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Grace Doesn’t Wear a Watch

September 19, 2011

“Grace Doesn’t Wear a Watch” Matthew 20:1-16 Ordinary 25A © 9/18/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

As the day dawns one late September morning, a landowner goes looking for laborers in the town square. He needs them to gather the grapes ready for harvest in his vineyard. He makes his selection, they agree on a wage, and off they go in the bed of his cart.

Around 9:00, the grower notices that the job is simply too large for the relatively few he’s hired. So he goes back to town and gets some more guys. Still not enough, so abundant is the harvest. Finally around 5:00 PM, just one hour before quittin’ time, the man makes one more trip to the square. He hires the would-be workers everyone else had rejected for whatever reason. In every case, with these and with those given a job throughout the day, he promises to pay what is “right.”

At 6:00, the landowner does something odd, even foolish and unnecessary. He tells his manager to pay off first those who were hired last. Both we and they fully expect their wages to be prorated; they will only get an hour’s pay. Imagine, then, their excitement and maybe dismay when they are given the wage for an entire day.

All this is done in full sight of the men who have been breaking their backs since sunrise. Why the landowner insists on doing such a thing, we don’t know. Why would he risk insulting and angering the men who have toiled so long? Anyway, we can imagine the guys hired first perking up. They expect to get paid twelve times what the last hires got. Or at least a substantial bonus. So “disappointed” doesn’t even begin to describe their feeling when they are handed the agreed-upon day’s wage, a silver coin known as a “denarius.” The grower’s argument that they got what they were promised carries no weight at all. It’s little comfort to them in the face of such patent unfairness. If the employer wants to waste his money paying people for doing almost nothing, that’s his business. Just don’t do it at the expense of those who work hard and long and skillfully.

A disturbing, difficult tale, both to hear and to preach. We wish Jesus and the gospel writers would give us something a little easier to deal with once in awhile. But they just keep rocking the boat, upsetting the apple cart, whatever metaphor we choose to describe a strong challenge to the status quo.

We wonder what this story is about. Surely not running a business. About the most we can say on that score is that it encourages compassion for those who want to work but are idle because no one will or has hired them, whatever their skill sets, intelligence or strength.

Instead, this is a parable of grace. Business and commerce operate on the merit system, at least in theory, and rightly so. As one writer puts it: “In the world we know, time plus effort equals production, and production equals pay. Those who are in the most demand, the hardest workers with the highest skills, deserve the first and greatest reward” (Craig Kocher, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2008-09/last-first).

We’re used to that way of living day in and day out. So when it comes to dealings with God or how we live in the church and world he rules, we think it ought to work the same way. People get what they deserve, reap the rewards of their long labor or get punished for their evil deeds.

But if I’m reading this story right, that’s not the way it is in God’s kingdom or, we might say, in his vineyard or economy. God is generous, simply because he wants to be and can do whatever he wants with what is his. Everybody working in the vineyard is treated the same and seen as equal by God. The believer since childhood. The martyr tortured and killed by oppressors. The thief on the cross. The deathbed convert. All are greeted and treated with generosity and welcomed into the kingdom. There are no run-down ghettos in heaven reserved for the Johnny- and Jane-come-latelies while the old-timers in the faith bask in the luxury of their mansions in the ritzy suburbs.

There’s no doubt Jesus intended this story to challenge and even anger those who thought of themselves as sunrise hires, the first in God’s vineyard. Those would have been the established religious leaders of the day, the sort who stood in public and thanked God they were not as others were. The Pharisees, legal experts, and power brokers objected to our Lord hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other assorted riff-raff that the leaders lumped in a group they called “sinners,” whom they blamed for all the ills of society. Jesus called that same bunch “the last.”

When Matthew came to this story in his files, though, he put it to another use. He still addressed it to insiders in his faith community, but this time it had to do with the relationships among the generations. The issue is still equality, the complaint of the disgruntled workers.

To get what the author is doing, we have to do all the way back to the story of the man who came to Jesus and asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Matthew is the only one of the gospel writers who tells us the man was young. And he says it twice. Must be important! The man is also rich. Just the sort of person Matthew’s struggling church was trying to attract: wealthy young people. New blood, new funds for the building program and to fix up the nursery, hire more staff, and most of all, get bragging rights and prestige among the other congregations.

But there was just one problem. The young folks did indeed start coming and giving their money and putting their kids in Sunday school and the music program and VBS. Pretty soon, though, they were wanting to be elected to the church council and share power in whatever way with the older folks, including the charter members who had actually known the apostle Matthew. Who were these people all of a sudden to be asking for equality with those who had labored hard in the early days? What dues had they paid? What deprivations had they endured? What risks had they taken for the gospel? How dare they be made equal to the faithful workers who had toiled since sunup!

Matthew uses this story to reassure his older, established members that they will get what they deserve. God doesn’t go back on his promises. The workers contracted for a day’s wage, and that’s what they got. No less; no more. Justice was done. No agreement was broken.

But the author reminds the other believers of his generation that if life with God, service to God, is nothing more than a contract or it feels like slaving away in the hot sun, they’re cutting themselves off from something surprising, joyous, and satisfying. They won’t experience the sheer exhilaration and affirmation of receiving grace, because they can’t conceive of themselves as anything other than deserving insiders. What if they knew that whatever they did or whoever they were, God would love and accept them and welcome them in? Would they then resent the generosity of God toward everyone?

The message of this parable continues to frustrate and disappoint, even as it excites and affirms. It’s still strikingly relevant in the very way Matthew used it. Don’t churches still argue over which generation is in charge and decides who gets what? The sad fact across our land is that there are congregations that want youth, college students, and young singles and families, but welcome them only on certain conditions. The respected consultant Ed White, who by the way is an older man, put the problem plainly about five years ago. In an article entitled “The Shortage of Capable Clergy: Root Causes,” he wrote: “In most mainline congregations I work with, I find that the least represented generation is the 20 to 35 age group. Older members who are in charge have difficulty understanding and/or communicating with the emerging generation. They want them to come to church, but they want them to accept things as they are and not try to change them. The younger generation has different priorities and thus concludes that there is no room for them in established congregations.

“The Christian church is always potentially one generation away from extinction and for many congregations this is a real possibility. Postmodern young adults are more concerned about relationships than ideology and they care more about authenticity than success. They don’t see much resemblance between life in our established congregations and the actual teachings of Jesus” (Congregations, Fall 2006: 52).

A Christian education professor at Union Seminary in Virginia wrote around the same time about ministry with people in their teens. Quoting a famous study, she said that three things are key to youth involvement in the church: “‘a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and opportunities to develop competence….’” She went on to observe that “we have to be willing to love youth for who they are and appreciate the gifts and callings God has given them as youth. They are not tomorrow’s church; they are an important part of the church today” (Karen-Marie Yust, “Addressing the ‘youth problem’ in Presbyterian churches,” The Presbyterian Outlook, April 24/May 1, 2006: 16-17).

But youth and young adults are not the only ones who are sometimes, even often, cast or forced into the role of those hired last to go into the vineyard. It could be anybody, of any age, who doesn’t meet certain criteria church leaders have elevated to importance. Perhaps one has to be of the correct social or economic class. Maybe he or she must believe a list of doctrines or make his or her life conform to a moral checklist devised and imposed by others. I even knew of a church once that expected potential new members to provide three references who would recommend them for membership, as if the church were an exclusive social or civic club. And here’s the most outrageous thing I’ve seen lately: a church in Canada decided to close its food bank because it was attracting poor people (http://shayner.tumblr.com/post/9612870804/is-it-any-wonder-that-the-culture-finds-the-church)!

To those in every age, first century or twenty-first, who consider themselves insiders, sunup hires, the gospel asks the same question: why are you so jealous of God’s generosity? Is it because you won’t let God be generous to you, that you really don’t believe God is good? When you believe everything you have is due to your own effort and God owes you, your heart will be closed both to God and to neighbors. You won’t allow God to be kind to anybody else. And you won’t be generous yourself. But if you see yourself as always in need of God’s help, and you accept it with a glad heart, you can and will be open and welcoming to others, whoever they are.

Then to those who know how glad the eleventh hour workers must have been, the gospel offers truly good news. To all who feel worthless, devalued, left out. To all who feel like they’re still in recess, waiting to be chosen for a team, and never asked. To those who feel that God could never love them, because of what they’ve done and what they’ve become. To those who have just now come to faith, earlier or later in life. To and for all these and more, our Lord offers and celebrates the generosity and goodness of God.

Indeed, for anyone who hears this parable, insider, outsider, younger, older, the message is ultimately the same: it’s never too late. It’s never too late to change. Never too late to love. Never too late to start over. Because grace doesn’t wear a watch. And she doesn’t own a calendar. It’s not, and it’s never, too late to receive the love and acceptance of a generous and giving God who wants to welcome all into his vineyard. There’s always room in God’s heart for one more. Like you. Or me.

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