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God of the First and the Last ~ Matthew 20:1-16

Some scholars believe that the parable of the vineyard workers is so straightforward that it wraps the whole gospel into one story. Some say it is the pinnacle of the theological message of Jesus: the extraordinary grace of God revealing God’s generous gift to all people.

Many preachers use this text to support death bed conversions advocating the belief that even if one shows up late in the day, and accepts Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they will earn eternal life.

Other scholars have used this parable to argue for a social witness standard against the unjust treatment of laborers and peasant workers.

Most scholars admit it is one of the most difficult parables. It raises all sorts of questions and its message is foggy at best.

Some of you took the summer Parables bible study that we finished last month. You know then that our extremely gifted teacher, Tom Zych, led the discussion on this story. So, I’ll give it my best shot.

Parables were not intended to be straightforward stories that Jesus told to be easily interpreted. Parables left their listeners scratching their heads thinking for one moment that they got it, then having their understanding turned upside down. A parable does not give up its intention easily. A reader of a parable has to labor like a vineyard worker. There’s an element of suffering in trying to draw out a deeper meaning.

In this parable, the landowner goes to the marketplace early in the day to obtain his workers for that day agreeing on the usual daily wage which was a denarius–enough for about one day’s survival. The landowner was not over-generous in his pay.

The landowner goes back to the town square at nine, back at noon, back at three, and again at five. (You sort of wonder why this landowner spends his whole day getting the workers himself.) The workers at 5pm are idle, it says; clearly they did not observe the other men who were getting jobs every three hours. When the owner asks them why they are still idle their excuse is: “Because no one has hired us.” So he sends them into his vineyard too.

This reminds me of a modern day parable: a mother comes home from work and, let’s say, a certain child is playing video games while the dishwasher with clean dishes had been left open as a gargantuan hint for some person to unload it. And when the mother asks why the dishwasher was not unloaded, the child responds innocently, “Because no one asked me to do it.” Oh – it was the invitation that was needed!

The end of the day whistle blows and all the workers gather to receive their wages. The manager was told to pay starting with the latest arrivals. That was not the way remuneration was usually done, but the first workers get to see what the latecomers are being paid and they think, “Cool. We’ll get more than that for sure.”

But, nope, they get exactly what they deserve.

They whine and complain to him that they did not get equal pay for equal work, that his was not a conventional practice.

But the landowner retorts,
Did I do you wrong?
Did you not get what we agreed upon?
Did I cheat you out of something? Take what’s yours and go.
I choose to give to this last group the same as I give to you.

And here’s the punch line: the owner says: “Are you envious because I am generous?” In Greek it actually reads: “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” They are indeed envious of his goodness.

This parable is situated right in the middle of a larger portion of material where Jesus is conversing with his disciples. Jesus is not speaking to the religious leaders here, those outside of his circle. He is speaking to his followers.

No matter how many times Jesus says it, the disciples just cannot seem to get it in their heads: God is good. There’s enough goodness to go around, therefore there is no room for anxiety or competition to get more than the next guy.

Jesus is teaching his disciples to take care in regards to jealousy and its sister emotion, envy. These emotions pose a threat to one’s own health, and to the health of a community.

Throughout history jealousy and envy have been used interchangeably and their descriptions are legion – indicating how complicated it is to define these two emotions utilizing language.

But you know them when you feel them. Jealousy and envy can boil up and foment and churn us inside. They are physical emotions, raw.

For our purpose: “jealousy”, I suggest, comes from a place of fear when we feel the threat of losing something or someone we hold precious.

And, “envy” comes from a place of longing and desire when we wish we had what someone else has.

William Shakespeare called jealousy “the green eyed monster.” The monster that threatens to eat one alive.

Frederick Buechner said, “Envy is the consuming desire to have everybody else as unsuccessful as you are.”

Jealousy and envy threaten to weaken a relationship. They work their way into the heart and soul of a relationship and can build a wedge between siblings, loved ones, friends, and colleagues.

But we are reluctant to admit to jealousy to ourselves, to others, because it’s a feeling that does not like the world to see it. We pretend we don’t feel them because jealousy and envy might be the most painful feelings we humans experience. We are embarrassed or ashamed. They are so deep in us, they make us ache.

Sometimes we secretly nurse our jealousy and envy and then we become obsessed with the person who is the object. And the sad thing is that most often the other person knows nothing about how we feel.

When we are envious of another person or what they have, it’s usually that we have created an image of that person that is blown way out of proportion. We’ve created them into a god-a god that makes us feel bad about ourselves. But in order to feel better about ourselves, we try to bring them down a notch. We raise an eyebrow. We roll our eyes. We gossip about them. We dismiss them. We give them the evil eye. We question their intelligence. We say subtle things that plant seeds of negativity and at its most dangerous. Unchecked, envy drives us to hurt another person by damaging their reputation.

Left unguarded, jealousy and envy are destructive emotions that foster destructive behavior. No wonder they are considered Deadly Sins.

We live in a culture of competition. We all know that. Jesus however says that his disciples must live counter culturally – in mutuality –  weeping together, when one weeps; and rejoicing together, when one rejoices.

It’s certainly easier to weep with another person, isn’t it? It can be excruciating to rejoice with someone else in their accomplishment. We ask, “Why them and not me?” Hearing about another’s good fortune can fan the small flame of insecurity and inadequacy within us.

Why is it that someone’s goodness, like the landowner’s, is often the occasion for our anger or resentment? Interesting.

Soren Kierkegaard called it the ‘sin of comparison‘ (Purity of Heart, pg. 208).

Comparing ourselves to others or calculating how we have been cheated is a lose-lose game. There will always be someone better off: prettier, more handsome, richer, smarter, funnier, more athletic, more creative, a better singer, musician, a better parent, kinder, have a better marriage, have kids who don’t get into trouble, better clothes, more shoes, have better landscaping (in our case), and so on, and so on.

As a religious professional, it’s hard not to feel envious of large churches in a culture that values numbers as a measure of growth. (Plus it seems like every mega-church started out with “12 people in the pastor’s living room but grew to 5,000 in three years!” What? Really?!)

I was in counseling as a young woman. In one memorable session I was musing about how I wished that I were a more quiet, reserved, careful-in-my-speech, kind of woman. I told the counselor that I wanted to develop those attributes in myself. My counselor–who was very good at keeping a dispassionate, non-judgmental face– erupted into laughter. She said, “Well, that’s definitely not going to happen!” She was right. I had to learn to accept that I would never become nor was I meant to be the quiet, mild-mannered woman I held up as an ideal.

So practically, how does one keep from becoming shackled by jealousy?

1. Admit you’re jealous or envious. Get real with yourself.

2. Tell someone about your feeling– so that you can get it out in the open and not nurse it.

3. Examine what is true– versus what has been created in your own head.

4. Transform your attitude that there is not enough goodness to go around.

5. Let go of past jealousies. Holding onto jealousy is destructive. Try to live in the present with what you know to be true NOW.

Is there an antidote to jealousy or envy?

Is it possible that by looking at what others get, we are blind to what we have?

I think gratitude and rejoicing with others is an antidote. Having a glad heart as the Psalmist says, is an antidote.

Jesus says, Mind your own business. Stop getting distracted by looking around to see what others have or don’t have. Put on your spiritual blinders and take seriously your own call to the work God has given you– with the gifts you have been given.

I also suspect, if the laborers would have known the landowner well enough, they would not have been surprised by the “inequity” of the pay. They would have expected him to do something just like that because he was just that kind of guy! He was always compassionate to the poor. He was always going out looking for those who needed work.

Our God is a good and generous God, and God’s kingdom of compassion and generosity is what Jesus expected his disciples to manifest.

When we know the God we serve, we’ll never be surprised that his grace is doled out without reservation or hesitation.

Thanks be to God that we all are on the receiving end of that paycheck.

Amen.

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