Our reading in Matthew is chapter 20 verses one through 16 — Jesus’ parable about workers in a vineyard. You’ll hear that the landowner paid people one “denarius” A denarius is the amount usually paid as one day’s wages which was enough for one person to live on, but a whole family would really have to scrimp if that was the only income. It is truly a subsistence wage. Hear how Matthew tells the story:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Congregational Church of Easton – September 24. 2023
Some of you may be thinking, that’s not fair! It’s not fair that those who hardly did any work at all be paid the same as those who sweated for a whole day in the hot sun.
If that’s what you’re thinking, you would be having the same reaction that the elder son had in the story of the prodigal son. In that parable Jesus has the father throwing a party for his no-good son, while the son who stayed home and worked hard for all those years never had a party thrown for him! It’s not fair!
Jesus seems to be turning all our values upside down – values about hard work and how it should be rewarded. If we were to follow his example, we would teach our grandchildren not to worry about working hard at in school. It doesn’t make any difference whether you bring home a report card with D’s and F’s or one with A’s and B’s. If you and I did that, and our neighbors found out about it they could report us for child abuse!
How can we make any sense out of these parables of Jesus? A place to start is to remember that Jesus offers these parables to show us what God’s Kingdom is like. He told people at the very beginning of his ministry that he has come to proclaim the good news that God’s new economic and political and social order is near – God’s kingdom –. He tells parables to help people understand what the Kingdom is, because it is so different than what they and we are used to.
Today we read that the owner of the vineyard asked the complaining workers, “Are you resentful because I’m generous?”
Both of these parables tell us about God’s boundless generosity. God’s Kingdom is generous if it is anything. In God’s Kingdom, everyone receives God’s generous love, the way the father in the prodigal son story loves both of his sons. And in God’s way of ordering society, everyone gets their daily needs met out of God’s generosity, regardless of how hard they work.
The social order which we see portrayed in the parable of the vineyard is a generous world in which everyone’s daily needs are met.
It’s the same way of ordering society that we read in the story about Moses leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. God had saved them from Pharaoh’s armies. Now as they wander in the desert, they’re hungry and complaining. So what does God do in God’s infinite generosity? God gives them their daily bread.
It’s like we pray every Sunday, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The bread or manna that appeared every morning couldn’t be stored, so there is just enough for people’s daily needs.
The key word is “enough.” The Israelites are given enough meat in the evening and enough bread in the morning to meet their daily needs. It doesn’t make any difference what kind of person they were – a slacker or a solid citizen – bread and meat were there for the taking.
In Jesus’ day people didn’t have enough. That denarius that day laborers were paid wasn’t enough to support a family. People who still owned land were taxed by the Romans and by the Temple, so they were struggling too. The average age of most people was only 30, but the elite often lived to be 60 because they were better fed.
In our day millions of people don’t have enough. There has been huge progress in alleviating world poverty in the last 20 or 30 years. Recently, things have taken a turn for the worse with famines in the Congo, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen and other countries. That, combined with the global refugee crisis, has increased the numbers of children, women, and men who don’t have enough. The World Food Program estimates that 828 million people go to bed hungry.
Numbers like these are so big they numb my mind, I don’t know about yours. The problem is so huge, and I’ve heard this so often, that my compassion doesn’t flow. So I’m not motivated to do anything. I don’t like being indifferent to suffering, so I tried a little thought experiment that helped:
I imagined that there are 4 little girls playing together – my 8 year old granddaughter and three of her friends. One of the friends is listless and skinny as a rail. Her language skills and cognitive abilities seem retarded. She is malnourished. She is hungry. She doesn’t have enough.
God is not a magician. We pray,“Thy Kingdom come” each Sunday when we pray the Lord’s prayer. But God is not going to magically bring that Kingdom about. God is not going to magically bring about a world in which all little girls and boys have enough to eat. We have to do it.
Imagining my granddaughter playing with a little girl who is hungry does motivate me to want to do whatever I can to create a world of enoughness. When I was a member of Saugatuck Congregational Church in Westport our missions committee sponsored an offering of letters to Congress in support of the Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill is up for renewal again this year. It funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] (formerly known as food stamps) as well as a variety of smaller nutrition programs to help low-income Americans afford food for their families. The Farm Bill also provides money for international food assistance, sending food overseas or providing money for food to be bought locally. Supporting the Farm Bill is an excellent way to ensure that everyone has enough to eat, both at home and abroad.
Bread for the World encourages churches to set aside a Sunday for an offering of letters. We would have copies of letters to Jim Himes and our Senators asking them to sponsor and/or vote for the Farm Bill when it comes up for renewal early next year. We would provide envelopes and stamps, so all you would have to do is sign three letters and put your return address on the envelopes.
I’ll propose this to the Deacons later this fall to see if they would like to recommend that we conduct an offering of letters in late November or early December. Our church already supports the food kitchen at the Thomas Merton Center. An offering of letters would give us an opportunity to extend our care to both our nation and countries in need.
Let us pray. Holy One, we thank you for your boundless generosity. We know that in your generosity you want no one to go to bed hungry. Thank you for opportunities to share your generosity and provide enough for everyone to eat. Amen.