Year A; Proper 20; 9.20.2020

Matthew 20:1-16


Last week, I attended a two-day course given electronically by the Racial Equity Institute. Thank you, James Ford for nominating me for this vigorous learning opportunity that instructed me in the power differential of race in our country. I studied data that is publicly available showing how laws and policies and systems in our country still exist to keep most of the power and money in the hands of white people.

I participated with Maine leaders:  CEOs of banks, and major corporations, engineering firms, executive directors of non-profits, educators, clergy, and leaders in public health. We were given exercises to analyze legal cases, policies and laws that demonstrated things like gaps in healthcare, access to loans and housing, and income. I learned that there is a calculator available to actually assess the racial wealth gap based on wages.

I was familiar with the wage gap of women over the years. May her memory be a blessing as we mourn her death, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg worked to remedy that. But the wage gap for women has been closing while the wage gap of African Americans has not.

I’m sensitive to unfair pay practices. It sets families back, making the hope of climbing out of poverty difficult. I remember the president of Interfaith Council for the Homeless who was a member of my parish in New Jersey say repeatedly, “Do you have any idea how many people are one paycheck away from homelessness?”

So, I’m super sensitive every time the parable of the laborers in the vineyard turns up in the Sunday readings. The first workers are hired for labor in the owner’s vineyard. I imagine that it’s strenuous and hot work. They agree to a denarius for the labor. Scholars believe that this silver coin was typically paid to agricultural workers for a day’s work. Naturally, the hearers of this parable including us would assume that they got more done and produced more results having worked a full day compared to other workers brought in later in the day and at day’s end.

I remember at the corner near Grace Church in Plainfield, young Central American men would stand at an unofficial spot where, early in the morning a van would show up and someone would select a few for a day’s work at a lawn maintenance company or work on masonry or carpentry. They couldn’t depend on regular work because it was by the day as needed. They would work when they could, very often on Sundays, so we offered Eucharist in Spanish on Saturday evenings.

I’m not saying that this parable Jesus told was wrong and demonstrated an unjust householder. But for our modern ears, right now in the United States, as our nation begins to become aware of just how damaging slave-holding was, dangerous child labor practices and low-wage women’s jobs have been, setting before our faithful and generous congregation these realities is important before I explore Jesus’ goal of telling the parable to his followers.

To this body of Christ, St. Paul’s, the parable serves two purposes. One is to call us to seek justice for unfair wage practices.

The other purpose is to call us to believe the true nature of God. God’s endless mercy. God’s abundant grace and favor and love that God gives us freely and completely without having earned them. God is the householder. God’s gifts are never “behind door number 3” like on the TV bargaining program, “Let’s Make a Deal.”

“Monty, I’ll give up the deluxe gas grill for what’s behind Door Number 3.”

No! No matter who you are, no matter how late you come to faith, the Kingdom of God is like receiving every bit of what God has to offer no matter how late; no matter how we’ve strayed in the meantime. It’s not to be bargained for. God doesn’t want “the gas grill!”

Jesus was hoping to help his followers mature in their faith as he was making his path to Jerusalem and his end. They were still a bit “green” and needed to fully understand the nature of God.

The set up for this parable is in chapter 19. There are two stories that help us understand wealth and the paradoxical nature of God’s Kingdom. The rich young man asks Jesus what he can do to enter the Kingdom of God, to earn it. “I’ve followed all the righteous laws to the letter,” he says. Jesus gave him the answer. “Let go of your wealth and give it to the poor. It’s holding you back. Give it away and follow me.” That was too much and the man turned around and went away.

Jesus then turns to his disciples and says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” They didn’t like that Jesus said this because they thought he might be judging them. They took on a self-righteous attitude spoken out loud by Peter’s complaint, “Look here, Jesus, look at us, your closest followers. We have given up everything to follow you. We were following you from the very beginning. Aren’t we on the inside? What will happen with us?”

That’s the question on their mind as he tells the story of the landowner and the laborers. “We’ve been with you from the beginning. We earned God’s favor from the start. Don’t we receive the greater reward of riches in the kingdom than these who have just begun to follow you?”

Bishop and bible scholar N. T. Wright teaches that God’s grace is something impossible to bargain for. It is nothing that can be stored up. He writes, “The point of the parable is that what people get from having served God and his kingdom is not, actually, a ‘wage’ at all. It’s not…a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we [or his closest followers] could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. [God] makes covenants, [righteous promises in relationship] in which God promises us everything and asks of US everything in return. When God keeps these promises, God is not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally to God’s overflowing generous nature.”

I’ve shared with you how I railed against God after John died suddenly of pancreatic cancer. I screamed, “You called me to ordination and I obeyed. My marriage was a covenant that we worked hard on. We were obedient in every way to a holy life and following you. And then John died too early. God! I thought we had a deal!”

I blamed God for reneging on an imagined deal. If I’m good and do what you called me to, I’ll not come into hardship. Really? I blamed God when in truth, my life and my faith have been nothing but filled with God’s absolute love, grace, mercy and utter delight. Why would I not want that for any one, no matter how late she comes to faith?!

More than once last week, I heard it being said that struggles and even danger will increase as the election in this country draws closer. I think there are already signs of that. In just a few hours after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death, the hysteria and fight to fill her seat began. We are far from under control from the spread of the corona virus and incidents of racial aggression are on the recent rise even in Brunswick. Though we can be absolutely assured of God’s never-ending grace and love, no matter who we are or how late we come to faith, we aren’t called to accept it passively and idly.

God does ask everything of us as our response. “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord to Thee.”

We are called to reveal the free grace and love of God in our daily lives and actions.

What will that look like in the days to come?