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"Laborers in the Vineyard" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

March 5, 2023

Matthew 20: 1-16

A parable is a simple story told to illustrate a more complex lesson or idea. They’re stories that make you think, that cause you to question, and the Gospel writers often left them open-ended to encourage engagement for their readers. Parables are a genre “designed to surprise, challenge, shake up…or [open] to multiple interpretations” therefore “each reader will hear a distinct message and may find that the same parable leaves multiple impressions over time. Different audiences inevitably hear different messages…”[1] As New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says in her book, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,

“...what makes parables mysterious or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refused to acknowledge.”[2]

Parables are one of Jesus’ favorite ways to teach and he was a master storyteller. Over the course of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – Jesus tells 55 parables, which is about one-third of his entire teaching repertoire. So it makes sense that these open-ended stories are inescapable within Christian liturgy, Christian artwork, hymnody, and Christian education. These are stories we tell these our children to help them learn what it means to be people of faith. Even Hollywood and Broadway have figured out that there’s something special and engaging about these ancient lessons with the wackiest and most wonderful example being the 1971 musical, later movie, Godspell, which is based on Jesus’ parables in Matthew.

But we must be mindful as we hear Jesus' parable of the laborers in the vineyard not to immediately assume that we know what this story means because we’ve heard it before. As Amy Jill Levine points out, “starting with the Gospel writers themselves, the parables have been allegorized, moralized, christologized, and otherwise tamed into easy platitudes… [and] too often we settle for easy interpretations.” But if we approach Jesus’ parables like his followers did – good Jews themselves who understood this teaching tool – we’re “better off thinking less about what they ‘mean’ and more about what they can ‘do’: remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb…”[3]

So what does this parable “do” for you? For us as a congregation? For the world outside our doors?

Perhaps, as the Working Preacher Podcast discusses, this parable is a reminder of the human tendency to be envious which the landowner addresses in his response to the grumbling workers, “Friends, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.” The literal translation of the Greek at the end of verse fifteen, “…Or do you begrudge me my generosity?” is “or is your eye evil because I am good?” This is a metaphor about looking enviously at what other people have, so perhaps this is a story about what Rolf Jacobsen calls the “twin sins of entitlement and resentment” an “insidious combo” to which the “only antidotes are generosity and gratitude.”[4]

It’s possible that this story is included in Matthew’s gospel so that we remember that all stories depend on whose eyes you read them through. It’s that Atticus Finch line about walking around in another person’s shoes or my often-repeated phrase; context matters. Though we might be tempted to think that the last group of workers, those hired at the eleventh hour as lazy, the kind of folks who run late or who don’t take work seriously, the text gives no indication of this. When the landowner asks these workers why they’ve been standing idle all day their answer is straightforward; “Because no one has hired us.” Perhaps what Jesus purposes in this parable is to show us the value of asking before making assumptions.

Maybe this parable reminds us that God’s grace isn’t fair by human standards - to which we say “thank God!” Just as the landowner went out in the early morning, at the sixth hour, the ninth hour, and the eleventh hour to hire laborers, God reaches out again and again and again to us. What we would consider a reasonable timetable – hiring a group of laborers so close to the end of the day doesn’t make much sense to me – is not what God considers a reasonable timetable. And at the point that our generosity and willingness to care for others ends, God’s extends on with a vastness we cannot comprehend. Where we have limitations, God offers life everlasting. When we struggle to work together or find a way forward, God reminds us that Jesus came for all people. In moments of darkness that feel overwhelmingly bleak or times of grief that threaten to overwhelm us, we hear the voice of the angel saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen!”

And perhaps, when we strip away everything else this parable is, as Amy-Jill Levine concludes, about something as simple and mundane as economics. After all, “such a focus would be consistent with Jesus’ teaching, and it would fit neatly within a first-century context.”[5] Despite many commentators insisting this Jesus story is “’ not a lesson in corporate economics’ or…a ‘model of good management-labor practices’ [it] may well be both. Maybe the concern is to work within the localized system and provide, if resources allow, funds so that everyone has enough food.”[6]

There are several other passages in the Bible that talk about providing for all, even from King David’s own mouth in 1 Samuel 30: 21-25 in which he says, “The share of the one who goes down into the battle shall be the same as the share of the one who stays by the baggage; they shall share alike.”[7]

In this interpretation, Levine says the owner of the vineyard “is the role model for the rich; they should continue to call others to the field and righteously fulfill a contract whose conditions are from the beginning to pay ‘what is right’ - and what is right is a living wage.”[8] Rather than helping those closest to hand or most convenient, “those who have should seek out those who need. If the householder can afford it, he should continue to put others on the payroll, pay them a living wage…and so allow them to feed their families while keeping their dignity intact.” This way of looking at the parable is practical, perhaps a little edgy, and defines the difference between charity and justice.

My hope is that one of these interpretations “does” something for you even if that something is disagreement. The Good News this morning is that our faith doesn’t just allow for questions and interpretation, it encourages it. Jesus’ parables come from a tradition that recognizes the importance of questions and the role of lifelong conversation with God. Jesus passed this tradition along to his followers through his special kin-dom of God lens and we are the inheritors of that tradition.

So in this Lenten season, I encourage you to ask tough questions of yourself. Where have you fallen short? How have you been less than the person God calls you to be? What do you need to repent of? Where do you struggle in your faith? These are the questions we’re called to ask ourselves during Lent, that we’re called to wrestle with during Lent.

It’s not fun work to do, in fact, it can be downright painful, or at least uncomfortable to face yourself and God honestly. But this is the work of having a relationship with a God who is unafraid of our questions. A God who calls us to think about envy, context, grace, and economics all within the same story. A God who loves those of us who’ve been here the longest just as much as those who’ve just joined in the work. Thanks be to God.

[1] Amy-Jill Levine, “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi” pgs. 2-4.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Ibid, 4.

[4] Rolf Jacobson, Craig Koester, and Kathryn Schifferdecker, “NL Podcast 354: Laborers in the Vineyard,” March 9, 2019.

[5] Levine, 232.

[6] Ibid, 234.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 235.

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