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Narrative Lectionary Text: Matthew 20:1-16.
I have to admit something. This parable has always bugged me.
I don’t like this, because I have been working hard my whole life.
I had my first job as a sophomore in high school and have been working ever since. I worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, every summer during college. Most of my adult life I have worked at lease two jobs. I work hard to provide for my family, and I expect everyone else to work hard and keep up their end of the deal, too.
So, when I read this parable it frustrates me.
Here, you’ve got a land owner who hires a group of people and makes a square deal with them. Here’s the work, here’s the pay. Do the work, you get the wage. That makes total sense to me.
Then he goes out and hires more people in the middle of the day. Later, he goes out, one hour before quitting time and hires more people. Then, the people who only worked one hour get the same wage as the people who worked all day.
If I were the people who worked all day, I would look at that and say,
“Hey! That’s not _______. “
Then the land owner basically says, “Hey, I’m the boss, I can do whatever I want. Deal with it.”
Honestly, that doesn’t really make me respect the land owner, or even want to work for him. What about you?
This parable has often bothered me on another level.
It’s really about the Kingdom of Heaven, right? Jesus did begin the story by saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”
So, what does this tell us about God and the Kingdom of Heaven?
I’ve always been a good kid. In high school I did all the right things. I didn’t smoke, and didn’t chew, I didn’t go with girls who do. I didn’t swear, I didn’t drink, I went to church. I really tried to love God with my whole heart. I’ve worked my whole live to try to serve God.
I always felt like I was one of the workers who was hired at the beginning of the day. I’m working in the hot sun, doing everything right, while everyone else is out there sinning, having fun, doing whatever they want to do. And then, in the final hour, they get right with God, and God let’s them into the Kingdom of Heaven.
It’s like the classic question: If Hitler repented on his deathbed, would God let him into Heaven. This parable seems to say “Yes.”
I look at that, think about all my hard work, look at how that guy and all those sinners get the same reward that I do, and think.
“That’s not _________!”
That’s really our big question today. Is God fair?
If you look at this parable through the lenses that I’ve been using so far, then it seems that the only option we have to say is:
No, God isn’t fair.
You can live however you want and he will forgive you, so deal with it.
Does that seem a little off to you? It does to me.
Perhaps there is something else going on in this parable.
Look at verse 13. The landowner says to the disgruntled workers,
‘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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
That phrase “or are you envious because I am generous” is very interesting to me.
Most of the English versions translate it like this. However, the literal translation reads like this. Actually, the King James Version gets it spot on. It literally reads,
“Or is your eye evil because I am good.”
The word isn’t generous, it is the word “good.”
If we want to understand this parable we need to go back a few verses and remember that it is part of the story of the Rich Young Man.
Look back at Matthew 19:16. A rich young man came up to Jesus and said,
“What good must I do to have eternal life?”
You see, this whole teaching is an exploration about what God considers “good” and “evil.”
The man thought that by obeying all the rules he had earned the rank of “goodness” or “perfection” in God’s eyes.
Jesus challenged his perspective and said,
“I’ll show you what good is. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, then come and follow me.”
The man left sad because he wasn’t willing to do that.
Then, for the rest of chapter 19, Jesus has a conversation with his disciples about how difficult it is for wealthy people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, because they are consumed with their wealth.
He ends that section by saying,
“The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
It is in this context of talking about those who have wealth and power, and those who do not have wealth and power, that Jesus tells our parable today.
I want you to look at this picture.
I’ve been meditating on this passage this week, and it made me think of this place.
This is an aerial view of where I lived in Las Vegas. Right there is the house where we lived for 17 years. All four of our kids were born while we lived in that house. This whole area to the south was just desert when we moved there. Over the years things developed. The freeway went through. Now there is a movie theater, strips malls, a super Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Inn-n-Out Burger. Further down here are some really nice neighborhoods with huge houses.
This is a predominately white, middle to upper-middle class suburban area. It is not that much different from this area. Other than being way warmer…but I’m not going to be bitter about that.
Now, look at this corner.
I passed this corner on a daily basis. Every morning there would be a group of twenty or thirty hispanic men standing there. Most of them did not speak English. Most of them were not legal citizens of the United States.
What would be your first reaction to this site?
Many people in this area were uncomfortable with these men standing on the corner.
Who are they? What do they want? Look at them, they are lazy bums. Why don’t they go get a job?
Living in Las Vegas was an interesting experience for me.
The first six years I lived there I managed a business that leased space in the Excalibur Hotel/Casino. That means I got to eat in the employee dining room (for free) and I got to know a lot of the people who worked there. I got to hear their stories and learn what really goes on.
Here’s what I learned.
Those men standing on the street corner are men who had left their families back in their home villages in Mexico or Guatemala because there was absolutely no work for them there. Their families were starving. They came to Las Vegas and lived in tiny apartments, sometimes ten men to an apartment, to try to earn money for their families. They weren’t legal in the States, so they couldn’t work at the Hotels.
Their only option was to stand on the corner and hope that someone would hire them for the day.
If they got hired, then they would work really hard all day, take the money they made, and send it to their families back home. Then the next day they would go back to the corner and hope to get hired again.
Imagine if you were one of those men.
You have no chance of providing for your family in your home, you are not really welcome in this strange suburban environment, and you are completely at the mercy of rich, white people who will either hire you, or not.
What happens if you don’t get hired today?
You stand there all day, in the blazing sun, and make no money.
What happens if you don’t get hired the next day, or the next.
This is the context we must think of when we read Jesus’ parable of the laborers.
Look in verse 3.
Where did the landowner go to find the laborers? He went to the marketplace. The Greek word is the agora, the open place.
There were people in Jesus’ day who were just like the men standing on the corner in my neighborhood. They did not own land. They had no rights in society. The only way they could provide for their families was if they were hired for the day.
So, the land owner goes out in the morning and hires the amount of workers he needs to get his work done.
That makes sense.
That also means that some of the workers were left in the marketplace, hoping to be hired by other landowners.
He comes back in the middle of the day and hires a few more.
Then, when he returns at then end of the day and sees that there are some workers still standing there, what goes through his mind.
Does he think,
“hey, there are some lazy bums who have been partying hard all day, slacking and free loading. I think I bring them home and pay them for the day, just because I’m a good guy?”
No. Look at verse 6.
He says, “why are you standing here idle all day?”
They replied, “because no one has hired us.”
Do you remember how the conversation started between Jesus and the Rich Young Man?
The young man said, “What good must I do to enter into eternal life?”
The land owner looks at the men who have stood there all day, unhired, and unpaid, and says, “Come, I’ll take care of you today.”
Then he looks at the other workers and says,
“Is it that your eye is evil because I am good?”
The theme for Lent this year is Living Upside Down.
Jesus’ parables teach us that the Kingdom of Heaven is upside down compared to the way we tend to live our lives.
This week Jesus turns the definition of goodness upside down and makes it really practical.
God expects everyone who has the power and the resources to take care of the people who don’t.
The question today was: Is God Fair?
I would say, no. God is Good.
This week, let’s ask ourselves what steps we can take to move a little deeper into the Kingdom of Heaven and take care of a person who truly needs it.