Sept. 24, 2017 Matthew 20: 1-16
Prayer: O Mighty God of Mercy and Justice,
Grant us understanding of your ways, especially those that run counter to human wisdom. For it is you who made us and not we ourselves. We approach your Word with humility. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
When I arrived at Triune in 2005, I learned about day labor.
There were four day labor businesses in this neighborhood in those days, with names like Labor Finders, Trojan, Force One, Labor Ready.
When I talked about day labor outside this neighborhood, people said, “Oh yeah, that’s a place you go to pick up yard workers.”
But that wasn’t it. It was a more structured arrangement than that.
The highway department or the concert arena or another business that didn’t want to hire full time workers and pay benefits, would call the day labor place. The day labor place would then send out workers in its van.
The catch was that while the business might pay $20 per man hour, day labor paid the worker only minimum wage AND charged for the van ride. Now they had expenses, of course. Insurance and administration.
But a worker wasn’t going to get far. He would get a check for $40 $50 or $60 at the end of the day. He would cash it at a nearby convenience or liquor store for $2 to $5. At best, he’d have enough for a motel room, and wake up broke the next morning to start all over again.
So we at Triune – and the Rescue Mission, for that matter -- had a love-hate relationship with day labor. We preached that it provided just enough to keep someone in bondage, not enough to get out of homelessness. We urged our parishioners to seek steady employment instead.
But there were two big obstacles to getting steady employment:
1) Felonies on someone’s record. No one but day labor would hire them.
2) Money. They couldn’t afford to wait two weeks for a paycheck.
So day labor was a dead end. And it was a necessary evil.
The city of Greenville grew increasingly unhappy with day labor businesses, because some of them allowed loitering and created trash. The city eventually closed them all down, forcing them to move across the county line.
Still, anyone who is homeless in this neighborhood knows day labor. And so this is possibly the only congregation in Greenville who intimately understands today’s Scripture passage.
You know most of Jesus’s parables dealt with everyday issues that his listeners knew. Sowing seeds. Pulling weeds. Dodging bandits. Storing grain.
This one, even we know. So here it is, 21st-century style:
Early on a deep summer morning, while it was still dark, Pete Kerns walked into the parking lot at Labor Finders. He wanted to make sure he was on the day’s ticket, so he had set his alarm and roused himself early.
The Labor Finders hirer was impressed with Pete’s industriousness and promised him $40 for the day’s work. After waiting around for several hours -- and getting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from the Feeding Jesus folks at Buncombe Street, Pete and several other workers jumped in the van at 9 a.m. to ride out and work construction on I-385.
At noon, the construction site foreman radioed back to Labor Finders and asked for more workers. Robert Cheatham had been down to Force One early in the morning, but hadn’t found work. He happened by Labor Finders around lunchtime and heard the job offer. Half a day’s they work, he decided, was better than none.
So Robert hopped in the van for the construction site.
At 3 o’clock, the foreman radioed once again to Labor Finders. “We’re still short!” he said “Do you have more workers?”
Alec Muir had stopped by Triune to see if he could help in the laundry room. We told him Labor Finders was still hiring. He joined the workers at 3 p.m.
At 5 o’clock, the foreman radioed once more to Labor Finders. “I know the day is almost over,” he said, “but this job is critical. We’ve been authorized for overtime. Do you have any more workers?”
Kenny Dawkins was walking by, after a day on his job in Mauldin.
Shaking his head in amazement, the Labor Finders hirer asked Kenny if he’d like to go out and work for an hour. “Sure!” Kenny said, and jumped in the van.
When 6 p.m. came, Pete Kerns and the rest of the workers who had labored for 9 hours in the hot sun were exhausted. They were glad to rest at the back of the line to get their pay. The Labor Finders hirer started with Kenny, who had been hired at 5 o’clock. He gave him $40.
Pete and Robert and Alec grew excited. If Kenny got $40 for an hour’s work, what would they get for 9 hours? Maybe $360? What a pay day!
Pete inched forward in the line. As he reached the employer, Pete eagerly held out his hand -- and received $40.
Pete looked at his gang of fellow 9-hour workers in disbelief. “This isn‘t fair!” they protested. “Not after we were out in the scorching sun all day!”
And the employer answered them, “Didn’t you agree to work for $40?”
“Well, yeah,” said Pete. “But Kenny got $40 for one hour’s work. Robert and Alec got $40 for doing much less work than we did.”
“Take your pay and go,” said the employer. “My generosity to Kenny and Robert and Alec is none of your business.”
Ouch! Is there any of us who would not share Pete’s frustration? I certainly would.
But this parable introduces us to the concept of grace -- something we humans have a very hard time accepting. The Bible teaches that God extends his grace to us regardless of merit on our part, regardless of our actions, regardless of how good or bad we seem.
Now, good and bad actions are certainly dealt with in other sections of the Bible, primarily in Paul’s letters. He often describes how our lives should look after we accept that grace. But grace itself is a tricky business. It can’t be bought or bartered or earned. It can’t be measured -- as in “He doesn’t deserve as much grace as I do.” Or “She doesn’t deserve grace as much as I do.”
It is, as the song says, amazing grace that can save a wretch like me. “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
The gift of being found is grace. The gift of sight is grace. Grace is an absolute gift from God. And if God chooses to give such a gift, our proper response is humble thanksgiving.
Not “Well, I deserved it!”
Not “But she didn’t deserve it!”
In true gift-giving, the giver has sole authority over the gift and the recipient. All we can appropriately say, is … “Thank you.”
In a moment we will read a first-century parable that Jesus told about grace. Matthew is the only gospel writer to record it, and he puts the story in a place where it shores up other teachings on the kingdom of God.
What is the kingdom of God like? Who will be a part of it?
From the disciples’ perspective, not who you might think.
The teaching section starts in chapter 19, as Jesus is traveling with the disciples and meeting crowds in Judea. People start bringing children to him, and the disciples tell them to cut it out -- Jesus is far too important to see children, for goodness’ sake.
But Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
OK, so children -- real nobodies in the ancient world -- are potential candidates for the kingdom of God.
Then Matthew immediately follows this statement with the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell all he owns, give it to the poor and follow him. He says, No, he can’t quite do that.
And Jesus then turns and explains to his puzzled disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
OK, so rich men -- the pinnacle of status in the ancient world -- are probably not candidates for the kingdom of God.
The disciples are astounded, throw up their hands, and say “Who, then, can be saved?”
And Jesus answers, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
In other words, entering the kingdom is impossible for men and women to achieve.It can only be accepted as God’s gift, God’s grace.
Well, now the disciples are really worried. After all, they’ve given up everything to follow Jesus. Quite frankly, they want some assurance that they’ve made a worthwhile decision.
Oh, yes, Jesus assures them. Anyone who has followed me will inherit eternal life. But, he adds, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
And then he introduces today’s parable. Please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 20: 1-16. Let’s look at how Jesus’ story further explains this topsy-turvy kingdom he is introducing. This parable should sound familiar.
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.
5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”
7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.”
He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”
8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.
10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
The landowner asks a worker who has toiled all day in the hot sun for one day’s wages, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
I would be envious -- and mad and jealous and furious -- if my mom sent my brother and sister to Bermuda but not me.
We see it all the time in the Mercy Center. Why did he get a pair of socks and I didn’t? Why did she get a bag of groceries?
As humans, we have a keen sense of fairness -- and an even keener sense of unfairness. We live in a meritocracy. We ascend in our jobs based on merit. We value fairness above all else.
But grace is not fair. Grace is decidedly unfair.
Grace is Jesus dying on the cross. There’s nothing fair about that.
Grace is God’s generous gift of eternal life to us, no matter how undeserving we might be. And we are all undeserving.
Matthew’s story pictures a landowner, a God, of generous, unfathomable, grace. He gives the first workers what he has promised. But then he gives the other workers more than they could possibly expect.
Jesus is saying he will give his disciples the glory in heaven he has promised them. But then he will also give grace to those who don’t look so promising -- the children. The workers who toiled only six hours, or three hours or one.
“The first will be last and the last will be first” is a notion that we see repeatedly in the gospels. The Pharisees and the scribes and the religious authorities -- those whom society deemed first but who found it impossible to follow Jesus -- would be last in the kingdom. The tax collectors, the prostitutes, the unclean -- those whom society deemed last but who often accepted Jesus wholeheartedly – might be first in the kingdom.
This church, this body of Christ that is Triune Chapel, is not here to be served but to serve. The word ministry and minister come from the Greek word, to serve. My job as minister here is service, servanthood.
We can be servants because God has given us grace. We don’t have to strive for our salvation, for our place in the kingdom. He has graciously granted it, despite all our best efforts to sabotage it with our meanness, our pride, our quarrelsomeness, our addictions.
Quite frankly, we will probably never get past the mentality of calculating what we deserve, counting up what we have done for God. And believe me, I would love nothing more than to have a threat to hold over people’s heads. Imagine how trash-free this property could become if we could actually work our way into the kingdom of God!
But that’s not what the parable of the laborers tells us.
That’s not what the doctrine of grace tells us.
They tell us, instead, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”
They tell us, instead, “Amazing grace … that saved a wretch like me.”
To which we can only answer, with humility, “Thank you.”