The Challenge of Grace Upon Grace for All
Sep 24, 2023
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Another Sunday, another parable. Did you notice its vital words of introduction? “The kingdom of heaven is like….” Keep that in mind. Also, here is a question you may not have considered – as you heard today’s parable, with what workers did you identify, the ones who began work at 6 a.m., or 9 a.m., or noon, or 3 p.m. or 5 p.m.?
We’ll get back to that, but first let’s fill in a bit of detail and imagine that this vineyard owner is desperate to get his crop of grapes harvested. Perhaps it’s due to threatening weather or too ripe fruit, whatever the case, the work needs to be done in a day. So, he seeks out day laborers who are waiting at the crack of dawn to be hired, and they are promised the usual pay for a day’s work. They are glad to be chosen, even though it means working for hours in the heat, thankful that they can meet their families’ needs for another day.
As the day wears on, though, the picking is not keeping up with the amount that needs harvesting, so all day long – at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and even 5 p.m., an hour before work stops, the farmer keeps hiring people to fill empty baskets with grapes. Finally, the workday ends, and the grapes are picked; his crop is saved and tomorrow will be a new day with new tasks. It is with relief that the vintner pays the workers, beginning with the one-hour pickers, then moving on to those who began at 3 p.m., noon, 9 a.m. and 6 a.m., paying them all the usual daily wage.
The 9 a.m. and 6 a.m. workers especially watch this process and are sure that anyone who would be so generous with the latecomers will surely be even more generous with the first ones in the field. A bonus is surely coming their way! But, no, they are paid the daily wage on which they had agreed 12 hours earlier. The vineyard owner has made them all equal, although they are not equal in work. Remember … “the kingdom of heaven is like….”
Consider this … the early workers would have been satisfied with that pay had they not witnessed the vineyard owner’s generosity. They would have stopped at the market on the way home for bread, cheese and vegetables and celebrated having food for another day. Instead, “This is unfair”, they proclaim! What’s unfair, asks the vintner? You got what was promised to you and others experienced my generosity. Why are you upset? Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
As you ponder all that, let’s return to the earlier question: with what workers do you identify? Is it with the celebrating late-comers who can feed their families for another day when doing so had seemed impossible a few hours earlier? Or is it with the complaining early workers who also can feed their families for another day, but think they deserve more?
Pastor and Professor Barbara Brown Taylor notes that many of us (middle class church goers) tend to immediately identify with the ones who worked all day and felt they deserved greater payment, more than they received. If that is the case, our attitude is that we want our fair share, and deserve it more than those “others” for whom grace is now real. Instead of celebrating the lavish grace that gave everyone what they needed, we feel slighted for not receiving more. (1)
In other words, we struggle with the upside-down nature of grace, EXCEPT when we are on the receiving end. I had never thought of this before, but commentator Karl Jacobson writes that this parable is about coveting. Does that word ring a bell? It’s in the 9th and 10th of the 10 Commandments, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” To covet is to feel inordinate desire for what belongs to another, to which Martin Luther adds in his explanation of the Commandments, coveting is taking action to try and acquire what belongs to others. This parable indicates, says Dr. Jacobson, that we covet what God chooses to give others.
To understand, we must realize that the parable is an allegory. The wages represent forgiveness, eternal life, the spiritual blessings of God. Quoting Dr. Jacobson, “In relationship, one believer to another, covetousness is a problem. The point here isn’t necessarily that other folks receive blessings from God and we don’t…. The problem is that they get the same as us, and they do not deserve it, do they? They are less worthy, or late arrivals, or just plain worse sinners. They don’t deserve the same as we get, do they? Not nothing maybe, but certainly not the same.” (2)
If you are inclined to think, “that’s not me,” then consider how you feel about the concept of unlimited grace, about forgiveness extended in eternity to all, including those who have caused significant harm in the world, and particularly anyone who has cause you excessive pain.
Like the vineyard workers, we struggle with the point that God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness are God’s to give away as God sees fit. Because of that, writes Dr. Jacobson, we covet God’s power to forgive and God’s control over who is forgiven and how. (3)
Today we read a portion of the story of Jonah, one of the great books in the Old Testament. You may recall that Jonah was sent by God to the city of Nineveh to warn the people there that if they did not repent and turn to God, they would be destroyed. Jonah declined God’s call and took a ship in the other direction, which resulted in terrible storm, his being thrown overboard and a sojourn in a big fish where he was convinced of the error of his ways. He did go to Nineveh after being vomited out of the fishes’ belly, where he preached the shortest sermon possible, probably in a whisper hoping no one would hear it. But, wouldn’t you know it, all in Nineveh repented and God spared the city. Now Jonah is angry; why is he so upset?
It’s because he coveted God’s control over who is forgiven. From the beginning of this episode, Jonah bitterly complained, he knew that “God is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” That’s why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place; they do not deserve a second chance! Jonah does not want God to be for others who God is for him. Yet, “the kingdom of heaven is like….”
That’s what the parable of the vineyard is about too – our frustration with the grace of God as it applies not to us, but others. The message is that God’s grace is extended to all, equally. As was the case in last week’s Gospel concerning preferring receiving forgiveness to giving it, today is about being happy to receive grace, but are not necessarily pleased that God is so generous in giving it in equal measure.
Jesus’ words ring in our ears, “Are you envious because I am generous?’ Instead of complaining we should be celebrating that all are included. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like, after all. While the last will be first, and the first last, all are recipients of grace upon grace. AMEN