The Rev’d Charles Everson
Sep. 24, 2023 • Year A, Proper 20 • Matthew 20:1–16
I was a banker for 15 years. Beginning in my mid-twenties, I started making residential mortgage loans, then worked on the deposit side as a teller, and ended up in the regulatory compliance area. When I told people I was a banker, they assumed I was out to make money off the average Joe and his or her average checking and savings account, when in fact my job was to ensure that consumers were protected, and to report potential financial crimes to the authorities. It didn’t take long in the regulatory compliance space to learn what is true in most industries: it is the consultants who make the most money, consultants who bill their clients by the hour.
This gospel lesson today doesn’t really square with the idea of billable hours. The landowner doesn’t pay the laborers for the quantity or quality of the work they’ve done; instead he pays them exactly the same amount no matter how long or how hard they’ve worked. So much for billable hours. How is this fair? How is it fair that the workers who work from dawn to dusk get paid the same as those who only work an hour or two?
As with all biblical texts, in order to properly interpret this passage, we have to understand the genre. This gospel lesson is not a newspaper, nor a history book, nor a comic book. This is a parable, a “short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.” It’s also allegory, a “figurative treatmentof one subject under the guise of another.” It is tempting to be too literal about who the people in the story are and who they represent in today’s world. Rather, the characters in this story represent different ideas at different times, and are not set in stone. That’s kind of the whole point of a parable. We aren’t given a legend that tells us what everything represents, but are left to our own devices to figure it out in context.
At the end of the workday, the first workers thought they would receive a higher wage, and they grumble against the landowner. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” he replies. His payment of a day’s wage is just simply because the money belongs to him, and he has the right to do what he wants with it. He insists that he paid a just wage and notes that each of the laborers agreed to the amount in advance. When those who were hired first challenge him, he asks, “are you envious because I am generous?” It seems that these workers had forgotten that they were hired thanks to the generosity of the landowner, not because they somehow deserved to be hired in the first place.
Who do you identify with in this story at this stage in your life? Are you the laborer who started working early in the morning, and you resent the fact that those who started work at 5pm are going to be paid the same wage as you? Or do you identify with one who started work later in the day, and you’re grateful that the landowner is paying you the entire day’s wage, even though you don’t deserve it? And what is your motivation for doing the work to begin with? Is it because you are afraid of what will happen if you won’t, or is it because you feel peer-pressured into doing it? Or is it out of gratitude?
I am not generally a fan of John Calvin, but his idea of free will as described in his famous work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, is actually quite helpful here. He says, “Those who serve God only because they wish to avoid punishment or obtain payment do so in the manner of a servant; whereas those who see working in God’s vineyard as a gift labor without coercion, in the manner of offspring who love and wish to please the parent, and are dedicated to the parent’s work.”
If you identify with the laborer who began work at dawn, and you’re resentful towards any of the other laborers, ask yourself, why are you working in God’s kingdom? Is it to avoid the fires of hell? Is it to work your way to heaven? Or are you working out of love for God as a child desires to please his or her parent?
The traditional reading of this parable is that the landowner represents God, and “daily wages” represent salvation. The landowner goes out and seeks laborers all day long throughout the day. He’s got the work and the wages to provide, and he is unceasing in providing opportunities for everyone to respond. Each of us, from time to time, needs to hear this truth: nothing we can ever do will earn us salvation. We can work from dawn to dusk, but in doing so, we in no way deserve salvation any more than the one who only works one hour. Salvation isn’t earned, it’s a free gift from God that is given generously simple because he has the love and forgiveness to provide and the will to give it.
We have a little trinket hanging on the wall in our apartment that reads, “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.” It’s funny, but for those of us with at least one sibling, didn’t we at some level really want our parents to think of us as the favorite child?
The workers who worked hard all day weren’t only upset about the amount of the wages being paid the workers who didn’t work as long. They were uneasy about something even deeper than that. The real issue is superiority. You can almost hear the disdain dripping from the voices of the first workers when they say, “you have made them equal to us” (v. 12).
Friends, that is the good news of the gospel. In the economy of the kingdom of God, they are equal. The workaholic isn’t worth more to God than the lazy bum. The bank compliance officer isn’t superior to the teller. The church warden isn’t worth more than the sexton. The Chicago Commissioner for the Department of Streets and Sanitation who makes six figures isn’t superior to the sanitation worker who isn’t paid a living wage. The lawyer isn’t more likely to get to heaven than her administrative assistant. And the one who works nine hours isn’t superior to the one who works only one. In God’s kingdom, the last will be first, and the first will be last. The workers who start at dawn will watch the ones who started later in the day receive the same generous wage. God’s grace is not like billable hours. It is given generously to all, no matter their status in life or how hard they work. God is not fair and does not play favorites, and that, friends, is good news indeed.
 https://www.dictionary.com/browse/parable  https://www.dictionary.com/browse/allegory  David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) 94, citing John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 837 (3.19.5).