as those who worked all day. The clue to their amazement and anger is in the original Greek of the gospel text. In the English translation, the owner asks, “Are you envious?” But a literal translation of the Greek text yields this question: “Is your eye evil?” That is, do you wish me dead? Are you intent on killing me for my generosity to those you think do not deserve it? Are you intent on killing me for my generosity to those you think do not deserve it? And so, at first, we might think the story is about wages and the extravagant and foolish generosity of an employer who pays $200 for 10 hours of work to some, and $200 for 2 hours of work to others. Believe me: you’ll never grow an economy with that kind of foolish generosity.
But wait: why would Matthew think this story valuable enough to include it in his gospel? Is it possible, just possible, that the story is about Jesus, God’s agent in the vineyard of this world, and about your expectations and mine of who is deserving and not deserving, of who is valued and not valued in our society? For you must have recognized that those who were invited last by the owner and paid well did nothing – nothing – to earn such treatment. To those who worked all day, the latecomers’ pitiful contribution to the workload was deemed pathetic. And yet the owner treated them graciously. Is it possible that Jesus is asking his listeners, is asking you and me: Who is considered valuable in your economy? Or this: Does the astounding generosity of God the vineyard owner shape your sense, my sense, of who holds value?
At the moment I am mindful of the fact that here we drink from a wine cup each and every Sunday and that what we drink is the fruit of the vineyard and human labor. I am mindful of this as well: that those who work in the vineyards of the West Coast speak Spanish, live in poor housing, are surrounded by pesticides, and engage in back-breaking work. A good number of these women and men are undocumented immigrants who simply want work in order to support children and grandparents who have no savings account, no social security, no pension, no college fund, no retirement fund. I am mindful of this: that we give thanks to God at this altar for the fruit of the vine and would not be able to receive this life-giving drink flowing from Christ were it not for the labor of those who some say – who some say – have little or no value, who are expendable, whose labor is a form of theft from hard working Americans. I wonder, then, if this story of the vineyard, if this story of generosity where no generosity was expected, if this story of astonishing grace invites you and me to seek and discover the presence of Christ in what some may consider of little worth but precious, precious, in the eyes of the One who owns the vineyard of this world.