“A Tale About a Landowner, Day Laborers, and Wages”

 “A Tale About a Landowner, Day Laborers, and Wages”
Jonah 3:6 – 4:4;
Matthew 20:1-16
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
June 26, 2022 

Where to start this morning? 

I confess, I have close family who have actively prayed for and worked for years to have Roe overturned and they are stunned with rejoicing… and I have close family who this weekend are beyond angry and pained and protesting and grieving. 

And then somewhere in the mix of that wide range, there are many women who are immediately and directly impacted in ways we cannot nearly know given the unique complexities and circumstances surrounding every pregnancy – and I, a male, am especially quite ill-suited to truly know. 

More, I readily recognize that Friday’s ruling felt significant not only because of the significant shift in law but because almost immediately the reverberations of the ruling so struck upon other laws and nerves of this country that even though none of us nearly knows how this will all play out in the long run… 

…all of us sense this to be part of something that changes the very landscape of this country and the way we live together. 

And I imagine as we gather for worship this morning that we have folks scattered along the spectrum of my own, immediate family, folks immediately impacted by this, and all of us somehow sensing the reverberations very much coursing through the fabric of our lives. 

Where to start then? 

I am drawn to remember the prayer we pray together every week and that we will pray together a bit later. In that prayer, our diverse voices always petition that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Whatever heaven is all about, whatever your realm is all about, whatever your way is all about…land that here. On our land. On our church. On our hearts. 

And so we will start there. We will start with our shared ache for heaven on earth and what it looks like when it unfolds – and see where that intersects with our day. 

And we will do that by looking at the glimpse Jesus gives us in this parable from Matthew 20 of what this kingdom looks like on earth… 

It begins: For the kingdom of heaven is like… 

For the reality of God’s way is like on earth as it is in heaven looks like this… 

It’s like a landowner. An employer. A boss. 

He goes out early to get day laborers to work in the vineyard – and they mutually agree to the usual daily wage for such work. A wage that will support the worker and the worker’s family. 

The landowner comes back at 9am and sees others still without work. 

The NRSV translates that the people were ‘standing idle’ which invites the thought that they are lazy or not showing initiative. But, the Greek really just say they were “without work.” There is no comment one way or another as to why they are not yet working. 

“I will pay you whatever is right.” 

And so, the story is moving along without incident but it does start to get a little strange. The landowner comes back out at noon and 3 and 5 and each time finds more workers and invites them to work in his. Vineyard. 

Any landowner would have a decent sense for the amount of work needed to be accomplished on the vineyard each day. Why did he not hire the right amount of people at 6am? 

Nothing in this parable indicates that the landowner is foolish and has no basic sense about the amount of land he needs to care for. 

It’s our first indication that maybe doing the work on the vineyard and finishing the work on the vineyard is not the main point for the vineyard owner. 

Maybe this landowner keeps inviting more and more people at all hours of the day because he has another priority. And in fact, he does. He is about to press into an assumption about life that takes root in all of our hearts at a very early age. 

I remember myself at the age of seven standing alongside my brother who was five then, and we are at the end of our driveway one hot June day in Cincinnati where we grew up. 

We had just finished setting up our very first lemonade stand, and business was coming along. A quarter for a here. There. There. 

A couple of hours in my Aunt Carrie drives by in her red minivan. “Hey boys!” “Hi, Aunt Carrie!” “Looks good! But guys, I have no money on me right now.” To his eternal credit, Michael begins to reach for a cup to pour Aunt Carrie on this blistering hot day. To my eternal damnation, I think, I stop him in his tracks with, “Oh so sorry. Maybe come back later then.” 

Because…I mean. It’s not fair that everybody else has paid for this and then suddenly someone can come along and just get it for free? 

To her eternal credit, Aunt Carrie graciously drove on and holds none of this against me. 

But it’s one of my few childhood memories that I can see vividly as ever because I remember how deeply this sense of ‘fairness’ ran – and how immediately wrong everything within felt if or when the creeping idea came along that basic fairness be violated. 

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 then going to the first. 

And there, quite publicly for all to see, each is given the usual daily wage. 

The deep assumptions embedded in childhood come right to the fore: “Well if it is fair that they would get a whole day’s wages for just an hour of work… Imagine what is fair for all of us who put in way more sweat and labor!?” 

“But each of them also received the usual daily wage.” 

Surely all would have been perfectly content had they worked and been given the amount mutually agreed upon. 

But once they are able to see what others are getting, once they are able to evaluate how what those people get compared to what they get… 

How many are the ways is this so often our reality? 

Where are the places we readily point and rightly say, “That’s not fair?” 

  • she got into that school and she had that connection and she didn’t…
  • we worked harder and longer and they just arrived but they are getting more…
  • they got that windfall while they who’ve been faithful for so long lost everything
  • his scan was negative and he’s never made a healthy choice in his life and here this health-and-fitness person now facing chemo
  • That far-less credentialed person got appointed or got the job and not that far-more credential-ed person 

And we have been aware of unfairnesses for some time…. 

I came across the remarks of the Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III – actually, the final remarks he gave in 2011 after serving as the Dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C since 2005. He was reflecting on this very passage in Matthew and wrote (again, in 2011): 

“People are in despair at the dysfunction in the Congress. They are mad as hornets at the president, the banks, the Wall Street executives and anyone else they can pin blame on. This isnt the way life is supposed to work. Life is supposed to be fair. The economy and Congress are supposed to function. Why are we the ones to go through the worst economy in 8o years? Its all unfair.” 

And you know what? 

Both then and now…a lot of the time, we’re not wrong. 

When we call out unfairness, we usually have a keen sense of disparity about how things should work based on an inner compass we have had since childhood. The day laborers are not wrong. 

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.  

And how does it feel to be right about all the unfairness we see around us? All the unfairness we’ve known compared to them and him and her and…? 

We read, “(The workers) grumbled against the landowner…” 

Grumbling, it should be said, is not the same as righteous indignation. Righteous anger about wrongs and evils and injustice. 

The same word was used when the Israelites “grumbled” against Moses and God for not having food in the wilderness. 

The same word was used to describe some of Jesus’s religious opponents as they keep ‘grumbling’ about him. 

The same word that Paul writes to the church at Philippi, Do all things without grumbling…that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…” 

“Hell,” CS Lewis wrote, “Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others.” 

A strange thing when we can spend our days pointing out all that is unfair and being right and oddly finding our hearts withering under the grind of grumbling… digging ourselves into a hell that we keep saying is his fault, her fault, their fault, God’s fault. 

As I mentioned a few moments ago, grumbling is not righteous anger. But even righteous anger cannot be our lone, driving passion because, even as Scripture makes clear, any form of anger is like playing with fire. 

This means even if we say, “I’m not grumbling, this is righteous anger….” Even righteous anger must ultimately be harnessed and channeled in the service of something higher lest it devolves into hatred that singes all that it touches. 

So, what then? If not grumbling about this person or that group…if not righteous anger alone in light of the wrongs and evils we see…what else? 

Let’s listen in to our landowner once more as he replies to the grumbling workers. 

Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go.” 

“Look at what I have given you. Perfectly sufficient for you and your family’s needs. Perfectly agreeable and good. And then instead of standing around and looking at what everybody else gets…focus on what I have put in your hand and go.” 

How did Teddy Roosevelt famously riff on this idea? “Comparison is the thief of joy.” 

How does it change things to slow the comparing and start with a focus on all we have been given? 

Isn’t every last bit of it a gift? Even if we say “Well but I worked for my money.” 

Sure, but the family and education and life experience that led to getting that job – was any of that a gift? 

“Well, I studied hard in my education. I made good life choices.” 

And what of the heart and brain that we are are given? The protection they have known in this lifetime? Are not those gifts? 

“Yes, but I chose to use them wisely and protected them wisely.” 

And who animates our very being with breath and life and soul? 

No matter how much we can point to our work, our effort, our deserving…as Christians we cannot help but fundamentally go back to this singular starting point: really, it’s all a gift. 

We did not decide to be born or where we would come into this world and among whom we would come into this world and what fortunes or misfortunes might befall us…and certainly we are not saved by anything but grace. 

What happens in our day when so much vies for our hearts attention, so much weighs upon our heart, so much distracts our heart…what happens when the heart slows to simply look upon all the manna that has been given thus far? 

Without looking to our left or our right…just – what happens when we see all we have received in all our days? 

One of the most foundational theological statements in the entire Reformed Tradition comes from the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism and is stated afresh in the Presbyterian Church’s Brief Statement of Faith. 

In life and death, we belong to God.” 

It is a statement of pure grace. 

So, precious is the gift of our life that God refuses to allow separation from us. No amount of sin or failure or undeserving or anything else we can think of can separate us from the gracious truth. 

Grace is the ground of our theological tradition. 

And once we begin to see all that we have as a gift…once that becomes our most fundamental posture, we stop holding everything so tightly. 

We stop holding with this sense that its ours, we’ve earned it, if anything it’s unfair we don’t have more. 

No, once it’s all a gift…we actually start to become more and more like the landowner himself. 

The one who looks upon the day laborers who worked one hour and decides to give them the kind of wage that ensures they, too, will not have to worry if they and their family will eat that day. 

Because grace has a different calculus than fairness. 

“I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.” 

Grace prompts generosity. Grace prompts a desire for the fundamental well-being of all. 

  • Grace advocates for and cares for terrified women right now – without no ledgers about sin or fairness or sides.
  • Grace supports children in the foster care system with the same manna we give our biological children
  • Grace extends the same basic dignity to the prisoner as the special guest
  • Grace ensures the basic well-being and care of foreigners and the citizen.
  • On a scorching hot day, grace has lemonade for the basic human thirst – money or not. 

Which is to say, grace is not beholden… to the longest-tenured, 

longest membered, 

longest working, 

hardest working 

To the right side of the aisle… 

…and then we’ll get to the rest… 

Grace is beholden to ensuring manna for all. 

In fact, if grace has a way of prioritizing how it goes about its work, it is in accordance with the final verse of our passage: “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 

Whose last these days? Who then does the church invite to the front of the line and the front of our hearts? Amen. 

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert