September 24, 2017 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I want to warn you that, if you are a Republican, you probably won’t like this sermon. And, if you’re a Democrat, you probably won’t like it either. In fact, if you’re an American or, for that matter, a human being of any nationality or political affiliation, you probably won’t like what I have to say. That’s because the story that Jesus tells us this morning is infuriating, and it isn’t the preacher’s job to soften the blow. If my words don’t challenge you at least as much as Jesus’ do, then I am not being faithful to the gospel.
Let’s be clear from the start: Jesus was trying to ruffle some feathers. You don’t tell a parable about some laborers working all day in the scorching heat who get paid the same amount as those who only worked an hour and not make people mad. The truth is that grace and unconditional love are maddening. Sure, they’re fine and dandy as long as you’re the one who only worked an hour, but, when you’ve given your whole life to being faithful and have always tried to be a good person and some Johnny-come-lately who always thought of himself and who never once did what God wanted him to do shows up at the last minute and gets the exact same heavenly reward that you do, it’s enough to drive you crazy. And Jesus told this parable to make sure that all of us are perfectly clear that that’s precisely how grace works.
There’s no better way to make us understand the totality of the gospel than to hit us where it counts—in our wallets. There’s something about using a parable that quantifies our labor and our reward in terms of hours worked and dollars paid that makes it clear just how enraging the gospel really is. Human instinct produces no stronger reaction than the one that arises when a person gets shortchanged. When we don’t get credit for our work, when we don’t receive proper recognition, when we don’t get paid what we think we deserve, and when someone else gets what should belong to us, it fills us with the kind of self-righteous indignation that leads to mob violence. As the grumbling laborers in the parable declared, “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.” You have made them equal to us. Equal, indeed.
Equality is a lovely thing as long as it doesn’t cost me anything, but, in the kingdoms of this world, it always does. Universal access to health care means higher premiums or higher taxes for those who are healthy and wealthy. A living wage means higher prices and lower incomes for the rest of us. Freedom for everyone means sacrifice for the few who protect it on our behalf. As long as we approach the kingdom of heaven in the same way that we approach the politics of this life, Jesus’ call for equality and the grace that it represents will always make us angry. If Jesus’ parable is supposed to be an image of how the world should be, then it is going to cost us something.
But this parable isn’t about the kingdoms of the world. “Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” This is a picture of what heaven is like. This is what it looks like in God’s kingdom. In the kingdoms of this world, a person’s value may be expressed in how hard or long that person works, in how good that person is, or in how much that person is paid, but in the kingdom of heaven an individual’s value is not based on a limited resource like hours or effort or dollars. The economics of God’s kingdom are built upon the principle that all value comes from the love of God and that God’s love has no limit.
In Jesus’ parable, every laborer, from the last to the first, was paid the same amount—a denarius. But how much was a denarius worth? Preachers like me love to take that biblical measurement and convert it into present-day currency and tell congregations that a denarius is about $100. If you hired a laborer to work around your house and paid him around $10 an hour, after a full day’s work, you’d owe him about $100. That’s a day’s wage. That’s what a denarius is worth. But that’s not really what a denarius is. A denarius was a coin—a single, silver coin. When you worked for a day, you were given that coin in exchange for your labor, and that coin was enough to feed your family and pay your bills and keep you going long enough for you to wake up and do it all over again the next day. A denarius, therefore, was enough.
There’s a similar concept in today’s Old Testament lesson, which I took the liberty of lengthening by three verses. Did you hear in those verses what Moses commanded the people of Israel when they went out to pick up the manna that God had sent them? “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” And all of Israel did so. Some gathered more, and some gathered less, but, as long as they measured what they gathered by an omer, “those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” There was exactly the right amount. I don’t know how much an omer is, but I do know that it is enough. And that’s how God’s kingdom works.
What happens when God gives everyone enough? What happens when the measure of a person’s worth is based not on something that might run out but on something that can never be exhausted? Imagine for a minute that God’s kingdom is like a never-ending all-you-can-eat buffet. Does it matter if the person next to you has more chicken wings or crab legs on his plate than you do? Or maybe the kingdom of heaven is like chili dogs. I don’t know about you, but I’m of the opinion that two chili dogs is enough for any human being. Should I be upset if I go to a fancy dinner party and my host gives me two chili dogs and you four? I might feel slighted, but that’s only true until I finish that second chili dog and realize that I’ve already had enough. God help me if I ask for another one.
God’s love is endless. God’s love has no limits. God’s love and the blessings it bestows can never run out. And in God’s kingdom everyone always gets enough. Not just the good people. Not just the faithful people. Not just the hard-working people. Everyone. No matter how much you think you deserve it, no matter how much you think someone else doesn’t, God gives everyone enough, and there is always enough to go around. If we approach God’s kingdom the same way that we approach the kingdoms of this world and assume that the measure of our value is based on a limited resource, we cannot help but reject the principle of equality. If there was only so much of God’s love to go around, of course I would resent it if you took some of the love that was supposed to go to me. No one can afford being left out of God’s kingdom. But how silly is it for us to compete for God’s love? There is always enough of God’s love to go around. But, if God’s love is truly limitless, then those of us live in that love are not only given the freedom of knowing that everyone has enough but also the freedom to make God’s economy a reality on earth just as it is in heaven.
This might be a parable about heaven, but it has profound earthly implications, too. If your true value comes not from the life you live but from God’s gracious gift, then you are free to leave behind an economy of competition and accept that it doesn’t matter how much or little you or anyone else has because, when it comes to the only thing that matters—God’s love—everyone always has enough. Once we believe that, it becomes possible for us to give up the wealth and status and privilege that we possess in order that the kingdoms of this world might be transformed into mirrors of God’s kingdom, so that all the laborers in the vineyard really do get paid the same amount—enough.
Yes, equality in this life is costly. Yes, equal pay and equal access mean that most of the people who call this congregation home have to give something up. But what do we believe? Is our life measured by the abundance of our possessions or by the magnitude of God’s love for us? And, if we believe that our true value comes from God’s limitless and indiscriminate love, we must ask ourselves whether that truth is reflected in our lives or whether we are propping up a kingdom that rejects it.
No one said that grace would be easy. In fact, Jesus let us know right from the start that it’s going to be really hard. But the transformation that God’s grace promises—in our lives and in the world—is worth more than we can possibly imagine.