Monday, September 22, 2008


Matthew 20: 1-16
****** Congregational Church, Bridgeport, CT
September 21, 2008

Are you an underdog? Were you always picked last for the kickball team? Are the words ‘life is not fair’ your personal mantra? Are there behaviors in your past you’d rather no one ever knew about you? Do you consider yourself an eleventh-hour, Johnny-come-lately kind of believer, standing on the outside of the circle of faith? Then this Sunday’s gospel lesson is good news for you.

Are you a winner? Were you the one who got to pick the players for your kickball team? Are the words ‘life is what you make of it’ your personal mantra? Do you take pride in your accomplishments, perhaps indulging in a bit of boasting occasionally? Do you consider yourself a dyed-in-the-wool, womb-to-tomb, birth-to-earth kind of believer, standing somewhere inside the circle of faith? Then this Sunday’s gospel lesson is good news for you too.

Of course, these are simplifications. Most of us are somewhere in between, as in the Latin phrase, simul iustus et peccator: at once righteous and a sinner. But to the listeners of Matthew’s gospel, there was no gray area: either you were a sheep or a goat, a Jew or a Gentile, a Pharisee or a sinner, someone who got the message or someone who didn’t.

Strangely enough, Matthew, the disciple to whom this gospel is attributed, was one who lived in the gray. He was Jewish but he was a tax collector, dealing with the Romans who were Gentiles. To liken him to an IRS agent is a rather weak analogy: in essence Matthew worked for what amounts to the mafia, the Roman occupying force in Palestine, extorting from his Jewish brothers as much as he wanted as long as the Romans got their taxes.

He was also one the twelve disciples, someone who had experienced the saving grace of God as shown to him in the person of Jesus. When Jesus came to Matthew’s house for dinner, along with the disciples, other tax collectors and some additional unsavory characters, the Pharisees asked Jesus’ followers, ‘What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riff-raff?’ Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor, the healthy or the sick? Go and learn what this Scripture means, ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”(1) Matthew knew first-hand the meaning and importance of God’s saving grace.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been working up to the telling of the parable of the generous employer. In the Beatitudes Jesus blesses those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, those who are persecuted for his sake. He adjures his listeners to love their enemies and to not judge others. He cleanses a leper and heals a centurion’s servant, both considered outsiders. He turns the law on its head by declaring that it is not what goes into our mouths that defiles but the words that proceed from it. He tells the parable of the lost sheep, to leave the ninety-nine in search of the lost one. He advises his disciples to forgive, not seven times but seventy-seven times. He blesses little children, saying that the kingdom of heaven belongs to ones such as these. Over and over, using story and parable and action, he instructs his listeners to deny themselves, to take up their cross and follow him.

But now the stakes are mounting. Jesus is approaching Jerusalem and the hour when he will take up his own cross. The tension has been building throughout the gospel. Finally, in the chapter before our lesson, Peter has been listening to the exchange between Jesus and the rich young man, how he is to sell everything he has and to follow Jesus; he has seen the young man walk away from Jesus, grieving because he had too many possessions he couldn’t let go. He hears Jesus tell the disciples that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom; listens as the disciples cry out ‘Then who has any chance at all?’ Then Jesus’ reply, “Only with God are all things possible” pushes Peter to the edge.

Peter, being the perfect foil, says, “Look, we’ve left everything behind to follow you. What do we get out of it?” And on the heels of that question comes the parable of the generous employer.

This is a paraphrase from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

“God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed [on the usual daily wage] (2) and went to work.
“Later, about nine o’clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.
“He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock. At five o’clock he went back out and found still others standing around. He said, ‘Why are standing around all day doing nothing?”
“They said, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“He told them to go to work in his vineyard.
“When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, ‘Call the workers in and pay their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.’
“Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given [the usual daily wage]. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they each got the same… [They] groused angrily to the manager, ‘These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’
“He replied to the one speaking for the rest, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on [the usual daily wage], didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’
“Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first

Some scholars argue that the workers who labored all day are symbolic of Jewish Christians who came to follow Jesus through their Jewish faith. The ones hired at five o’clock are thought to represent Gentile Christians who heard the saving message of Jesus and also wished to be included under the umbrella of grace and accepted as part of the worshiping community. Some interpret the first and last workers as Pharisees and sinners. In every faith community there are insiders and outsiders, sometimes the outsiders being invisible to those on the inside. But neither insider nor outsider truly understands the gift of grace being offered in the life and the love of Jesus.

For those of us who have always been a part of the circle of faith, the good news is that our salvation does not depend on our good behavior, how hard we work, or the sacrifices we make. The good news to those of us who feel like an outsider is that salvation comes to us even though we’ve made mistakes, even though we’ve been excluded, even though we feel like we don’t deserve it. This is not a parable about the workers; as with most things, it’s not about us. This is a parable about a generous employer who keeps gathering workers until all are hired. It’s about God who saves each and every human being.

And from what do we need saving? From ourselves, from being self-absorbed by our problems, our suffering, our pride, our arrogance, and most of all, our fears. God’s desire is to remove any and all obstacles between us and the experience of love, mercy, forgiveness and grace. God wants to be close to us, as close as can be. God also desires that we be close to one another, that we not divide ourselves as insiders and outsiders, as underdogs and winners, long-time workers and Johnny-come-latelys. God desires reunion. And whether we know it or not, it’s what we want and need too.

And so in the kingdom of heaven the first shall be last and the last first. There shall be neither outsider nor insider, Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus, says the apostle Paul. Truth is, when it comes to our need of God’s saving grace, we’re all eleventh-hour Christians, prodigal sons and daughters, who need to acknowledge our dependence on one another and on the God who saves us from ourselves.

Who are considered the first and the last in this church? Who would have difficulty feeling welcome and at home in this congregation? What work, what ministry do you do to remove obstacles and barriers in the way of all experiencing God’s grace and love? How is the generosity of God lived out in your life together? How have you experienced the saving grace of God, as an individual and as a community of faith? Who among you needs to hear a word of forgiveness from your lips? Are there any old conflicts that need to be given up to God’s grace? How can you all work together to be a family of faith that reunites each and every week?

St. Jerome wrote in the 4th century that “[in] the end and consummation of the Universe all are to be restored into their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be united once more into a perfect [being], and the prayer of our Savior shall be fulfilled that all may be one.” This is also our prayer in the United Church of Christ, that no one be left out but all are welcome to experience the saving love of God. Amen.



1. Eugene Peterson, The Message, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), Matthew 9: 11-13.
2. Although Peterson uses the monetary amount of a dollar in place of a denarius, in order not to distract from the main theme, I used ‘usual daily wage’ from the NRSV.
3. ibid, Matthew 20: 1-16.

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