Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sermon, Proper 20A, Matthew 20:1-16

This is no way to run a business. Some of us have been business owners and most of us have worked for companies and all of us have an idea of how to run things. And this is no way to run a business. There's a word for running a business like this landowner, and that word is Communism.

Now, at its heart, the idea behind communism isn't really all that bad. Everything is held in trust by the community, and everybody is paid the same wages across the board. It's designed to be a community of equals. It supports equal pay for equal jobs, gender equality and all of that. Remember, the Soviets were the first to put a woman into space. Communism was designed to be a community working for the common good.

But there's a major problem with communism: it doesn't work in the reality of our world. Unless there is an incentive, people tend to fall to the lowest common denominator. If a company is going to pay all people the same wage, there is no incentive to work hard or be productive. If I'm going to work twelve hours out in the field and earn as much as the slacker who only works one hour . . . why work twelve? And for those of us who do have a good work ethic, it won't take long until we resent those who don't. This is no way to run a business.

But this parable isn't about running a business. It's not even about the ideal communist society. No, this parable is about us and God. So instead of talking about the pros and cons of communism, let's talk about us and God.

In this parable, we are the laborers, that much is obvious. But which ones? And does it matter? Jesus says that the owner went to hire workers and after agreeing with them for the usual wage, sends them into the field. Those first workers answer the call and work all day. Maybe we might say they are like us and work all their life for the landowner.

But notice this: they went to work only after agreeing upon a daily wage. In some respects, they bargained with the landowner for a wage they thought was fair. Are we like these first laborers? Have we made bargains with God in order to get a reward we think is fair? Some call this "foxhole conversions." Spare my life and I'll go to church every day. Spare my child or parent or spouse or friend and I'll tithe to the church. Are we here simply because we made an agreement with God and we are upholding our end of the transaction?

And then there are those other laborers, the ones called at nine, noon, three and five. The owner calls them also, but there is no bargaining here. These men are happy to have work and trust the owner when he says, "I'll pay you whatever is right." I'm reminded of the Great Depression when men wanted the work and didn't really care what they were paid. These men are invited and welcomed by the owner to participate in his field.

And then there is the landowner -- God. He calls people to work for him and agrees to pay them fairly. Your reward will be great in heaven. He ensures that his workers have enough and have what they need.

But then he goes out and calls more people. I was discussing this story with a colleague and was asked, "Why does the owner do that? Did he misjudge the amount of work? Were the first workers not doing their job?" Well, if this were only about the landowner, that's certainly a possibility; but since this is about the kingdom of heaven and how God acts, probably not.

I think the reason that the owner calls more workers at nine, noon, three and five is because he doesn't want anybody left out. God desires that all people are brought into the kingdom. Even at the late hour of five, he goes searching for people.

"Why are you standing idle?"
"Because no one has hired us."

Another way of saying that is, "Nobody wanted us. Nobody was willing to allow us to participate. Nobody cares if we are left out." And in God's eyes, that is unacceptable. God wants everybody to come into the kingdom. God allows all who answer the call to participate. God cares about those who are left out.

Who are the five o'clock workers of today? Who are those who are marginalized, ignored and left out? How about these people: the divorced, the unwed or teenage mothers, those who have had an abortion, gays and lesbians, the mentally ill, or those we just plain don't think will fit.

And how will we all react when THOSE people start showing up in our church? I think that those other people, the latecomers and those nobody else wanted, will be exceedingly happy. You see, they will receive a full day's wages. They will experience the grace of God's generosity. They will receive more than they ever expected.

What about the rest of us? How will we who have been working for God all our lives react when THOSE people are allowed to participate fully? Well, one way is for us to respond like the all-day workers in the parable. We can become jealous and angry that THOSE people are treated as equals with us. We can look at the gift God promised us and see it as diminished or less-than full value. We can fail to see that God is just and rewards us exactly as promised.

Or . . . we can look at this as God does and see everyone as equals, everyone as worthy, and that nobody should be left out. This is the ideal -- that every person is as worthy and valuable as every other person, and that all people are equal in the eyes of God.

And that, dear friends, is not communism; it is the pure, radical generosity and grace of God.


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