Jeremiah 31:31 – 34 and Matthew 20:1-16
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
Let us step into the New Testament Scripture for this morning. There they are — up before the sun. Quietly they slip from their houses and make their way through the still sleeping streets to the market place. This is what they do every morning; these who are seeking work; seeking a wage. Without land of their own or a trade, this is what they do to earn a wage and support their families.
It does not take long before the market place starts to fill and each takes up his place of waiting. Without ever having it spoken, all seem to understand where it is they are to stand. Some move up to the front. Others hang back a bit. And others still remain in the shadows, where the dawning light has not yet reached and where the chill of the night still hangs heavy.
Those up front have an easy confidence about them for they know they are most valued works and that they will be the first to be hired.
The next group hangs back a bit. They are not quite as confident as the first group, but still they know they can put in a days’ labor if given a chance.
The others? Can you see the other that are waiting there in the shadows? They come, day after day though rarely are they hired. No one seems to see what it is they can offer, the labor they too can contribute. Rarely are they hired but they do not give up. Day after day they too come to the square and wait.
Such is the scene as our New Testament passage beings. They are all waiting there in the predawn night.
Then the sound of the clip clopping of horses’ hooves is heard. Someone is approaching. The first square their shoulders. The next straighten up. The rest dare to hope.
The scene plays out as expected. The ones deemed most valuable step forward and sure enough the owner jumps down off his horse. A day’s wage is agreed upon and then these then go with the landowner out into the vineyard to work.
The others remain and wait.
It is a few hours later now. The sun has climbed higher in the sky when again the clip clopping of horses hooves again are heard. Those that are waiting, stand up and step eagerly forward. It is the owner again. He has returned and needs more laborers. What good and unexpected news. Those who are not so desirable, but still have it in them step forward and agreeing on the days’ wage, they follow the landowner out of the square to the vineyard.
But before they go, I imagine that the landowner pauses for a moment. He pauses for a moment because now he can see more clearly those who remain. He may not have seen them earlier, there behind the rest, in the shadows. He pauses for a moment, and sees them and then mounting his horse he leads this second batch of laborers to the vineyard.
Those that are left–wait.
Now the text does not tell us why it is that the landowner does what he does next. It does not tell us why in the heat of the noon day sun he mounts his horse again and heads back to the marketplace to the town square. Maybe, he does need more laborers. Maybe the work was more than he anticipated that it would be.
Maybe, though I kind of doubt it. By late morning his work crews would have been well underway and clearly as a businessman, he would have known how to calculate the workforce that was needed. So why return for a third time and then a fourth and then a fifth? Why return at noon and again at three and then at 5:00?
The text gives us a hint, I think, when it tells us that upon returning to the marketplace again he asks those there ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ I imagine that those waiting there in the square must have thought this landowner to be a bit dim witted for isn’t the answer to his question obvious? They are standing there, they say ‘Because no one has hired us.’
But I wonder if what the landowner was really asking was “How can it be that you are still there? How can it be that you have not given up? What hope enables you not to have left long ago? What strength of spirit helps you to persist on being here, when all the signs say you do not count as much as those who have already been hired? How can this be?”
For those that remain clearly have not given up. They have not gone away. They have not disappeared down an alleyway. They have not slipped away in shame for not having secured a wage that their families need in order to survive. They may not yet have been hired, but they remain. They remain in the marketplace and wait. They stand. These are ones with their back up again the wall but they were not moved from where they stand. They will stand all day in that square. All day in that hot sun. All day enduring the glances of those who passed by, whose look and sometimes even word communicates to them that they are less than. That they do not count. That they should just disappear and go away and stop making an embarrassment of themselves. They stand and will stand all day in that market place if need be.
This week, I heard something that made my blood run cold. Someone recounted to me what she had been told by a friend of hers. This friend and her teenaged daughter, who had autism, were having lunch in a restaurant here in the Newton area. Over lunch, the mother noticed that someone in the restaurant kept glancing their way. Then, after finishing the meal and paying, this diner who had been watching them walked by the table of the mother and the daughter and said to the daughter as he passed, “There is no room for you here anymore!”
It is because of comments like this that I believe the landowner returned at noon and then again at 3 and again at 5. I think the landowner realized that he too wanted to stand with those who others were ready to cast away. I think the landowner remembered who he was and whose he was. I think that in seeing the strength of those who continued to stand in the marketplace even when others thought them of little value, summoned strength in the landowner as well and he remembered covenant of God that was written on his heart.
And so the good news of God coming alive in him he returns again and again to hire them all. To take a stand and affirm to the other landowners that these too are worthy! He takes a stand and says I see that “you matter, you are needed, all are worthy, all have something to give. You and you and you. All of us!”
And if that is not evidence enough of the upside down kingdom of God, look at what happens next. When it comes time to give all the workers their pay, the landowner says to the manager, give them their wage beginning with the last and then moving on to the first. And so suddenly there is this resorting, the first who were hired, who are used to being up front, suddenly find themselves shuffled to the back of the pack, and those who had been told to go to the back their entire lives are now first and up front.
And if that is not enough, there is more! For when the manager starts to hand out the wages it turns out they are not to be prorated to time worked! The workers of the first shift put up a protest! To them, it does not matter that they have received the days wage that was agreed upon. What now matters to them is that they do not like that are being treated the same as other. That does not feel right. They are used to being treated better, to being seen as more of value, the privileged ones. Getting what everyone else gets even when that was what was agreed upon in the first place, suddenly feels not right! Suddenly it is not about the money but about the status. How can those others be “worth” as much as they? Paying others the same as what they received somehow feels as if they are being diminished as if the hierarchy of worth has been dismantled, and that they cannot stand.
But that is exactly what the owner sees and seems to be saying. He says to the first laborers who are bristling with the payment scheme ‘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; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
I cannot help but think that is may very well be the parable of that illuminates most profoundly our time. We are in a time of revelation where they machinations of sorting worth are being revealed. Where those unspoken rules of the market place of who gets to stand where and what worth is assigned to them are being made crystal clear. And I believe all of us need to spend time deciding where it is we stand and with whom.
Now, as a final note, let us remember that this is a parable that Jesus told to his disciples as they were making their way to Jerusalem. Let us remember that Jesus, would have been one of those who would have been in the shadows, in the back, unnoticed. Jesus was born into poverty. His parents had to take him and flee as refugees to Egypt because their lives were in danger. Later he was able to return but grew up in Galilee, a back water place, as a carpenters son, a nobody. Jesus I believe tells this parable because he knows first-hand the generosity of God’s love. For God’s love called him out of the labor pool, asked him to toil in the vineyard so that all of us may come to know the generosity of this same love. That all of us may come to know God who loves us not because we are strong or capable or wise or worthy but, because we are God’s.
So, on this day when we celebrate our gratitude for the one who has loved us from the beginning and will love us always, let us to take a stand against those who may want to deem other as unworthy. Let us put our words and our prayers and our bodies if need be, between those who want to sort and separate some as being dispensable, unworthy, excess and those who are at risk of being so and those who may be waiting in the shadow still? Let us stand with Jesus and the landowner and see the worth and merit of all people!
This is our Gospel witness. We are all children of God. This is what Jesus bids us see and what we are to proclaim in our living. Thanks be to God. Amen