“Not the Way it is Done” 03/24/2019 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

March 24, 2019

Matthew 20: 1-16

            For the last couple of weeks we have been listening to Jesus, as he tells us what the kingdom of Heaven looks like.  Sometimes it is hard to imagine what can be when we are so locked into what is.  And for that reason, Jesus has been using parables to help into a new way of seeing.    

            Two weeks ago, the parable focused on forgiveness.

            Last week, its focus was hospitality. 

            And today the parable takes us into the generosity of God’s economy.

But before we dig in, let us pray.  

Holy God, seeker of the lost and healer of the broken hearted, enter into the words that I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts so that we may enter more fully into your presence.  For you are our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

            The teachings of Jesus may be about many things, but one of the main things they are about, I believe, is the central question, whose kingdom do we want to be a part of?  The language of kingdom is of course antiquated.  Paradigm, not kingdom, may make more sense to our ears.  What paradigm do we want to live within?

            Will we remain locked within the prevailing paradigm of our time or will we be delivered by God’s grace into the paradigm of the Kingdom of God.    Let’s spend a moment looking at these two ways of being as we engage the good news for us today.

            The dominant paradigm in Jesus’ day is one that has continued to prevail throughout the centuries and that continues to define reality today.  It is a paradigm that is a self – reinforcing, a closed loop  – that asserts that what is  — is all that there will be.  It is invested in the status quo and the perpetuation of what is.  Nothing is really going to change, is its message.  And so the best thing to do is to try to find a way to fit in.  The best we can do is to try to find a place to fit in within this dominant paradigm and live the best we can.     

            Operating within this paradigm is the currency of scarcity and competition.  The narrative is that there is a limited amount of resources and opportunity, and because of that one has to work as hard as one can to get one’s share.  But more than that, one also has to be on guard and watchful of those around us to be sure that they are not cheating the system and getting ahead in some unfair way.


            This past Friday, I found myself addressing an auditorium of high school students as part of Newton North’s “Be Kind Day 2019”.  I spoke  with them (way too early in the morning may I add, these poor kids have to get up so early) about this prevailing paradigm of scarcity and its counterpart of competition.  As I did, I could see many of the students nodding their heads.  This is, after all, a pressure cooker time when Juniors are taking their entrance exams and when Seniors are receiving replies from colleges. 

            It is a vulnerable time for our young people who are trying to make their way in the world.  For the dominant message is not one of invitation, welcoming the young person and valuing what it is they have to contribute where ever it is they seek to give their gifts.  But is the dominant cultural message is instead one of judgment and evaluation – where others are making decisions about whether the young person is good enough and has what it takes to fit in.  But not just young people right?  We all know what that feels like.  We know what it feels like to try to find a place in the world.  To get that job, or that grant, or to be accepted by a new community.  I have to admit, I was so nervous when I stood on that auditorium stage on Friday, because I so very much wanted to fit into the culture of their school but was so unsure if what I had to say would be anything the young people would be interested in.  I was unsure if I would be accepted.

            This feeling of wanting to find a way to fit in and the judgment that goes along with that, can leave us feeling fragile and vulnerable within this paradigm.  Those making the decisions, those in  power can seem capricious leaving us feeling like things could fall apart or be taken from us at any moment.  Threat and fear are free floating toxins in the air that is breathed within this paradigm. 


            This is the paradigm that the workers in the parable for this morning find themselves in.  The workers in the parable this morning got up early like they always did.  They got up in the darkness before dawn with the hope that maybe today they would find work and find a way to provide for their families.  They got up this morning hoping they would be found worthy enough, that they would be chosen. 

            As Katherine mentioned in the introduction to the scripture, those listening to this parable would have also been nodding their heads in knowing, as Jesus tells them about the landowner who went out and hired laborers for his vineyard.  Jesus tells this parable to ones who very much know the urgency of securing work, of finding their place in the world.

             According to one commentary I read, poverty levels in the Galilean region in the first century were staggering.  At that time, there was no such thing as a middle class.  Instead the upper 10% of the population was made up of the ruling elite with some merchants, traders, artisans and military veterans mixed in while the remaining 90% of the population was barely getting by, and 30% of the population living in extreme poverty.  This bottom 30% of the population would have been made up of farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disabled people, prisoners, and the unskilled day laborers that we meet in the parable for this morning.[1]

            Least we think that the insecurity that comes along with having to seek day labor was only a first century problem, let me assure you such conditions are very much with us still today.  According to a study researches at UCLA, “Day labor is a nationwide phenomenon in the United States. On any given day, approximately 120,000 workers are either looking for day-labor jobs or working as day laborers.[2]” 

            And according to that same study these day laborers often experience violations of basic labor standards.  “Wage theft is the most typical abuse experienced by day laborers.”  In this paradigm of scarcity, I learned that, “Nearly half of all day laborers have been completely denied payment by an employer for work they completed in the two months prior when they were surveyed for the UCLA study.  Similarly, 48 percent have been underpaid by employers during the same time period.  Wage theft is just one type of employer abuse but the report goes on to say that day laborers were also denied food, water and breaks; that they often ended up working more hours than agreed to with the employer; or were threatened or even abandoned at the worksite by an employer. (p. 15)”


            It is to this dire reality that Jesus speaks. It is to those of us who are wondering if there is a place for us in this world that Jesus opens a new paradigm of living.  A paradigm that he calls the Kingdom of God.      

            The Kingdom of God is not a closed system of scarcity.  Instead, there is an expansiveness.  There is possibility and potential.  Life need not play out the way it has always been.  There is more that can be.  We see this in the surprising and unpredictable role of the landowner in the parable. 

            This landowner’s behavior would have scandalized those that were hearing Jesus words.  First of all, a landowner should not be the one riding into town at the crack of dawn looking for those in the labor pool.  The landowner is above that.  That is the job of the manager.  But this landowner cannot seem to help herself.  Not just once but over and over again she gets on her horse and heads into the market place.  And that points to the second scandalous thing about this landowner, she does not seem to know how many workers she needs.  She just keeps hiring them all.  Seem like there is room in the vineyard for all who are in need of it.   

            And finally this scandalous landowner does not seem to know how to manage her money.  She is paying out a living wage for those who worked an hour and for those who worked all day.  Seems like she is interested in is that everyone has enough that in whatever may be standard practice of remuneration.   

            This kingdom of God of which Jesus speaks is marked by abundance and generosity — not scarcity; invitation  and welcome — not competition. Hope and trust come to replace the toxins of fear and threat.  It is not just that those that come last are given what they need in God’s economy but that we all may come to see each other in a new light.  This is the promise that is held out in the landowner’s final question.  Will envy or generosity be the currency between us?


            Ched Meyers is an activist theologian that has done a lot of writing about what he calls Sabbath Economics.  And this is the idea that in the economy of God there is enough for everyone.  He asserts that in God’s vision for creation is an inherent understanding of the equitable distribution of resources so that all will have what they need to thrive.    As such God’s people are instructed to dismantle, on a regular basis, the fundamental patterns and structures of stratified wealth and power” Two of the core principles of Myer’s socioeconomic vision are: the focus on voluntary redistribution of wealth; and A foundation of abundance as opposed to scarcity.[3]

            I see much of the wondering and questions of our own time in the tension and promise of the parable we are considering today.  What would it be like to really live in such a world?                      

            I wonder whether the conversation about reparations for our African American and Native American brothers and sisters will find traction in our nation in this coming year.  Could that shift something in the way we see the value of each other?  What would be the impact of such a move?  I wonder.

            This afternoon, our youth are heading into Boston Common with groceries bags of good food to provide lunch and to share in worship with those who know the reality of scarcity that are parable speaks to today.  Can you imagine a world where hunger is no more and where everyone has a safe place to live here within our own community? 

            It may be hard for us imagine such a world, but this is the work that Jesus is asking us to do.  We pray each week these words, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What little bit can we do this week to advance the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?  What possibility can we create in our daily routine?   What action can we take to help usher in God’s kingdom, where all have what they need for a full thriving of life?  What abundance and generosity is waiting to emerge as a new paradigm takes root and what can this new paradigm reveal about our need for liberation?

            I feel a particular urgency about all of this after having stood in that auditorium face to face with those kids. Those kids, our kids are growing up in the midst of all of this.  May we do all we can to do our part to participate in the opening of a way, God’s way for them and for us all.  Amen.

[1] Poverty in the first-century Galilee, Sakari Häkkinen, Department of New Testament Studies, Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222016000400046

[2]  ON THE CORNER: Day Labor in the United States, Abel Valenzuela Jr. UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, Nik Theodore University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development, Edwin Meléndez New School University Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy, Ana Luz Gonzalez UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. January 2006.  http://portlandvoz.org/wp-content/uploads/images/2009/04/national-study.pdf

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbath_economics