Sermon on Matthew 20.10-16 (Trinity 15, 2020)

St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Trinity 15, Sept 20, 2020 Canon Claude Schroeder

As Christians, we believe that through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of His Son Jesus Christ, and sending of the Holy Spirit, God has established his heavenly kingdom, which is his reign and rule, on this earth and in our midst, thus fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Unto us a child is born, into us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders.” (Isaiah 9.6)

That is something in these politically turbulent and indeed chaotic times, and in the upcoming election season, we do well to remember.  The government of this world rests upon the shoulders of Jesus Christ. God rules in the kingdoms of men, a kingdom which operates according to an alternative politics, known as “forgiveness” and “ humble service,” and an alternative economics called “gift” or “grace.”  Our Christian calling consists into bearing witness to this kingdom, into which we have been baptized as active participants.

We have been hearing a lot of talk these days about re-opening the economy, and getting the economy going. Which raises the question, “which economy?”  In our Gospel lesson today from the 20th chapter of St. Matthew, Jesus tells a parable, a short picture story, which illustrates for us something of the dynamics of grace in the economy of the kingdom of heaven.

In this parable, Jesus describes an economic situation which is so true to life where there is widespread unemployment, job insecurity, and consequently food insecurity. The day labourers in our story have no permanent job, no benefits, no pension plan. And in the absence of government handouts, unemployment insurance, and welfare, you don’t work, you don’t eat. It’s that simple. 

But that of course is not the whole story, because we have a landowner, who owns quite a bit of land, land which he has developed into a vineyard, of which he has become the CEO employing the services of a financial administrator and a manual labourers.

And it’s a situation of great inequality of wealth and of power, where things operate according to the golden rule: “whoever has the gold makes the rules,” which means that these day laborers have little if any chance to better themselves and the lives of their families. Meanwhile, our landowner is laughing all the way to bank, to make another deposit from the huge profits he has taken in that will allow him to expand his operation, with predictable results:  the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

And so it was, says Jesus, that “a landowner went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”

Now if Jesus had been telling a story about a modern earthly kingdom, and not an eternal heavenly one, he may have proceeded to describe how the laborers organized themselves into a union, and demanded of the landowner a pay rise, job security, and benefits.  

But then again, maybe the workers, deciding that it was just plain wrong that this landowner should have all this land, all this wealth and all this power, took matters into their own hands, and launched a revolution in which they murdered the landowner and parceled up his land amongst themselves.   

Does this story ring any bells with you? It should.  It’s been the story of more than one earthly kingdom in this last century. And it’s a story that has been thoroughly discredited because the millions of people who were either murdered or sent off to labor camps, never to be seen again.

But there is new story that is making the rounds these days notably in the universities of our country.  In this story, like the previous story, all inequalities of wealth, well-being, and power are, by definition “unjust.” And this injustice is due primarily to structures and systems that privileges and gives power to some and not others. Who has the power is determined by things like race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and so on. Human identity, who you are, is understood in terms of your membership in one or other of these groups. And so in this story, who you see and who you hear speaking to you this morning is someone who is white, male, and middle class who is oppressing and exercising power over you by his use of language. In this story, human relationships are all about the exercise of power, and justice is a matter of subverting the power of dominant groups in favor of the oppressed. The result an ongoing conflict of kingdoms.

And it’s a story which makes it incredibly difficult for the preacher to get a hearing, but I’m going to try, because the story that I have to tell is part of a larger story called the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the Good News of a changed situation, of a heavenly kingdom come down to earth, that calls all people everywhere the rich and poor, men and women, the powerful and powerless to repentance and faith. It’s a story as we shall see which contains more than a few surprises…

The first surprise comes when we read that our unemployed laborers aren’t actually looking for a job, rather it is the landowner who is looking for them to hire them to work in his vineyard. This is very strange. Isn’t this the foreman or the manager’s job?  What kind of a CEO goes out early in the morning to personally meet his workers and actually enter into a negotiation with them? Here is a CEO who comes down to the level of his labourers. 

 ‘After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.’ 

The second surprise comes when we hear of the lengths to which the landowner goes to hire as many laborers as possible to work in his vineyard.  At nine o’clock, he came back, and again at noon, and again at three, and finally at 5 o’clock, one hour before quitting time, he went and found others standing around; and he said to them,” “Why are you standing idle all day?’ And they said to him, “Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them,” You also go into my vineyard.”

Here is a landowner who clearly cares and cares deeply that unemployed laborers should have work, and able to feed themselves and their families.  Here is a landowner who is generous with his land and single handedly solves the unemployment problem.

But as Jesus proceeds to show us, this landowner is not only generous with his land, but is also with the wealth of that land, because when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager,” Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and going to the first.”

That’s a little odd. But things get even more odd when those hired at 5 o’clock, at the eleventh hour, were give a full day’s pay. 

What kind of crazy labour relations in this?

Did these “Johnny come latelys” get their just reward? We might call it “justice,” in so far as justice demands that everyone have the opportunity to work and to receive a living wage.  But it’s a strange kind of justice where what was given is not what was earned.  The only worked an hour, but were given a full day’s pay.  

So, let’s call this by its proper name.  It is not justice, but grace. The landowner gave them a job, and gave them a full day’s pay. Both the work and the reward was a gift, in which the landowner gave his labourers “this day their daily bread…” 

So here is a landowner who is not working the system, but graciously working within the system to produce… what?  It’s not just grapes, but productive, satisfied, grateful and generous workers.

But now “when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only an hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

Question: Was the landowner being unjust? Should he have paid them more? After all, they worked harder and longer than all the rest…

But the landowner replied to one of them, “Friend”, which is better translated, “Listen buddy.” (the landowner is not being friendly.)  “I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

So what’s the problem here? What we thought was a systemic problem, turns out to be a spiritual problem. This is where current theories of justice breakdown.

Because, who is the landowner?

The landowner is God. “In his hand are all the corners of the earth, and the strength of the hills is his also. The sea is his and he made it, and his hands prepared the dry land (Psalm 95. 4,5). 

And God is not allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to Him?  And what God chooses to call all people everywhere to labor in the vineyard of his creation.  And so we pray, 

 “O LORD our heavenly Father, by whose providence the duties of men are variously ordered; Grant to us all the spirit to labour heartily to do our work in our several stations, in serving one Master and looking for one reward. Teach us to put to good account whatever talents thou hast lent to us, and enable us to redeem our time by patience and zeal; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (Book of Common Prayer)

What is this reward that we look to? It is heaven, eternal life with God in a communion of love, that has come down to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.

And so the vineyard in which we labour is the vineyard of God’s new creation. This labour, this work has a physical aspect, traditionally described in terms of feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, or ransom the captive, and burying the dead.

This labour also has a spiritual aspect, traditionally described in terms of instructing the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish the sinners, bear patiently those who wrong us, forgiving offenses, comforting the afflicted, praying for the living and the dead. 

This the labour which we share here at St. Mary’s at a time when working conditions, are less than ideal. But as St. Paul wrote in today’s epistle, “For me living is Christ, and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me…” This from somebody who at the time was in prison chained to a wall. Talk about poor working conditions.

But a man’s go to eat! This morning God feeds and strengthens both our bodies and soils with the bread that is the Broken Body of Jesus Christ.

The problem that interferes with our labour, as Jesus diagnoses it, is not out there, in some structure or system, but in here, in our hearts.

The landowner asked his grumbling labourers, “Are you envious because I am generous?” 

We are used to thinking of pride as the dominant and original sin, but there are good reasons for believing that envy is the more prevalent sin, which is like the virus is destructive both to individuals and those envied by them. In Matthew’s Gospel, the motive behind Christ’s crucifixion was envy. (Matthew 27.18)

Envy, like other sins of the spirit, is a secret sin, hidden from view. Envy is not simply wanting what someone else has, which is coveting. Envy is hating others for what they have. It is the joy we feel over the harm that befalls others, particularly the famous, the rich, the powerful, and political leaders with whom we disagree. Envy disguises itself as the desire for justice, and has been the seed of every violent revolution.

In the Scriptures envy is associated with the “evil eye, which has to do with how we look at the world around us. The only manner of seeing the world that is commanded by God is to see the world with blessing, with the good in mind. Everything else is born of sin. When in our coveting, we look at the world as objects of our desire to be possessed and consumed, that very quickly turns into envy, when we figure we didn’t get what we deserved, and end up wishing ill on others. This is what it means to look at the world with envy, with an evil eye. It darkens our souls, makes true discernment impossible, and results in terrible violence. It seems to me the world today is caught in its grip.

And so, this morning, may God in His mercy, cleanse and heal us of our eye infections, and grant us to see Him aright for the good and generous God that He is, who looks on us all, especially the last and the least,  with the eye of his mercy, and to see the world aright, as the vineyard into which we have called to work, and to see one another aright, as fellow labourers and recipients of His grace. Amen.