The Level Field
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
September 25, 2011
Matthew 20: 1-16 (NIV)
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3“About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5So they went.
“He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6About the eleventh hour 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 the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12‘These men 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, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don’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.”
For six years when I was in junior high and high school, I tried out for the East Tennessee regional clinic band every year. For those of you who are not familiar with how these clinic bands work; they are put together through an audition process, and they consist of the “best” young instrumentalists in the region. The audition consists of a prepared piece, which the young players receive in advance and have time to practice. They also have to play some scales, which ones are determined in the audition room, and then they have to sight-read a piece of music. Based on the performance in each of those areas, every person who auditions is given a score, and then those instrumentalists receiving the top scores in each section are awarded with a “seat” in the band.
Needless to say, it’s a great experience; an opportunity to play with some great young instrumentalists, to meet some new people, learn some new music, and to work with some fine conductors — among other things. But the audition process is pretty rigorous for a young person. It doesn’t matter if you are the top player at your school. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been taking private lessons for years. It doesn’t matter if you have the most expensive instrument out there. When you walk into that room to begin your audition, you are in the same boat as every other kid that has been in there that day, and every other kid that has yet to audition; everyone has an equal opportunity to make that band.
I’m sure that many of you have had similar experiences; maybe it was in sports, or on a test, or perhaps a job interview. There come times in our lives when we are put on par with everyone else, and it is a level playing field.
So it is, in a sense, in our scripture reading this morning. A handful of laborers have been working in the landowner’s vineyard; some of them have worked all day, some of them half the day, and some of them only an hour. But when the time comes to pay the laborers, the playing field is leveled, and everyone gets paid equally; one denarius for twelve hours, one denarius for one hour. It seems so unfair, doesn’t it? Today’s Workers’ Unions would have a field day with this one! “Why bother getting a full-time job when we can work quarter time or less and still get paid the same?” we wonder. This is very strange behavior exhibited by the landowner, and the manager just goes along with it.
But we have to remember that this is a parable, and Jesus’ parables take real life examples that people can relate to and modify them a bit to teach us something about God and God’s Kingdom. It doesn’t take too much thinking to realize that in this parable, God is the landowner, Jesus is the manager, and we are the laborers. But that presents as many problems as it does solutions. We believe God to be a God of justice — so why would God engage in such unjust behavior as to give equal reward for unequal work? Well, God is a just God, and there are parables to show that. But this parable isn’t about God’s justice. Much like the parable of the prodigal son, this parable is about God’s grace, and God’s grace puts us all on a level playing field.
Hard-working, “good” people have always asked: what kind of God would offer the same reward to those who have earned it, and those who have not? And this is quite nearly the question the disciples have asked Jesus prior to the telling of this parable. The disciples thought that because they were among Jesus’ closest followers, they would receive special benefits in God’s kingdom. They want to know what reward they will receive for dropping everything to follow Jesus. They want to know who will be greatest in the kingdom. This parable is one of Jesus’ many answers to that question. And I don’t think I have to tell you that this was a difficult answer for Jesus’ followers to swallow because it went against the accepted standard — more work means more pay. But God’s kingdom stands in contrast to the values of the world. No one receives special favor because they are a closer friend to Jesus or because they have been following Jesus longer. This parable makes clear that there is a radical equality before God. And as Christ’s followers, we are called to model that radical equality of God’s kingdom, this is another (and very important) way of being a truly hospitable church.
As we gather here for worship week in and week out, as we go out and serve meals to the homeless, or engage in regular Bible Study, it’s easy to assume that we are somehow favored. People who work in church circles can easily assume that they are the special ones, God’s inner circle. But in reality, God is not satisfied with just us, or just the folks at Fairview (Grace) or Dallas Bay or Calvary Chapel (Abba’s House) or any other church. God is always out in the marketplace, looking for more “workers;” seeking out the people everybody else tried to ignore, welcoming them on the same terms, surprising them (and everyone else) with God’s generous grace. God does not will that anyone’s life should be wasted, so God extends the invitation indiscriminately and repeatedly, in order to gather as many people as possible into his vineyard, his kingdom. God shows no partiality among persons; all are equally deserving–or undeserving–of the opportunity to work, so the reward for all workers is equal as well.
Are we so very gracious? I mean, if we are really being honest with ourselves, what thoughts cross our minds when a convicted murderer suddenly professes Christ as his Lord and Savior. When we see druggies or molesters, do we offer them an invitation to come and meet Christ, to work for God, or do we look down our nose at them and assume that they are too low for the kingdom of God. I think we tend to be more like those grumbling workers who had been in the fields all day than the landowner who continually goes out into the marketplace inviting more and more laborers to come and work in his fields. No matter the person. No matter their history. No matter where one comes from. Jesus is saying, “It’s not too late for you or anyone else! There is more than enough room in God’s purposes for everyone!” God makes no distinction, and we shouldn’t either.
The call here is to humility; it is an attempt to remind those who know the Gospel, who imagine they can teach and govern the whole world, and who thus imagine they are nearest to God, that their greatness is relative. Those who are first in the world’s eyes are not first in the eyes of God. So what does that mean for you and I, who sit in church today while millions do not? It means that we have to model the radical inclusivity of God out in the world. Just imagine what the church would look like if everyone did just that! If everyone was out in the marketplace inviting any and all who would listen and accept the invitation to come and work the vineyard, to enter God’s kingdom!
The Christian church in general does not have a very good reputation out in the world today. Recent studies show that among a host of negative traits, outsiders view the church as judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive, and not accepting. The church is viewed by the world as the exact opposite of what God’s kingdom is about! We are seen as exclusive instead of inclusive; judgmental rather than gracious!
One of my good friends left the church a decade ago because instead of being gracious and loving after my friend made some mistakes, the members of his church judged him and essentially kicked him out. Despite his continuing faith in God, I don’t think my friend will ever return to church because the church doesn’t look or act like the God he knows. I have invited him over and over again, and one time I did succeed in getting him to a Christmas Eve service, but as the years have passed and he has watched the church continue the same behavior time and time again, he has become more and more disillusioned. How many people out in the world are just like my friend? Or how many people may never know Christ because the church does not reflect Christ and they have no interest in being a part of something so negative?
My friends, I don’t believe I can press upon you enough the urgency of the task that is before us. The church is to be the model of God’s kingdom in the world, and we are not doing our job. We have to value what God values! We have to live like Christ lived. We must share God’s grace and love unconditionally with the world around us. It is not our job to be judgmental; to decide who gets paid what. At the end of the day, God will graciously bless all the faithful, and that is something to celebrate!
So let’s celebrate God’s radical inclusivity today. Let’s celebrate God’s grace! God’s grace is a free gift that is available to all of us. It is a free gift for all to receive even though none of us is deserving. It is about mercy, not fairness. And, it is for the last as well as the first. The field is level. Are we going to stingily hoard God’s grace for ourselves, thinking we have a “leg up,” or are we going to go celebrate the many blessings of God’s mercy for all people? This world needs God’s grace, so let’s share it!